Tuesday, February 07, 2006

More on Martin Luther King, Jr.

As we remember Mrs. King today, I thought it a good time to include our pastor's comments from last month's King Fling.

We do a lot of talking about Martin’s dream…"I have a dream," he said, "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, that someday, “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers.”

But Vincent Harding reminds us that our fixation on Martin’s ‘Dream’ is symptomatic of a dangerous collective amnesia. We insist on approaching King in a way that makes him easy to handle; we want King to fit our agendas. Increasingly, the nation wants to package him, market him—and thereby ignore him.

Poet Carl Wendell Himes, Jr., says,

Now that he is safely dead
Let us praise him
build monuments to his glory
sing hosannas to his name.

Dead men make
such convenient heroes: They cannot rise
to challenge the images
we would fashion from their lives.

And besides,
it is easier to build monuments
than to make a better world.

Hardin says that the ‘Dream’ is not a cozy, abstract idea floating in our conscience and memory. It grows out of and flows back into the practical, active work and struggle for social transformation.

And so, it’s not Martin’s dream that I celebrate tonight. There were many dreamers in Martin’s time, and there are many dreamers today. But dreaming, like faith, without actions, is dead. What I celebrate tonight is Martin’s willingness to take strategic action, to figure out what it would take to turn his dreams into realities, more specifically, to think strategically, one, about who had the power to bring about the change that he wanted to see, and two, about what pressures would need to be applied to those specific powers that be in order to make them do it.

In organizing, we say that power is the ability to help or to hurt (non-violently, of course). Martin used different language, but was clear about that concept.

According to Harding, By the last fall and winter of his life, King announced that…massive nonviolent civil disobedience would become the center of his movement for the next major initiative—the "Poor People's Campaign." His plan was to mobilize and train thousands of the poor and their allies to come to the nation's capital and "just camp here and stay" until the country's elected leaders acted on the urgent needs of the poor. "The city will not function," (power to hurt) he warned, until Congress created and approved "a massive program on the part of the federal government that will make jobs or income a reality for every American citizen."

King was envisioning more than Washington as target. "We've got to find a method that will disrupt other cities if necessary, create the crisis that will force the nation to look at the situation, dramatize it, and yet at the same time not destroy life or property," he said.

King was willing to use his power and the power of the people to disrupt cities, to create crisis, to effect change.

And so, tonight I celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr., not because of his dream, but because of his power. Not individual power, but organized power. Not power over, but power among. In King’s words, not power for power's sake, but power that is moral, that is right and good. In Harding’s words, power at the service of radical social transformation.

May we, too, learn to be a powerful people.


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