And so it was in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968 when the world’s premier peace officer was gunned down. The day before his assassination, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had given his last speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” in support of striking sanitation workers at the Mason Temple in Memphis. In the speech King spoke as if he knew he was meeting his fate the next day.
“Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, ‘If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the twentieth century, I will be happy.’ Now that’s a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land. Confusion all around. That’s a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding — something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee — the cry is always the same — ‘We want to be free.’”
This Sunday the world will remember 42 years back, the life and philosophy of King and what it meant to all of us. His sacrifice of paying the ultimate price — his life — to get America into the larger palace of democracy where equality for all will one day become the norm.
For many the Sunday remembrance will include revisiting the day that Barack Obama was elected president of the United States. Given that King’s crusade took place in the same century that saw a Black man with a father from Kenya catapulted by voters to the most powerful elected office in the world, the White House, is a completion of a cycle of history. Because King had long asked for an America that would one day judge his children not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
In 2010 we are at the crossroads of an important milestone that is forcing us all to recall the nonviolence philosophy of King. Inspired by Mahatma Ghandi’s nonviolence resistance movement, King visited the land of Ghandi, India, 51 years ago to observe how one man was able to inspire a nation to defeat British colonialism without raising a fist. That pilgrimage to India had a profound impact on King’s life and on the Civil Rights Movement as he made nonviolence the central theme of his campaign for social justice.
The milestone we are witnessing now is the historic health care legislation the passage of which under President Obama has triggered acts of violence, hate, bigotry and racism by individuals who say they disagree but won’t use nonviolent protest to register their discontent. Using racial slurs and other forms of hate speech and violently attacking lawmakers who supported the legislation, the protesters are are revealing their true motives, not opposition to health reform which is to create an atmosphere of fear and insecurity just because a Black man is president.
Some of these individuals who are hiding behind the Tea Party movement, and other Christian right wing militia groups, apparently think that America is still soaked in the 1950s Jim Crow era. Their view of America is one in which other communities should continue to be left behind because any legislation that attempts to address deep structural inequalities in our society is seen as taking away power from what they perceive as their inheritance.
Many presidents have attempted to reform health care and failed. Besides, the crisis of the economy did not start with President Obama. It fomented over the last nine years under Bush and it will be mere wishful thinking to expect the economic mess to evaporate in a twinkle of an eye.
The White supremacist thinking of some of the protesters has been allowed to permeate and is now finding itself in the mainstream discourse as a credible topic – when you watch what Glen Beck does and says to his fans – in tube because nothing serious has been done in the past to confront the dilemma of race, poverty and class.
Because for too long we’ve only had leaders who rarely demonstrate the need to change our society for the better by instituting programs that seek to address health and economic disparities, a new president like Obama who wants to do just the opposite is now been perceived in their narrow minds as the enemy.
“We are losing our country to socialism and communism” is the scary refrain they are using to instill fear among the populace about the Obama presidency, rejecting the notion of a just and fair society with equality under the law.
Well, when King was using non-violence to seek answers to the political and economic crisis tormenting African Americans and the less privileged, he was called a communist.
When Nelson Mandela and his colleagues stood against the racist apartheid regime in South Africa to end the decades long subjugation of Blacks, they were called communists. Now Mandela turns out to be the world’s most celebrated statesman, even by governments that once referred to him as a communist or terrorist.
Wherever Mandela visits now, the adulation and respect shown is unbelievable, a striking contradiction to recent history. In Britain where the former prime minister Margaret Thatcher brushed off the African National Congress (ANC), Mandela’s organization as a communist inspired group, that nation has recently erected a huge statue of Mandela in Parliament Square in London to honor his legacy.
On King there is a project under way to erect a memorial for him in Washington, to pay tribute to a man who was vilified even by some of his own fellow Black ministers.
Both King and Mandela were scorned, hated with passion for speaking to the greater question of equality. If the Tea Party movement had existed during the King and Mandela crusades, they would have spat on both men and call them the “N” word just as they did to civil rights icon and Georgia Congressman John Lewis on the night of the health care legislation victory.
Why is it that when men and women of goodwill raise the issue of justice and equality, they have to be branded a communist or socialist?
Why do we call them communists and socialists and yet decades later we contradict ourselves by honoring their memories for making us all better people and for pushing a better society?
Why should there be an intrinsic fear among some that rises to the level of violence whenever a leader in government or in a social movement wants to address the social and economic inequality that has entrapped the future and potential for progress?
If you are upset and against any move to level the playing field for African Americans, Jews, Arab Americans, Native Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans and other groups, use nonviolence not guns.