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Tag Archives: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr

What It Is Ain’t Exactly Clear*

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Fifty years ago, on November 22nd, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. It was a nationally televised horror that marked the start of turbulent times. The years that followed were tumultuous to say the least. Three and a half years later both Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were gunned down. During this time the Vietnam War escalated, the civil rights movement gained momentum and carnage, and all of it was televised. In families rooms across our nation the evening news showed people burning in an obscure Asian country and American cities burning. It was a chaotic and troubling time in which the status quo (those over 30, non-minority and male) lost their footing. The world they helped to build and were promised by their parents was slipping away.

Throughout the devastation, or maybe even because of it, good things began to grow. Tiny saplings such as ecology, feminism, and reproductive rights began to appear amongst the ruins. The civil rights act did get signed, after a shamefully long wait and unforgivable amount of violence. There were strides in the women’s rights movement, though not a passage of the E.R.A. (Equal Rights Amendment.) The E.P.A. (Environmental Protection Act) went into effect in 1970 (as did Earth Day.) There was enough momentum to assume that the tide had turned somewhat. This progress happened in a very visible and even audible way. Fashion followed what was happening on the streets. Shirts and home decor featuring “protest posters” were for sale. Slogan T-shirts began to appear. All of this to the background of some rockin’ protest themed music. Even the softer rock songs were dotted with anti-war or anti-establishment themes. Their sound told you there was something going down.

It seems (from the distance of 50 years) that it all stopped as suddenly as it started. It’s tempting to look to Watergate as what doused the fire. Leaders being assassinated in their prime causes hurt and fear, leaders abusing power and lying causes disgust and apathy. The equation was probably a bit more complex than that. Those who were directly impacted by the events of the early 1960s (and of an age to take it to the streets) had gotten older and perhaps had moved on. Some, no doubt saw their fights as having been won and moved on. Others kept up the fight but within the system and off the streets and out of the spotlight. Whatever the exact formula the result was that the counter culture dissipated and the protests petered out. Nothing of that fevered pitch can last. But isn’t it odd that it’s never returned?

Surely there has been enough horror and inequity to stir rebellion. A 10-year war in Iraq? How about protesting that unlike Viet Nam it’s never been televised? The erosion of reproductive freedoms, the rise of poverty and unemployment and racial unrest (which is what the immigration debate really is) seems suitable for protest. We’ve never had more tools for organizing and yet we seem so disorganized. There are energetic and impactful demonstrations that happen all the time. But they are fragmented and you’d be hard-pressed to identify leadership by name. You’d have to really strain to come up with a popular song with political themes. There have been great political strides made, most notably in gay rights, in recent years. But that victory was over 40 years in the making. Trends come and go, life ebbs and flows, but do people really change? There has been so much violence, corporate corruption and political deceit in the last decade to spark something, no? Or was the outpouring of political engagement and protest of the 1960s a moment in time? Was it tantamount to the Industrial Revolution or the Roaring Twenties? It’s something to think as we approach a dark anniversary.

*For What It’s Worth (1966) – Stephen Stills

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Posted by on October 20, 2013 in Cultural Critique

 

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Still Dreaming After All These Years

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Fifty years is a long time; a very long time. A 50th anniversary is always worthy of commemoration, and naturally occurs within the framework of modernity. Fifty years ago, on an oppressively hot humid day on August 28th, 1963, hundreds of thousands of people marched for freedom and jobs in an event twenty years in the making. They came on buses, trains and on foot; slept wherever they could or perhaps not at all. They marched through the nation’s capital, towards the mall, not knowing what to expect or how things might end. It was a dangerous time for protestors and in Washington D.C.; imprisonment, beatings and even killings were (and continued) to occur. But they came in their finest, marching and standing in that unrelenting heat all day long.

Fifty years later, in 2013, it took days of events to commemorate all that occurred on that one day. A week’s worth of marches, demonstrations, speeches, and festivities culminated in an all-day rally on August 28th, 2013. Over five hours a schedule of military minute precision brought performers and speakers to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Early on the crowd (which stretched from monument to monument) was led by Andrew Young in; Woke Up This Morning With My Mind Stayed On Freedom. This set a communal tone for a crowd diverse in age, background and agenda. Another sing-along that either conjured strong memories or made one think of one’s parents, was Peter and Paul singing Blowin’ In The Wind. Anyone familiar with Peter (in particular, but also,) Paul and the late Mary won’t be surprised to learn that Trayvon Martin’s parents stood with the performers. Many who took the stage were living remembrances of the 1963 March. Representative John Lewis (the youngest speaker in 1963) invoked sentiments repeatedly echoed on the steps; “The scars and stains of racism still remain deeply embedded in American society, whether it is stop and frisk in New York or injustice in Trayvon Martin case in Florida, the mass incarceration of millions of Americans, immigrants hiding in fear in the shadow of our society, unemployment, homelessness, poverty, hunger or the renewed struggle for voting rights. So I say to each of us today, we must never, ever give up. We must, ever give in. We must keep the faith and keep our eyes on the prize.”

Two of Dr. King’s children spoke, but it was Christine King Farris, King’s older sister who surprised and moved the crowd. She referred to herself as perhaps not the oldest person present but certainly the only one who had known Dr. King since he was in diapers. She hadn’t been able to attend 50 years prior, due to a bad flu, but had watched her brother on television and knew something magical had happened. She spoke eloquently, powerfully and personally and the crowd felt they had been invited into the circle. Reverend Bernice King, clearly inheriting her father’s gift for oration, was inspiring; “We are still chained by economic disparities, class inequalities and conditions of poverty for many of God’s children in this nation and around the world. If we are going to continue the struggle for freedom and create true community, then we will have to be relentless in exposing, confronting and ridding ourselves of the mindset of pride, and greed, and selfishness, and hate, and lust, and fear, and idleness, and lack of purpose and lack of love as my brother said for our neighbor.” She ended her remarks at precisely 3:00 PM for the ringing of the bell. The bell, the crowd learned, was salvaged from the Birmingham Baptist Church, a reminder of the extraordinary sacrifices that led us to this day.

The most remarkable aspect of the day’s programming was that of having three United States Presidents on the agenda. Presidents Carter, Clinton and Obama were greeted like rock stars and did not disappoint. They paid homage to the work of Dr. King and the strides of the movement, but as one would expect from world leaders, they also carefully criticized complacency, or worse; backsliding. It is a difficult conundrum, complacency. While it is natural to be reactionary to policies and actions that are blatantly racist, it is challenging to keep the fire burning day to day. When we are no longer daily confronted with signs of “Whites Only” or bus and school segregation, our shoulders lower and we breathe easier. But, as the speakers reminded us throughout the day, there is so much left to do. Poverty, incarceration, immigration, voting rights and equality are very current issues. Progress has been made, but we are nowhere near the finish line.

It is so tempting to lose our focus, to give into distraction. In fifty years we’ve evolved into a nation of perpetual distraction and extroversion. Where the 1963 March was an open and accessible event, the 2013 event was constrained and produced for the media. Enormous television camera towers blocked the view for all but the “ticketed” attendees (an oddity juxtaposed to a day celebrating equality.) Celebrities with no obvious connection to the movement spoke and sang (or lip synched) for the cameras. Two dance groups (in very photogenic costume) performed, an odd artistic choice for any rally with limited views. The singers (except for Peter and Paul) sang gospel music, even though international (and even national) folk singers still abound today. But the 2013 event was packaged for viewers back home. That isn’t necessarily bad, it’s just different. As were the 20-somethings playing candy crush during the speakers, and the thousands of selfie pics being taken throughout the day. But amongst all that noise were young, middle-aged and 1963 alumni, riveted and moved. Heads bowed and bobbed, hands waved in solidarity and to this attendee it looked like hope.

 
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Posted by on August 29, 2013 in Cultural Critique

 

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March On

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We are on the cusp of the 50th anniversary of the March On Washington. It is the most famous mass gathering to occur in our country. At least 200,000 people showed up to the National Mall on that late August day for a march in pursuit of equality and jobs. The march, twenty years in the making, came to life in 1963 (100 years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.) People from all over the country heard about the march and found their way there. This was before cheap flights, social media and ubiquitous car ownership. It was also during a time in which travel could be challenging for people of color. They arrived, some traveling through the night or for days, anxious of what lay ahead. No one knew what exactly was in store and no doubt some concern for personal safety existed. Families, communities, church groups; people of all ages and colors took that leap of faith and participated in a peaceful day of inspiration and aspiration.

There were specific goals for the march including; job training, increase in the minimum wage, school desegregation, passage of a civil rights bill, and federal prohibition of discrimination. Many of the goals were realized, but what the march is remembered for is much more ethereal. People who were there, ordinarily perhaps quite eloquent, will grasp for words when trying to convey the feelings they had that day. Many of us listened to the iconic Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I Have A Dream speech in school. The goose bumps and throat lumps hints to what being there must have been. To be standing amongst hundreds of thousands of people with a unified purpose is to be in a heightened state of humanness. To overcome the personal and join together for a higher purpose is one of the greatest gifts of life.

Those of us who weren’t there (or weren’t born yet) may never experience anything of that magnitude. But we too can pursue the power of the collective. We can seek to right wrongs by joining strangers to make some noise. The world and humans being what they are means that there will always be something worth fighting for. Those people climbing onto buses in the wee hours of the morning had no idea that they were making history. They simply wanted to join hands and march for the most basic of civil rights.

MS 2003-36  March on Washington Program - front

 
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Posted by on August 18, 2013 in Cultural Critique

 

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