What Would Dr. King Say?
Recently, there was a “tempest in a teapot” between Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama over Dr. Martin Luther King’s role and contributions in the civil rights movement. Hilary said, “Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It took a President to get it done.” Her husband Bill views Barack Obama as a gadfly, and an interloper. The upstart Obama has unexpectedly become a major stumbling block to Hilary’s coronation. Bill told talk show host Charlie Rose that his irritation with Obama has nothing to do with race. It has everything to do with the fact that his wife has paid her dues. Obama has not. He is just a young pretty face. He must wait his turn, as Bill himself did back in 1988. Bill also said the the American people must vote for “the best agent for change”, not merely a “symbol for change… symbol is not as important as substance.” These were fighting words to say the least; and very surprising coming from the “first (former) black president” and his wife, the “first black (former) first lady??).
Many African Americans were troubled, and some even offended, by the apparently patronizing, insensitive and condescending tone of the Clintons’ tag team verbal onslaught against Obama. Was Hilary underrating Dr. King’s long and arduous struggle for equality and justice by giving President Johnson the ultimate credit for the success of the civil rights movement? Was she implying that it took a white president and a white Congress to bring long overdue legal equality to African Americans, and that Dr. King was merely leading the black cheering section? Was Hilary implicitly equating herself with Johnson as the “second great emancipator”, and offering herself as the “third great emancipator”, while Obama like Dr. King plays a stage role as a young dreamer? Do the Clintons really believe that African American leaders including Dr. King and Obama are merely “symbolic” leaders to be manipulated as puppets by liberal white leaders?
Perhaps the brouhaha is just overblown election year political rhetoric. Perhaps not. But there is enough historic precedent to be concerned about the Clintons’ jarring message to Obama. Dr. King was also told to “wait”. He was just rushing things too much. It’s not just time. He must “wait”, just a little longer. That was the reason he issued his monumental “Letter From Birmingham Jail” back in 1963 to tell his critics that he can no longer wait. Dr. King explained:
We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.”
We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights…. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging dark of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim;… when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society…. when you go forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”, then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience. (Italics added.)
Had Dr. King “waited” for someone to bring freedom and civil rights to him, he might still be waiting. For Bill and Hilary, and whoever else offers a promise of freedom. Thank God Almighty, he did not. Were he alive today, he would have probably said, “I hope, Hilary and Bill, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.”
Martin Luther King as One of the Greatest Human Rights Leaders of the 20th Century
Dr. King is often referred to as a “great black civil rights leader.” But he was really much, much more than that. He was one of the greatest human rights leaders of the 20th Century. A civil rights leader is concerned with the restoration of legal rights to those who are deprived of it. It is true Dr. King sought restoration of civil rights to African Americans who had endured for too long the dehumanizing effects of segregation and discrimination in America. He wanted laws to insure that African Americans were treated fairly and justly, and accorded equal opportunity in American society. But he NEVER asked for special rights or privileges for black people. He never asked for preferential treatment for them. He just wanted African Americans to have the same rights that other Americans enjoyed. Nothing more. Nothing less. And he keenly understood the limitation of the law. He said, “It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important.” He wanted the law to make sure African Americans were not lynched, discriminated or segregated because of their race and skin color. He wanted African Americans to have what any other ordinary American was guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution. Nothing more, and nothing less.
Dr. King was concerned with more than remedial civil rights legislation. He understood that civil rights laws in and of themselves were hollow unless they were fortified with human rights that included guarantees of basic economic security to every citizen. He knew the problem of poverty and economic security was not a unique problem to African Americans. The majority of the people in his time who were under the poverty line were white, not black. He saw the income inequality in the richest country in the world not through racial or ethnic lenses, but through the lens of structural reform of an uncompassionate economic system that created huge disparities between the rich and the poor. He said, “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
Until his last day, Dr. King was a drum major for poor people. He led the Poor People’s Campaign and traveled the country with people of all races engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience. He called for an investment in people by creating government employment programs to rebuild America’s cities and schools and communities. He criticized Congress for appropriating “military funds with alacrity and generosity,” but providing “poverty funds with miserliness.”
Dr. King also understood that the “edifice which produces beggars” also produced untold misery and violence throughout the world. In 1967, Dr. King called the United States “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” It was a great moral indictment against leaders of a nation that had committed large numbers of its youth and vast resources to wreak havoc on other societies. He said America was “on the wrong side of a world revolution”, and questioned why America had created an “alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America,” and why it was helping suppress revolutions “of the shirtless and barefoot people” from Vietnam to Africa to Latin America. He saw great injustice in the actions of “capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries.”
Dr. King’s Message
Dr. King’s greatness as a leader comes not from his work to get civil rights legislation passed to eliminate lynchings, segregation and discrimination. Rather his universal appeal comes from his message of Love regardless of race, religion, gender or nationality. For this reason, it is important to remember that when we celebrate Martin Luther King Day on the third Monday of January, we are not celebrating a “black” holiday or a “black civil rights leader”. We are celebrating the timeless message of one of the greatest defenders of human rights in the 20th Century.
Like Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. King was profoundly concerned about the human race, not just the black or brown race. He loved humanity as children of God, not as races, nationalities, ethnicities or gender types. His cause was freedom, justice and equality in America, in Africa, in Vietnam or anywhere else in the world because he deeply understood that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” He set out to change America and the world by changing hearts and minds through love, compassion, understanding and knowledge.
Dr. King’s message was that it is possible to change the world without the use of violence. As a Christian minister, he believed in the Christian idea of love. He combined this idea with Gandhi’s concept of satyagraha (truth force, love force). The result was a method of nonviolence that could be an effective tool in the struggle for freedom, equality and human rights in America, or anywhere else. Dr. King initially thought the whole idea of nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience was somewhat impractical and counterintuitive. He realized its potential when he used it in the Montgomery bus boycott and successfully desegregated that city’s public transportation system in 1956.
Dr. King learned an essential lesson from the Montgomery boycott experience: Nonviolence and non-cooperation in repressive systems could be important tools of social change. His basic ideas on the use of nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience were simple. He categorically rejected violence as a method of change. He cautioned, “The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding. It seeks to annihilate rather than to convert.”
Dr. King was interested in building and constructing a just society, and in redemption; he was not interested in poking out the eyes of evil doers and piling up the body count of blind people in the community. For this reason, his teachings and message are easily understood. He taught nonviolence is actually a way of life for courageous people, that is, for people who have the courage of their convictions and have a commitment to truth and justice. Practitioners of nonviolent resistance are not interested in vanquishing their enemies; they are interested in converting them to the cause of righteousness. It is necessary to separate those who do evil from the evil they do. They are victims of evil themselves; they need salvation, not destruction. Suffering transforms and instructs the individual. Though suffering it is possible to convert the enemy. One must accept suffering, but never inflict it. Nonviolence avoids hate and upholds love; and one must never sink to the level of the hater. Love is a weapon not only to resist injustice but also restore community. The nonviolent resister always believes the universe and God are on the side of justice. In the end, justice and truth will always prevail. This is the sum and substance of Dr. King’s message.
Dr. King and His Dream of Human Rights
Dr. King’s dream was fundamentally a dream for human rights anchored in the very body and soul of the American credo of freedom, justice and equality so eloquently stated in the Declaration of Independence. In 1963, at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C., Dr. King proclaimed his Dream to the world. He said:
“[E]ven though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, … little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope….”
An Impossible Dream?: Carving Out a Stone of Hope From a Mountain of Despair
Nearly 150 years after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, and 44 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Dr. King’s dream of human rights still remains unfulfilled. Far too many African Americans are trapped and stranded on the “mountain of despair”, poverty and prison. Young African Americans suffer the brunt of that despair. The statistics are shocking, but not unfamiliar.
The U.S. Census Bureau reports that there are approximately 5 million black men in America between the ages of 20 and 39. But the fate of these young people in American society is bleak. A young black man today has a greater chance of being shot or victimized by violence than going to college. The incarceration rate among black males is mind boggling. Nearly one out of four black males is either in state prison, county jail, on parole, probation or is being sought by law enforcement authorities. Nearly 16 percent of black men between the ages of 20-30 who are not college students are in some form of custodial supervision. Nearly 60 percent of black male high school dropouts in the 20-39 age range have done prison or jail time. African Americans are seven times more likely to go to prison or jail than whites; and the incarceration rate for young black males has continued to rise for the past two decades. There does not seem to be an end to the exodus of young black men to correctional institutions. Even sociologists have invented a new theory to explain the “internal migration” of young urban black males from their communities to prison. The sad truth is that the United States now imprisons more people than any other country in the world; and a disproportionate percentage of these inmates are black men.
Economically, African Americans as a group earn less today than they did fifteen years ago. The jobless rate among black men has remained the highest among all groups in the U.S., and continues to increase. In 2000, approximately 65 percent of black male high school dropouts had no jobs; by 2004, that number had increased to 72 percent. Young African Americans with no criminal records do not seem to do much better in the job market. They have as much chance of getting employed as a white job seeker fresh out of jail. Such is the sad, sad story of young African American males; and it is widely documented in all of the major studies done at Harvard, Princeton and Columbia over the past 2 years.
But there is a human side that some of us see in the trenches. There are real faces behind these statistics. We know them as clients in the state and federal prisons, and county jails. We do our best to defend them in the courtrooms and hearing rooms while they are chained like dangerous wild animals. We listen in muted anger as they are dehumanized and referred to as “bodies”. We are told, “There is one body waiting for you to talk.” Every day we read the same stories written on the faces of these young black men in invisible ink. It is a story of gangs, drugs, poverty and violence. It is a familiar and numbing story. But we have heard it all before. And the criminal justice system has a well-oiled revolving door that spits out young African Americans like widgets in a factory assembly line. From incarceration to parole and probation, and back to incarceration. It is the same story every time.
We also see them, just a very few of them, in the college classrooms. Often we see them for a fleeting moment. A few days, and they are not around anymore. And we wonder. But rarely do we wonder if they had fallen ill or gotten into an accident. No, we worry, and often are resigned to the fact that perhaps they got arrested. It is very sad. Every year, we hope there will be more young African American men in our classes because tens of thousands of them graduate from the high schools all over the State of California; and every year we are disappointed. They don’t come.
In 2006, in Los Angeles County alone 10,487 African American students graduated from high school. Only 210 (2%) were admitted at UCLA! In the same year, the University of California (UC) System admitted 55,242 students. Only 1880 (3.4%) were African American. In 2006, in the California State University System (CSU), there were only 20,000 African American students out of more than 400,000, representing only 6% of the student population system wide. But the admissions percentages are terribly misleading. Among those African Americans admitted, a little over 50 percent actually graduate within 6 years. Among those admitted and graduating, a significant percentage of them are African American women. Imagine: What are the odds of having an African American student in a given course on a UC or CSU campus? An African American male?
MLK’s Human Rights Legacy: Barack Obama Can Lead the People From the Mountain of Despair to the Valley of Hope!
Senator Obama seems ready to pick up Dr. King’s mantle. He uses language that unifies America, not divide it. He appeals to principles of justice, freedom and equality, not to whites or blacks or other races. He declared, “There is no black America. There is no White America. Only the United States of America.” That is in the same spirit of Dr. King’s dream, “a dream deeply rooted in the American dream ‘that all men are created equal.’” It is the same aspiration.
Obama’s message is resonating with people of all races, as did Dr. King’s. Whites, African Americans, Hispanics, Asians and others are coming out to vote for him in record numbers. He is revitalizing American democracy, and awakening a new spirit of political participation and involvement among the young. He has struck a chord in the American imagination and spirit. He sounds just like Dr. King when he says, “I’m talking about a moral deficit. I’m talking about an empathy deficit. I’m talking about an inability to recognize ourselves in one another; to understand that we are our brother’s keeper; we are our sister’s keeper; that, in the words of Dr. King, we are all tied together in a single garment of destiny.” He talks about finding our way out of the wilderness. “That is how Dr. King led this country through the wilderness. He did it with words — words that he spoke not just to the children of slaves, but the children of slave owners. Words that inspired not just black but also white, not just the Gentile but also the Jew, not just the Southerner but also the Northerner.”
Whether Barack Obama becomes president is an important fact. His candidacy and the public support he has generated to date marks a historic milestone in American history. But to many of us, whether he can carry the mantle of Dr. King is equally important. Can he pick up where Dr. King left off? Many of Dr. King’s people are stranded on a mountain of despair. They need someone to lead them out of the wilderness to the valley of hope? Can Obama become the moral conscience and compass for America? He can, if he chooses to become Dr. King’s messenger!
Dr. King Would Have Wholeheartedly Supported Ethiopian Human Rights
Dr. King would have supported H.R. 2003 wholeheartedly. We know this from the fact that he opposed racist violence in Alabama and Mississippi that caused the deaths of hundreds of innocent protesters and imprisonment of thousands more; and from his unflinching opposition to apartheid in South Africa, dictatorships in Latin America and Africa, and in his outrage wherever “injustice threatened justice.” We can still hear the echoes of Dr. King’s words from nearly a half century ago. Back then he spoke out against U.S. support of tyrannical and dictatorial regimes that trampled on human rights in Latin America, Asia and Africa. If he were alive today, he would asked President Bush why America is on the “wrong side” of the struggle for human rights in Ethiopia? Why has America created an “alliance” with a corrupt and dictatorial regime in Ethiopia that tramples on the basic human rights of its citizens? Why is America helping to suppress the freedom aspirations “of the shirtless and barefoot people” of Ethiopia? Why is it that “America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world is not leading the human rights revolution in the world?”
But he would have had a few words for us too. He would have reminded us our obligations: “Every man (and woman) of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his (her) convictions, but we must all protest.” Yes, we must protest against human rights violations. And against tyranny and dictatorships. We must have our voices heard in support of the rule of law, freedom, justice, human rights and democracy. And he would have also taught us the truth about the consequences of our inaction and indifference: “If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.”
So today we wish Dr. King a happy birthday! Today we celebrate his message and teachings. Today we recommit ourselves to the cause of truth, justice, freedom, human rights and democracy. Today we join Dr. King in reciting one of his favorite poems written by James Russell Lowell:
Truth forever on the scaffold.
Wrong forever on the throne.
With that scaffold sways the future.
Behind the dim unknown stands God
Within the shadow keeping watch above his own.
Long Live the King! Long Live the Dream! Long Live H. R. 2003!