Sunday, January 20, 2013

Martin Luther King's Unfinished Business Belongs to Us

I LIKE this column by North Carolina State University's associate professor Blair L. M. Kelley. It calls on us to remember Martin Luther King's failures as well as his success.

Here's an excerpt...

"King has become the single greatest icon of the civil rights movement—his words are studied, his great marches are remembered, his name marks our boulevards; his shadow, now literally cast in stone, looms large on our national consciousness. He has become the benchmark for great leadership, so much so that nearly every leader that has emerged after him is compared to him, and found wanting."

"As an icon, King is often thought of as flawless, so that we rarely reflect on his failures as a movement leader. Our collective memory of King only touches on the high points. The images we remember are the moments of his greatest triumphs as a leader: the 1955-56 Montgomery Bus Boycott, the 1963 March on Washington, the Birmingham Campaign that same year, and the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery. Each of these efforts resulted in positive change, clear victories in the courts or in the halls of Congress."

"We tend not to remember the moments when King faltered or searched for the right direction. We don’t recall the indecision about what to do next after the success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott; the challenge of the 1966 Chicago Freedom Movement campaign, or his unfulfilled Poor People’s Campaign — cut short by his tragic assassination in 1968. These moments are forgotten when King is not remembered in his broader context..."

"It is especially telling that Chicago, Illinois was the site of one of King’s most difficult campaigns. King and his organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, were drawn into the struggle in the urban North after the Los Angeles riots of 1965. While the southern movement had been making strides in dismantling segregation and disfranchisement, the problems of black residents in the urban North and West had not gained sustained national attention. At the invitation of activists in Chicago, King moved to that city."


"While in Chicago, King and the SCLC hoped to draw attention to poor and inequitable housing conditions, pointing to the fact that although the city did not have formal segregation laws, de facto housing patterns left many of the city’s African Americans in slum conditions. King also worked to stem gang violence, holding workshops on nonviolence. King had a young leader in his organization, Jesse Jackson, spearhead Operation Breadbasket in Chicago: an effort to call on local businesses to hire black employees on an equitable basis."

"But King’s efforts in Chicago did not meet with immediate success. Local white residents resisted calls to integrate their neighborhoods. King described one march on the city’s west side, saying that he had “never seen as much hatred and hostility on the part of so many people.” City leaders attempted to defuse protests, coming to agreements to address unfair housing conditions, then later refusing to make good on their promises. The majority of the nation turned a blind eye to the inequities of black urban life, feeling no moral call to transform black life once southern segregation had been dismantled. Instead, many in the national media pointed to theories of black pathology rather than addressing the systemic problems King had decried."

In the long run, King’s turn toward Chicago would make a difference. In the decades following his death, black organizations would use their newfound political leverage to elect black mayors in the cities of Cleveland, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles..."

"In the almost forty-five years since King’s assassination, we still find ourselves at a racial crossroads. Some might argue that we have reached the Promised Land with the dismantling of the legal barriers that kept African-Americans from realizing their full citizenship. Some might argue that the election and successful reelection of the first African-American president is the realization of King’s dream."

"But this year, as we celebrate the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr. I’d like for us to remember the shortcomings as much as we glorify his success. After all, these struggles have lessons to teach, and might provide insight into the things that we still must do. They hint at what King might have done had he lived."

I will argue this, however. Any 'unfinished business' left by King is for those of us who believe in his efforts and inspired by his victories, to take up. Great leaders have big agendas, big enough that they will most likely ever be completed in the leaders lifetime. A real celebration of King's life and work, and an authentic appreciation of where he came up short, will lead to an army of citizens who will see that his work is ours to finish.

No comments: