Monday, January 21, 2013

Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. - The Other America

I am sitting on a cold, sunny, blue sky morning in America. Today is a day of celebration of two great African Americans: the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the inauguration of President Barak Hussein Obama for a second term of office. America has made tremendous strides in civil rights since it's founding, and in particular over the past 50 years.

On this day of celebration of the birthday of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., many people will read or listen to Rev. King's "I Have a Dream" speech. That was a brilliant and inspiring speech given on August 28, 1963 during the March on Washington.

Last week I attended a lecture by Michelle Alexander, the author of the book "The New Jim Crow." I'll post about that topic soon. In her excellent presentation, Ms. Alexander talked often about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Some of these references prodded me to learn more about Dr. King during the years between 1963 and his death in 1968, a period in which his views changed in very specific ways.

Between 1963 and his murder in 1968, a number of major changes took place in the United States, and Dr. King's views and public statements also changed direction. He spoke out against the US war in Viet Nam, a stance that resulted in many people in the civil rights movement criticizing and moving away from him. He also spoke out about worsening unemployment and poverty in the Black communities across the country, and the riots that broke out in desperate communities.

On April 14, 1967, Dr. King gave a lecture at Stanford titled "The Other America" in which he addressed these issues. There is a video of that speech here. However, while researching for this post I found a version of the same speech given almost a year later, on March 14, 1968, less than 3 weeks before his assassination.  Dr. King was invited to speak by the Grosse Pointe Human Rights Committee of Grosse Pointe, Michigan. Dr. King spoke at Grosse Pointe High School while about 200 people belonging to a right wing group picketed outside. Dr. King was interrupted a few times by hecklers, but he pushed on, at one point even inviting a young man to the podium to have his say.

I find the transcript of this speech more compelling than the earlier, shorter speech at Stanford. I think it is very important to read the transcript of this speech, and consider it within the context of the turbulent late 1960's. We also need to contemplate the issues highlighted in the speech in the context of the present. I have copied a few excerpts from the speech and pasted them below (in italics), with some of my comments. But I really encourage you, dear reader, to go to the transcript and read the entire speech. It is well worth your time, and it will provoke a lot of thought.

"The Other America" 
Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. - Grosse Pointe High School - March 14, 1968 

Dr. King wanted to talk about racism, and his views on how to eliminate it in the US.

I want to discuss the race problem tonight and I want to discuss it very honestly.  I still believe that freedom is the bonus you receive for telling the truth.

Early in the speech, Dr. King presented the foundation of the basic issue he saw as the unequal divisions in our society, the "two Americas" that existed, one white, one black.

I want to use as a title for my lecture tonight, "The Other America."  And I use this title because there are literally two Americas.  Every city in our country has this kind of dualism, this schizophrenia, split at so many parts, and so every city ends up being two cities rather than one. 

All too often when there is mass unemployment in the black community, it's referred to as a social problem and when there is mass unemployment in the white community, it's referred to as a depression. 

The first thing I would like to mention is that there must be a recognition on the part of everybody in this nation that America is still a racist country. Now however unpleasant that sounds, it is the truth.  And we will never solve the problem of racism until there is a recognition of the fact that racism still stands at the center of so 
much of our nation and we must see racism for what it is. 

Dr. King talked at some length about three myths often repeated by well-meaning people, that obviously bothered him, and with which he did not agree. The first was the myth of time; ending racism and solving such major social problems would take time, many generations, and we should be patient. The second myth was that these problems could not be solved by legislation, they had to be solved by changes in human behavior. And third, the myth that Negroes had to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, just like every other immigrant to America did. It is worth reading the speech to understand his replies to these myths.

And then Dr. King launched into his views against the war in Viet Nam.

I want to say that if we're to move ahead and solve this problem we must re-order our national priorities.  Today we're spending almost thirty-five billion dollars a year to fight what I consider an unjust, ill-considered, evil, costly, unwinable war at Viet Nam. I wish I had time to go into the dimensions of this. But I must say that the war in Viet Nam is playing havoc with our Domestic destinies. That war has torn up the Geneva accord, it has strengthened, it has substituted.. .(at this point Dr. King was interrupted by an outburst from a young Viet Nam war veteran in the audience).

In explaining his stand against the war, Dr. King refused to draw a line through his moral convictions for political or financial reasons.

The other thing is, that I have been working too long and too hard now against segregated public accommodations to end up at this stage of my life segregating my moral concern. I must make it clear. For me justice is indivisible.  Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.  

And finally, Dr. King talked about the ties between black and white America, and the necessity for people to work together to improve life for everyone.

Now let me finally say something in the realm of the spirit and then I'm going to take my seat. Let me say finally, that in the midst of the hollering and in the midst of the discourtesy tonight, we got to come to see that however much we dislike it, the destinies of white and black America are tied together. Now the races don't 
understand this apparently. But our destinies are tied together. And somehow, we must all learn to live together as brothers in this country or we're all going to perish together as fools. 

Somehow we must come to see that in this pluralistic, interrelated society we are all tied together in a single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.

So however difficult it is during this period, however difficult it is to continue to live with the agony and the continued existence of racism, however difficult it is to live amidst the constant hurt, the constant insult and the constant disrespect, I can still sing we shall overcome. We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.
It is January 21, 2013, and President Obama has just given his inaugural speech. The topics of our President's speech not only echo many of the topics in Dr. King's speech 45 years ago, but remind us that our work is not complete. Our President spoke about slavery, unity, economic freedom and liberation from hardship, poverty and equality, the promise of our nation that "rewards every single American," that freedom is not reserved for the lucky. He spoke about human dignity and justice, repeatedly using the phrases "We, the People," and  "all of us are created equal." He reminded us that our journey is not complete, speaking about the struggles of women and gays, the on-going issues concerning voting rights, the hopes of immigrants, and that all of our children should know that they are cared for, cherished and kept safe from harm. These are, in his words, our generation's tasks, just as they were the tasks of Dr. King's generation.

We have come a long way in America towards the dreams of equality and justice. Today we witnessed the inauguration of an African-American President, the Vice-President's oath of office administered by the first Latino Supreme Court Justice, the Inaugural poem written and recited by the first Latino and LGBT poet. The diversity of the inauguration and of the crowd of thousands gathered to bear witness is inspiring, and we should be proud of the distance we've traveled as a society. 

We are not at the end of the journey to freedom and justice. There are many issues remaining that need our attention - the attention of all of us, not just the victims of injustice. Working together, as a community of Americans, we can continue to make important strides on this road, and progress towards the true promise of America. 


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