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by Gary Olson
October 24, 2011
Originally published in The Morning Call
Our lives begin to end the day we are silent about the things that matter. — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
On Oct. 16, the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial was dedicated in Washington, D.C. The 30-foot tall, granite statue sits on a 4-acre, $120 million dollar memorial on the rim of the Tidal Basin on the National Mall.
I appreciate why ordinary citizens rejoiced in the ceremony, and it's gratifying that this shamefully belated tribute exists. Concurrently, I suspect that if King were alive he would have spurned the event in favor of sitting in and marching with the Wall Street occupiers in New York's financial district. In all likelihood he would have been arrested. In an article about the memorial, "Dr. King weeps from his grave," Princeton professor Cornell West writes that King would be issuing a clarion call for "a transfer of power from oligarchs and plutocrats to everyday people and ordinary citizens."
Every honest person knows that Dr. King bears virtually no likeness to the radical activist who was assassinated on June 5, 1968. King has been transformed into a historical relic, public relations symbol and remote — almost aloof — mythological figure, what West rightly terms the "Santa Clausification" of Dr. King. King's image is limited to the less-militant sounding, iconic "I Have a Dream" King from 1963 while the post-1963 King — the more politically mature, protest-savvy and activist King — has disappeared into the memory hole. Why has this occurred? Because the ruling interests fear that even the faintest echo of King's actual message threatens to awaken the citizenry.
King would be organizing picket lines at the very same sweatshop, child labor-using, outsourcing, union-busting, war-profiteering corporations now seeking to burnish their image by associating themselves with a sanitized creation. At a pre-memorial event in Washington, several people were recognized, including corporate types from General Motors, Walt Disney, Walmart and the National Association of Realtors.
I mention this because the odious behavior of these individuals typifies what King sought to rectify. For example, Walmart, which ponied up 10 percent of the funds to build the memorial, vehemently opposes every position that King advanced on behalf of workers' rights. Recall that at his death King was in Memphis to support 1,300 striking sanitation workers. He was also organizing a "multiracial army of the poor" to march on Washington to demand an economic bill of rights for all. No wonder FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover despised, wiretapped and slandered King as a subversive and famously pronounced him "the most dangerous man in America."
Does anyone doubt that King would be in the forefront of opposing U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? That he would be calling out the first black president and both political parties on their fealty to corporate and military power?
King is the leader who declared, "A nation that continues to spend year after year more money on military defense than on programs for social uplift is approaching spiritual death." And by 1968 King stopped advocating piecemeal changes. He was skillfully braiding together war, racism and economic exploitation and wrote in a posthumously published essay that "only by structural change can current evils be eliminated, because the roots are in the system rather than in men or faulty operations."
He told a New York Times reporter in 1968: "In a sense you could say we're involved in the class struggle." It should be obvious why not a single one of his most poignant statements is chiseled into the new Memorial's wall.
This truth laundering is captured in powerful verses penned by the African-American poet/musician Carl Wendell Hines, a poem that has been closely associated with King:
Now that he is safely dead
Let us praise him
build monuments to his glory
sing hosannas to his name.
Dead men make
such convenient heroes: they
cannot rise to challenge the images
we would fashion from their lives.
it is easier to build monuments
than to make a better world.
Despite the Herculean efforts by the masters of our universe to render Dr. King's legacy a safe and hence irrelevant one, the Occupy Wall Street movement and growing refusal of our citizens to suffer their multiple and just grievances in silence encourage me to believe that King's righteous demands for justice remain as abiding in 2011 as in 1968.
Gary Olson, Ph.D., is chair of the political science department at Moravian College.