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Awakening to a Great Revolution?: Dr. King's Legacy 40 Years Later

Started by Austin McCoy, April 06, 2008, 06:17:58 pm

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Austin McCoy

Awakening to a Great Revolution?: Dr. King's Legacy 40 Years Later

--Austin C. McCoy, Spirit of the Nation!

As many already know, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was gunned down forty years ago yesterday. I was disappointed that I did not coordinate my schedule correctly in order to take a road trip to Memphis to participate in the march. However, I felt compelled to reflect on the significance of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

While much of the media has focused on a few of his speeches and remarks--his "I Have a Dream," "I've Been to the Mountain Top," and now his views on the Vietnam War and poverty--I want to reflect on his last Sunday sermon, "Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution," in order to draw parallels between his historical moment and ours.

Dr. King delivered "Remaining Awake" just five days before he was assassinated on April 4 at the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. In the sermon, Dr. King warned of the sleep masses who "...find themselves living amid a great period of social change and yet they fail to develop new attitudes, the new mental responses--that the new situation demands." From there he outlined three global revolutions--weaponry, technology, and human rights. These revolutions in weaponry and technology were significant in King's thinking because they threatened to intensify existing domestic and global conflicts. He also argued against the persistence of a racism that remained behind closed doors, denied, "subtle and sometimes not so subtle..." Dr. King also called for a global, interdependent strategy to address poverty.

While it would be unfair to argue that King's circumstances in 1968 match the concerns of different individuals today, I think we too could think of particular revolutions that at least have the potential to adversely affect us. Although we enjoy some of the fruits of technological and political progress, various aspects of globalization have wreaked havoc here and elsewhere. People are losing jobs domestically, nations in Africa are still struggling amid unnecessary debts, and individuals from many backgrounds are being exploited in sweatshop style factories around the world. Our revolutions in weaponry have done little to eliminate death and ensure safety. More than 4,000 Americans have been killed in Iraq while more than 29,000 have been wounded. It's also been estimated that over 150,000 Iraqis have died since the invasion. While some conservatives and neoliberals triumphantly claimed revolution in 1995, we all are aware of the 47 million people without health insurance. We are still running the "race to incarcerate" as the justice system has incarcerated over 2 million people. According to the Sentencing Project, one in eight black males are in jail on any given day. While about 3.5 million Americans experience homelessness a year, in New Orleans, one in twenty-five residents are currently homeless. Murder rates in large cities like Philadelphia have been ridiculous over the past year.  While it may appear to be less threatening, we are consuming at a rate eleven times more than the Chinese.  And hopefully, many of us are aware of the specter of global warming and climate change by now. Yes, all of these problems developed for vastly different reasons, but it is very likely that we all, no matter the color, would have to answer to Dr. King if he were still alive.

So what to do? How do we reclaim the dream?

The best way to honor Dr. King's, as well as that generation's, legacy may be to shift our inquiry. Ironically, we may need to quit asking him. Instead of asking what he would do, we should ask what we plan to do. Instead of stepping right into the customs, tactics, ideologies, and institutions, I would argue that we begin the quest for new forms. These forms can and should come from everywhere--history, experience, action, and mind work. They could also be ideas that were once thought to be divergent. Can we collapse binaries and resolve contradictions long enough to purposefully act? One would think it would be okay if our goal is not naked and unrestrained power. We need new languages. We need new conversations about race that resists descending into arguments to be won or lost. We need new means of organizing and challenging the status quos that are in sync with today's revolutions of information technology and industry (or lack thereof). Essentially, for all of the action that is required, a lot of mind work also needs to be done. We need understandable conceptions of difference--race, class, gender, sex, disability, etc. We need to develop accessible definitions for the struggles that we face locally and ruminate on how to define and attack overarching problems ("How do we address 'globalization' anyways?"). Thinking and acting locally and regionally may help us to expand our horizons to attract and include an array of groups nationally and globally. Before the infamous "Nipple Gate," Janet Jackson--with the assistance of Public Enemy front man, Chuck D--emphatically declared that we needed a "new agenda." We need to develop a new human rights agenda that accounts for an array of experiences in all of their complexities. We will do ourselves a disservice if we tell people to forget about who they are and come together because we are all simply human. On one hand, that is too easy. On the other, there may be too much at stake for one to do so. We cannot take for granted that identity (-ies) and humanity are both constructed, neither just exists in a vacuum. Maybe the strident beliefs and expressions of monolithic identities are the result of taking our collective selves for granted. I know I have been guilty.
I would caution one to hold their breath if they believe this call for a more complicated vision of human rights means shedding whatever identities to which they claim. I am not proclaiming to give up my definition of myself as a black American. Generations before me struggled for the right to determine themselves, both as a group and as individuals. To recognize this historical fact is to honor them and to attempt to make real the idea of a diverse America. This does not mean that all (black or otherwise) Americans should think or act as I do, because they too are also exercising the same right I am. What this is a call for is new ways of building working coalitions with different individuals from different groups in different contexts. Yes, we all have to be willing to compromise some aspects of ourselves, but it should not be in spite of ourselves; it should be for the sake of positive societal transformation.

We need to ask tough questions. Yes, black and white people are important, but what about Native Americans, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Vietnamese, Lebanese, Chinese, Koreans, Japanese, Iraqis, Afghanis, etc? Shouldn't we be expanding the platform to include as many groups as possible whenever possible? Why are we comfortable with the convention of zero-sum power? Is it too much to ask that everyone could have a chance marry who they want? Why isn't the media talking about the virtual invisibility of Muslims in our political process? Why do people throw around the words "Jew" and "gay" as if they are funny?  How come when someone believes something is wrong with the youth, it seems that all of hip hop culture is to blame? As problematic as some artists are(because not all of them are perfect), there many of them (that often go unheard) who have a lot of poignant things to say, even if it comes out in a rough manner. If elected President, will Hillary Clinton only make 77 cents to a dollar that President Bush makes? Probably not, but how can a woman run for President of the United States while the disparity remains? It will take a great amount of individuals from different backgrounds in a variety of locations to join with those who are already attempting to resolve these questions.

There are a plethora of issues that affect people locally, regionally, nationally, and globally: sexism, violence, bigotry and indifference, poverty, war, mass incarceration, globalization, etc that need addressing now. There are also different reasons why these problems exist and play out.  Again, the question remains, what to do, and more importantly, how? One place to start, as Dr. King often asserted, is our values. He often advocated for a revolution of values. The human element should be elevated above the profit motive. We should seek consensus building to solve problems instead of engaging in ideological warfare. Is it truly impossible to recognize both the individuality and interdependence of human experience? Even in the height of the Cold War, Dr. King called for a "socially conscious democracy which reconciles the truths of individualism and collectivism." This call, if actually answered, could be the most transformative. What if we began to question the values undergirding existing institutions? This is not to say that this does not occur. Government officials do it every time they encounter a plan or department they dislike. A corporate leader does it every time she or he does not get a desired outcome in a business venture. Should we even wait to experience a loss before we do so? We should not. We will have to build new infrastructures that allow for continuous evaluation of existing institutions, the ability to discard the ones we do not like, and the room to build new ones. While doing so, we will also have to reconsider the dominant leadership and organizational models which, depending upon the circumstances, tend to be hierarchical and dogmatic comprised of a few people. Why continue to have the "best" democracy money can buy when we may be able build one using the best of our human resources?

We can no longer afford to engage in a politics of indifference, antagonism, and alienation nor a fearful and narrow nationalism if we hope to be successful. War and individual acts of violence will not solve any of our problems. How much more money and "stuff" do we need? Only a positive thrust for a true, more participatory democracy that accounts for the diverse experiences of all people can push us beyond the cusp of human progress that eludes us.  Granted, getting to the "mountain top" and into the "Promised Land" will not be easy, especially if there are plenty of people who believe they are already there or that neither exists. However, we cannot be afraid to tell the cynics, the comfortable, or the hostile that we do not need them to get there. We cannot wait. Like Dr. King wrote in "Remaining Awake," time is not neutral and it can either be used "constructively or destructively." We cannot afford to destructively waste our time. So, if others want to remain asleep, that's fine. We should be able to find a way. But, we cannot afford to wait for them to wake up. Besides, I don't see how a sleeping population can stop anyone alert and hungry for change from declaring their own independence. While I hate to say this, we can leave them behind and graciously leave the door open for them to follow once they awaken from their slumber.

Dr. King's last sermons ironically remind me of a hip hop song performed by a hip hop group you may not have ever heard before due to personal tastes or public perception, the People Under the Stairs: "I feel like the revolution's already here. It's just a matter of whether you can hear or don't hear, some choose the latter..."

We can no longer afford to make the choice to remain asleep or tune out the music. We may be sleeping through a revolution and I'm not talking about a Presidential campaign...

© 2008 Austin C. McCoy. All Rights Reserved.