Sunday’s dedication of the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial was a remarkable moment in American history. For the first time a monument honoring an African-American took its rightful place alongside the limestone and marble tributes to our nation’s presidents and military. Making the day all the more special was that the nation’s first African-American president dedicated the national memorial to Dr. King.
The King memorial is a labor of love of the late civil rights leader’s fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, and a testament to the thousands of Americans who labored during the civil rights movement. It is an appropriate and timely tribute to one man’s historic leadership and a nation’s acknowledgement of some of its historical wrongs committed against African-Americans. The memorial is also a statement, as was the King national holiday, of the value of persistence and the victories that can be earned through constant struggle. While Dr. King might have shunned such tributes if he were alive, we believe he would be pleased by the work that was put into creating the memorial and hope that such energies would be transferred to the larger issues of social and economic justice.
For decades since his tragic death, the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. has been corrupted by those who misappropriate his words to push an agenda expressly opposite that of this great humanitarian. One his most famous speeches, “I Have a Dream” delivered not far from the King memorial during the 1963 March on Washington, has been used by conservatives to attack the very policies that Dr. King understood were necessary to make our society live up to the ideals expressed in the Constitution. The hoodwinking of the public and the purposefully deceitful messaging of the right has resulted in such farces as the California anti-affirmative action movement and the destruction of public education as conservatives knowingly misconstrue the teachings and life of Dr. King. The left also bares some blame. Too often so-called progressives have talked the talked but refused to walk the walk when the question is called on matters of justice and economic equity. The left has literally kept King locked in a closet and only bring him out when it serves their narrow political purpose, and fail to embrace his agenda in its totality.
It is perhaps an omen that during this period of economic uncertainty and material scarcity, the issue of poverty and wealth disparity is coming into clear focus. It is beyond ironic that as we head into a presidential election year, 44 years after an assassin’s bullet ended Dr. King’s life, we are being forced to confront the very issues he laid out in his last book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos of Community?” It is where Dr. King stood in his final days – against war and calling for economic justice and an end to poverty – which conservatives conveniently ignore and progressives give lip service. The restlessness we see in our nation is because of the unfinished business of our democracy and the fact that our nation will not be complete until we confront poverty, racism and sexism. There will be no “peace in the valley” until we heed the message and warnings of Dr. King.
We hope every child, but particularly every African-American child, will have the opportunity to gaze upon the towering likeness of Dr. King. It is a pilgrimage we hope every Black family will make a priority. We can never forget the sacrifices made by Dr. King and a generation of Blacks, mostly poor, who fought back against racism in America and put their lives on the line to bring down Jim Crow. The King memorial, though focused on one man, is the symbol of the blood shed to make our nation better and the countless lives laid down for the cause of justice and equality. While we still have a distance to go to become the “beloved community” Dr. King envisioned, we are that much closer to that ideal because of the incredible legacy of this visionary leader, prophet, and “Drum Major.”