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Martin Luther King Jr. Day, 17 Jan 2011

By Adrian Harewood
A Presentation at Ottawa City Hall
Jan 17, 2011

Good Afternoon. Thank you so much for your kind introduction. Your Excellencies. Lord Mayor. Ladies and Gentleman. I’d like to begin by thanking Dreamkeepers for inviting me to speak at the 7th annual celebration of Martin Luther King Day in Ottawa- an event that has become a cherished tradition in our community. It’s an honour and indeed a privilege to be here. I can’t remember not knowing about Martin Luther King Jr. It would seem as if he’s always been part of my consciousness. The first time I believe I referred to Martin Luther King in writing was when I was about 8 or 9 years old. I was in elementary school and I had been asked to give a short speech to either a class or a school assembly about “the Negro” for what I think was a Black History Month event -yes, back in 1979 in the term Negro was still used in some quarters, I even had a book called the History of Negro Americans.

Unlike some of you in this room I wasn’t alive when Martin Luther King first came to international attention as a preternaturally gifted 20-something Baptist preacher in Montgomery Alabama who became the de facto spokesperson for the Montgomery Boycott in 1955, or in 1963 when he delivered one of the seminal speeches of the 20th century from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, or in 1964 when at the age of 35 he travelled to Oslo,Norway to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. I wasn’t around on March 7th 1965 Bloody Sunday, the day on which hundreds of civil rights activists led by John Lewis of SNCC ( the Student non-Violent Coordinating Committee) and King’s lieutenant Hosea Williams were tear gassed and brutally beaten by police as they tried to make their way across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on their way from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Or 8 days later on March 15th when US President Lyndon Baines Johnson, moved King to tears when he introduced the Voting Rights Act to Congress, an act that would eventually become law and signal the end of legalized disenfranchisement of Black people in the United States.

I was not yet a twinkle in my father’s eye when King delivered the 1967 CBC Massey Lecture entitled Conscience for Change or on that tragic day on April 4 1968 when he was gunned down at 6:01pm on the second floor balcony of the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee. I was born two years after King passed, and so growing up Dr. King was always history to me. I have spent a lifetime trying to get to know the man and connect him to my present. And thanks to that journey of discovery I have arrived at some of my own conclusions:

That there is much that we have forgotten about King. That over the decades, Martin Luther King the man has become Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. the myth.

That the King who is now officially remembered has ceased being the complex, flawed mortal being that he was, and has morphed into this one-dimensional, omniscient, demigod-type figure that he was not. That his message simplified, cleaned up... sanitized for mass consumption.

That “cryogenic–like” he has been literally frozen in time. That the essence of his message has been diluted, distorted, ossified and often submerged by obfuscation, stripped of its radical, transformative nature. Sadly, a revisionist, officially-edited version of King is the one that seems to now prevail and is now presented to the world.

So today I want to search for and ultimately reclaim what I consider to be the lost King. And try to glean some lessons from a life that was relatively short in length but incontrovertibly well-lived.

The first thing that I think we forget is how young Martin Luther King was when he became effectively the leader of the Civil Rights Movement. He was a mere 26 years of age at the time of the bus boycott , and, like Malcolm X and Che Guevera, just 39 when he was murdered. In fact, it is rather daunting for me to realize that I am now older than King was when he died. One can only imagine how much more he would have grown and changed had he lived until today. How much more he would have been able to give to his beloved community. Martin King had yet to hit his peak, he was just getting started...just hitting his stride.

The speech for which Martin King is renowned is his soaring “I Have a Dream Speech” of 1963. The 35 words of the speech that continue to resonate with people nearly a half century after they were first heard were actually uttered towards the speech’s end: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

But the speech was much more than those 35 words. What I think we forget is that much of the speech focused on the matter of accountability and broken promises. It was delivered 100 years after Abraham Lincoln had declared the Emancipation Proclamation, at a time in the early 1960s when Black People in the United States still did not have the rights of full citizenship in their own land.

In his address King stated that the members of the civil rights movement had come to the capital in their hundreds of thousands to demand freedom and justice. Civil rights supporters from across the USA were marching on Washington to cash the cheque that had been promised to them in both the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, nearly 200 years earlier. A promise that all men would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. King’s appeal was a clarion call for justice... for restitution. It was a redemption song. For too long America had defaulted on its promissory note. Black people had been given a bad cheque. Martin King was in a hurry, he was impatient for change. He wasn’t interested in gradualism. He wanted to alert America to, as he put it, “the fierce urgency of the now.” While he spoke eloquently about how he imagined a world where people would be measured by the content of their character, the speech was more than a dream, it was an outright demand.

While lionized in death, King was often reviled and vilified during his lifetime by the same forces who would falsely claim today to have always been in his corner. When he voiced his opposition to the War in Vietnam beginning in 1965 King came under not-so friendly-fire from all sides, foes and indeed friends alike.

In one of his most trenchant speeches against the war entitled “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence” delivered at the Riverside Church in New York on April 4th 1967 one year to the day before his assassination, King outlined his opposition to the mad, destructive conflict. He spoke as a child of God and a brother to the suffering poor of both Vietnam and the United States… As a citizen of the world he felt compelled to speak because of his horror at the savagery and wastefulness of it all. He called for an end to the senseless, dishonourable, murderous misadventure. He spoke of the need for a radical revolution of values…“We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing oriented society to a person oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

For his indictment of the US War in Vietnam King was labeled unpatriotic, naïve, a communist stooge, a dupe. Members of his own organization the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) and civil rights stalwarts such as A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, Whitney Young of the Urban League, and even King’s trusted confidante Bayard Rustin, decried his “recklessness” accusing him of jeopardizing the gains made by the movement. They were convinced that King’s denunciation of the Johnson administration, would so alienate the President – a man, who, they believed, had done more for civil rights in America than any President in the twentieth century - that prospects for changes on the domestic front would be dashed.. Senator Thomas Dodd of Connecticut, a close confidant of President Johnson stated that King had “ absolutely no competence in foreign affairs “ and had “ alienated much of the support he previously enjoyed in Congress”

At the time only 25% of Americans of public thought US had made a mistake sending troops to Vietnam. A poll found only 18% of Blacks felt that the US policy was misguided. King may have been clear in his own position on the war but amongst his countrymen and women Black and White and Brown, Christian Muslim or Jewish, he was in a clear minority.

The press was equally contemptuous and scathing in their criticism of King. Time magazine blasted him for “ confusing the cause.” In the Washington Post his views on the war were dismissed as “inventions of unsupported fantasy.” The New York Times excoriated King for combining the civil rights movement and the peace movement while “recklessly comparing American military methods to those of the Nazis.” The Pittsburgh Courier, one of the most widely read papers in Black America argued that King was “tragically misleading [American Negroes on matters that were ] too complex for simple debate.”

Martin Luther King was resilient and principled enough to absorb the blows that rained down on him in the midst of his condemnation of a rapacious economic system, a venal military industrial complex, and his country’s misguided war in Vietnam, because he understood that the “calling to speak is often a vocation of agony , but we must speak.” As a standard bearer of liberation theology a man of God Martin King demanded his country, a nation of unparalleled affluence and ingenuity, offer a radically different dispensation for the poor and marginalized.

As a revolutionary and freedom fighter... A radical apostle of non-violence, King insisted that “ every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suit his convictions.” As a radical democrat Citizen King believed in the words of the Trinidadian radical intellectual CLR James that “every cook can govern.”

His was a call to the shirtless, the barefoot and the homeless of the world...the downtrodden... the have nots. But it was also a call to those with shoes and shirts and homes. Those people of means. King in his practice subscribed to the journalist’s maxim of “Comforting the afflicted and afflicting the powerful.” But he also spoke to the humanity of world’s peoples and recognized the commonness of us all.

So what is it that we can learn from Martin King’s example? What can his life and example teach us some 42 years after his untimely death? Well I think there are a number of lessons that we can learn:

That whatever our station we have agency. That we have the ability and the responsibility to act to create the just , humane world that we imagine for ourselves and the generations to come.

That a time comes when silence is betrayal and so we must be unafraid to speak and to challenge power.

That a revolution in values and in the economic and political system is not instant coffee. That the business of making revolution is a long often lonely road but it is a road worth taking.

That to make profound change we must be ready to be derided and humiliated and to be prepared to sacrifice. That we must have the courage of our convictions.

That like Socrates said in Plato’s Apology 38A “the unexamined life is not worth living.” To really interrogate one’s life, to look at it without those rose coloured glasses that we too often don, is the absolute best thing that a human being can do.

That another world is possible. And that with community and imagination and pluck we can achieve it.

I will end with these last few words.

Martin Luther King was an extraordinary and yet “oh so ordinary man” who walked among us, not above us.

His feet, like our own, were made of clay. He was an individual with idiosyncrasies and seemingly inexplicable, but very human, contradictions. He was a leader who led, but he was also a leader who followed...He was both a teacher and a student who had both strong convictions and a plethora of doubts.

We need our children, all of our children, to aspire to reach Martin Luther King Jr.’s heights, but in order to do so, Martin must be rescued from the clouds and brought back down to earth. We need our young people to see Martin King in themselves. We need them to know that they too possess the gifts and the imagination and the gumption to help to transform and heal our world... That they are indeed a part of the solution. That we are now faced with the fact that “tomorrow is today.” That we are confronted with the “fierce urgency of the now.” And that we can’t afford to wait. Thank You.

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