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By Davarian Baldwin | With thanks to NewBlackMan


Thursday, October 27, 2011.


On Sunday, October 17, 2011, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood, arms crossed, gazing out over the Tidal Basin on the National Mall in Washington DC. Once again he was surrounded by tens of thousands of people. Only this time, he was 30 feet tall, ensconced in granite, and etched with quotes from his historic speeches. All had gathered for the dedication of the long awaited monument for civil rights icon Martin Luther King. Yet it’s important to note that like Sisyphus pushing that boulder up a hill only to watch it roll back down, King’s monument dedication seemed destined to never happen. For decades the memorial faced struggles with funding. Once plans moved forward many then grumbled about the “political correctness” of placing a civilian, a common man, “who happened to be African American,” next to presidents. Finally, once the date had been set, the monument dedication had to be rescheduled because of the howling winds of Hurricane Irene. So in a way that best commemorated the legacy of King, his memorial faced a range of struggles and still…overcame.


Under clear blue skies it was apparent King had once again drawn a cross section of Americana to the seat of national governance. In attendance were Civil Rights stalwarts who had walked next to King, some now moving much more slowly and aided by wheelchairs or walkers. The sun-kissed crowd was a mix of young, old, some in strollers, some having no idea who King was, staring behind searching eyes only knowing that they were told they were attending an historic event. And to be sure, it was an historic event…for a number of reasons. Notably, an African American president presided over the proceedings from the podium while the distinguished Princeton University professor and public intellectual, Cornel West looked on from the audience. In a way, King had put a momentary hiatus on what had been months of political disagreements (some say more ego-driven than ideological) between these two prominent African American men, both inheritors of King’s dream. But more important than who they were, it is equally telling to track where these two men were “coming from” on that clear and sunny day.



Obama had just come from a “beatdown” by Republican representatives over the defeat of his long-term health care insurance plan. He even not-so-subtly referenced the “Occupy” events taking the nation by storm: “I believe he [King] would remind us that the unemployed worker can rightly challenge the excesses of Wall Street without demonizing all who work there.” While West left the dedication and headed straight away to an Occupy D.C. event where an estimated 250 people set up camp on the steps of the Supreme Court building. He was summarily arrested for occupying public space to reportedly denounce the court decisions that have opened the door to greater corporate influence on governmental decisions. Many scoffed at the very audacity of West or anyone, but especially Obama, “highjacking” the memorial dedication and mentioning in the same breath King and the more than 200 Occupy protest events that spread from Tuscaloosa, Alabama to the Saskatchewan province in Canada. These caretakers of “The Dream” emphasize the “King qualities” of silent suffering in the face of violent attacks, attempts to connect with a larger moral conscience, and a “rights-based” appeal through official political channels. Therefore, mention of King in the same discussion of the Occupy events is dismissed as sacrilegious.


In a sense, once the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were passed, King’s relevance seemed to also pass. Therefore, the current struggles over health care, unemployment, the corporate control of government, the protests of various interest groups work against King’s grander appeals to an American “we.” But then those of us with any historical memory or those invested in social justice, scratch our heads and wonder precisely who is this King that has been memorialized in granite and in a sense frozen in time; caricatured at the “I Have a Dream” moment of his life and confined to the “content of our character” phrase for at least the last thirty years. What do we lose in the struggle to make the American public feel that a King memorial dedication stands in opposition to our current economic climate? We lose a King for our times.


We lose the 1967 King, who at Riverside Church in New York City defied the Civil Rights establishment to make links between what he saw as a colonial war in Vietnam with a failure to achieve racial equality and socio-economic justice at home. We lose the King who was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee organizing primarily Black garbage workers fighting for better wages and racial dignity as part of his larger Poor People’s campaign. We lose the King who said Progress is meaningless when the economy expands and stock values rise but millions of people remain unemployed or underpaid, without health care, a pension or economic security. We lose a King who described American capitalism as “socialism for the rich and free markets for the poor;” who linked urban poverty with suburban plenty. We lose a King that would comfort and rest beside those occupy protestors, as they sleep under the stars in open air encampments. We lose a King for our times.


Now I am not one who peddles in useless speculations about how King would vote or which political position sits nearest King’s dream in 2011. But I do know what he fought for. Once those “rights” bills were passed, King knew the battle had to be waged on other fronts and he continued to fight. He fought for an “economic bill of rights,” calling for “massive public works programs (to build) decent housing, schools, hospitals, mass transit, parks and recreation centers.” He argued, these public investments would “enrich society” and spur private investment. I know that even at the end he still had a dream…


that one day all of God’s children will have food and clothing and material well-being for their bodies, culture and education for their minds and freedom for their spirits.


In my mind, this is the King for our times. This is King the Christian preacher and the world citizen. This is the King who openly admired American presidents and Trinidadian Marxist C.L.R. James. This is the King who made appeals to Civil Rights but when faced with urban northern poverty strangling black communities that had rights, he expanded his political vision to something greater. This is a King who saw the redistribution of state power and economic wealth as part of the American Creed. This is the King who understood social justice as an act of love and not mere sentiment. Perhaps if citizens had listened to all King had to say we wouldn’t be faced with such a daunting task ahead. And therefore as we dedicate a memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. let nobody turn us around, let no one tell us who he is. King lives in our current struggles and remains a drum major for justice unfulfilled. We need his full legacy now, more than ever before.




Davarian L.  is the  Paul E. Raether Distinguished Professor of American Studies at Trinity College. Baldwin is the author of Chicago’s New Negroes: Modernity, the Great Migration, and Black Urban Life (UNC, 2007). He is also co-editor, with Minkah Makalani, of the essay collection Escape From New York! The 'Harlem Renaissance' Reconsidered (forthcoming from the University of Minnesota Press). Baldwin is currently at work on two new projects, Land of Darkness: Chicago and the Making of Race in Modern America (Oxford University Press) and UniverCities: How Higher Education is Transforming the Urban Landscape.

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