Monday, January 18, 2010

Martin Luther King, Jr... Nearly 50 Years Later

Of course, we remember this...

But do we remember this?

Simon Balto explains this at LA Progressive.

King’s willingness to embrace changes and evolutions in his political and moral thought, the global lens through which he viewed the problems of the poor and oppressed, and the tenacity with which he inserted justice and morality into American political and social discourses serve as powerful, yet often overlooked, components of his legacy. Without question, the traditional rendering of King—the one that will be recalled this MLK Day in schools, churches, community forums and political rallies across the country—is important, poignant, and powerful.

Yet, at best, it’s only half the story, and it disingenuously smoothes the rough edges of both King’s politics and American social, political, and racial history. Today, when we commemorate King solely through lenses of national triumph and racial conciliation, and portray, for example, Barack Obama’s electoral success as the ultimate realization of the Reverend’s dream, we do so only by carefully selecting from both King’s personal and American national history.

In a modern context that devalues dissent and rubber-stamps it as unpatriotic and irrational, it’s important to remember that King wasn’t always considered the hero that we now commemorate, and much of that had to do with his contemporaries’ discomfort with his jarring criticisms of American society. In our reimaginings of 1960s America today, the collective forgetting of both the radical elements of King’s politics and society’s general animosity toward them is perhaps explained by the fact that many of those problems that he critiqued have only worsened since his murder; and if there’s one thing that most American political and social discourses don’t make much room for, it’s our national mistakes and flaws.

Though it’s easy to celebrate the accomplishments that King saw through to some sort of tangible completion, it is less comfortable to reckon with those that he couldn’t fix and that remain unrepaired. The wealth gap in the United States is more staggering than ever. The commitment of budgetary resources to military and defense spending dwarfs—and worse, robs from—spending on human welfare and social justice. The reactionary invasions leading to the disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan (and Iran? Pakistan? Yemen?) are proof of the persistence of militarist and imperialist American impulses. And despite claims of postracialism, we have plenty of daily reminders that racism still exists, even if, scientifically speaking, race does not.

Yep, yep, yep. It's easy to just embrace the contemporary caricature of MLK as a "civil rights icon", and just as easy to forget all of what this person and so many social justice activists of the movement were working for.

He spoke out against the war in Vietnam. He fought alongside union organizers. And of course, he paved the way for friends like Bayard Rustin to later build on earlier civil rights advances to push for LGBTQ equality.

And of course as we start this new decade, we have to ask just how much progress we've really made in the last 50 years. Sure, Barack Obama is now President. That isn't something to lightly dismiss. Still, there's so much that's yet to be done.

Racial inequality persists even to this day. Economic injustice still plagues this country. Discrimination against women and LGBTQ people still hurts us.

Yes, we've seen plenty of progress. However, there is also still so much work to be done.

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