This is a guest post by Echo Zen. Echo is a feminist filmmaker, animator and women’s health advocate, currently deployed in the States to counter the influence of Tea Party moppets. When ze’s not doing ad consulting for birth control, ze tries to blog semi-regularly for Feministe (partly to set a good example for zir sister).
An elementary school teacher told a story to me once. I was still struggling to learn English, so over the course of the year I asked her often to retell the story.
Years ago in Alabama, the wife of a young preacher received a delivery of red carnations from her husband. They were beautiful, but as she touched them, she noticed they were artificial. When her husband came home, she asked about the flowers. He said, “I wanted to give you something that you could always keep.”
Less than a month later, Martin Luther King Jr. fell to an assassin’s bullet in Tennessee. His Poor People’s March on Washington, which King had planned in support of striking workers in Memphis, ultimately reached its destination without him. But though a fragment of lead may have struck down King in his prime, it did not silence his dream, crystallised 5 years earlier on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Like those red carnations, King’s message endured, carried forth by former colleagues and allies – including his own wife, Coretta Scott King. Over the next 50 years, they fought against apartheid in South Africa, armed conflict abroad, and even bigotry against LGBT Americans here at home.
It’s prescient that King’s dream continues to reflect today’s most pressing issues, as his message of hope manifests through the work of those who’ve succeeded King’s generation. Today’s advocates are fighting to create paths to citizenship for undocumented students, reduce inequalities between poor and wealthy, and defend women’s access to healthcare to protect their lives and futures. Disparate as these ends may seem, we can be confident King would have supported these efforts – not because his colleagues believe he would have, but because he voiced such support in his own words.
Indeed, often we forget how far-reaching King’s vision was. Brave for his time, it would have made him a target of controversy even today. In speeches, King called for governments to invest in programs to guarantee incomes for poor Americans. He came to identify with Latino workers and struggling rural whites, and advocated on their behalf through his work. His doctrine of non-violence led him to oppose the Vietnam War, a stance that outraged fellow civil rights allies – including his most powerful, President Lyndon Johnson, who’d expected King’s support after signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And in his final days, King worked with organised labour to call for an economic bill of rights to protect the disadvantaged.
This is not the King many remember, especially in the face of appeals to forget about race or class and pretend differences don’t exist. Doubtlessly he would have wanted future generations to recall a far different message. Would King be disappointed to see how relevant his message still is today? Or was foresight what led King to speak so enduringly when he spoke of his dream in 1963?
In fact, King saw the intersectionality between race, poverty, violence and class, long before movements like Occupy Wall Street popularised the notion that economic despair affects all parts of society, not just housing projects or ghettos. That recognition formed the basis of his call, on those Lincoln Memorial steps, for opportunities and rights to be made available to all – hence the name of his march that day, the March to Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
We neglect those last 4 words when we refer simply to a “March on Washington.” And we neglect the real themes of King’s dream when we quote only the snatches that modern pundits have twisted to argue that King wanted a colour-blind society: “they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.” Perhaps the true threat to King’s legacy is not that we forget his message, but oversimplify it. Without the context of King’s values, we may be led to believe King would have opposed programs to help poor blacks out of poverty because he wanted to avoid focusing on divisions, or that promoting diversity in higher education is wrong because he would have wanted us to think of ourselves only as Americans.
Were he here today, King would have had none of that. And if he could reach back to 1963 with an amended message for that generation, the underpinning of that message would remain the same – but with even greater emphasis on the need for fundamental societal change, to preempt insinuations that he simply wanted a change in the hearts of oppressors, then or now.
If King could bring our generation’s knowledge to 1963, perhaps he would have been tempted to voice bitterness at how a country united could continue to be a nation of contradictions – where the son of an African immigrant and a single mother from Kansas could one day became President, but where someone who shoots an unarmed teenager wearing a hoodie could be lauded by bigots as a defender of law and order.
But even knowing the cultural amnesia that would come to distress his legacy, King would have wanted to communicate above all a message of hope, as he did at the Lincoln Memorial. And ultimately he would have underlined his message with an exhortation sometimes lost even on our best lawmakers: People are the reason we advocate. All the talk in the world about fiscal cliffs, deficits and debt ceilings only masks the reality of human suffering, which eventually drove a preacher who’d never held office to reshape the world.
King believed in serving the underserved, feeding the poor, and assisting the sick. This was his message, one that will endure in relevance for decades to come. My elementary teacher, who’d hoped to impress this on us when we were young, didn’t live to see her students maturing into the advocates we are today. But we’ll impart this message to those who succeed us, and those yet to be.
We do this in her memory, and King’s.
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