Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Remembering Martin 

I celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day today as I have the past several years: by marching several miles from The Old Courthouse at the base of the Arch in downtown St. Louis, where humans were once sold into slavery and where the landmark Dred Scott Case was decided against those seeking personhood peacefully through the courts, to Powell Symphony Hall , the grand home of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, a long-segregated venue. Today, as it has for many years, it served as the St. Louis home of an annual celebration of Dr. King's legacy and vision.

As has been the case the past two years, I was accompanied by several young people, current and former students. They were energized by the vision of a more equal America. They were equally troubled by the gross inequities they see between their homes, schools and lives in suburban St. Louis and those in the crumbling infrastructure of much of north St. Louis and East St. Louis, IL. They were moved enough to spend their day off walking in twenty-three degree weather with others of many colors, cultures and creeds, singing chanting and sharing in a memory and a dream.

Along the route I was reminded of why this is perhaps the most spiritual of holidays for me. It is the day we celebrate the life and mourn the assassination of a man who in a modern context saw through the mask of difference that plagues our consciousness as humans. We honor a man who took to heart the grand lesson of religion that we answer hatred with love for at our core we are unified by a force beyond humanity. He is my most tangible example of a man who, against insurmountable odds, strove to live the word of Christ as set down in the book of John:

"Dear friends, let us love one another for love comes from God.  Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.  Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love”  1 John 4:7-8

The core understanding of that most precious Law is echoed in Martin's postulate:

"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly."
-Martin Luther King, Jr. - Letter from a Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963

He was a man who took to heart the vision laid out by our nation's founders and pushed it toward its ideal, sacrificing all to extend Constitutional rights to a people who had been recognized as American citizens for 100 years, but whose rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness were thwarted through misguided and conspiratorial laws, an economic system employed to maintain the "benefits" of slavery, the violent terrorism of organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan and the complacent silent acceptance of so many.

Just last Thursday I accompanied a group of students to East St. Louis. On that journey we visited the site of a too-little known event: one of the largest race riots in the history of the nation. The 1917 East St. Louis race riot saw poor whites, consumed by hatred and the fear of possible job loss to blacks moving up from the south, kill over 100 African-American women children and men. So consumed were they by their hatred that they burnt the core of their own town as they set afire buildings to drive blacks from shelter so they may be shot or thrown back to burn. The sole hospital in the city refused service to badly burned and bullet riddled blacks - it was for whites only.

In the shadow of that event grew the likes of Miles Davis and Jackie Joyner-Kersee . I wonder at a world without their contributions had their parents been among those killed on those fateful days in 1917. I wonder too at the unsung lives of those who perished. What might they, their sons and daughters have contributed to our world?

Thursday saw more than history. We witnessed a present that unceasingly allows drug dealers to sell their wares within sight of a school named in honor of Miles Davis. We saw a city, so abandoned by its county, state and nation that numerous stray dogs wander its streets without control, that federally subsidized housing is built below the flood line, and that the remnants of architectural gems crumble dangerously on main street. We saw a city bordered by corporate-owned "cities" such as Monsanto, IL - legal jurisdictions set up to avoid enforcement of labor, environmental and health regulations.

Amidst those conditions live our nation's children. I wonder at their ability to meet their full potential, our full potential, under such conditions. I wonder at our inability to "love one another" on a grand scale in this world and sense that we live soundly in a network of injustice rather than justice. Its cyclical nature should be constantly at mind - even from the comfort of our more privileged homes .

Toward the end of the march today a portion of Dr. King's Riverside Church speech caught my eye. Delivered April 4, 1967 - one year to the day before his assassination - King expanded the scope of his activism beyond domestic issues in that speech. I was amazed that these were words I had never heard nor read. Their applicability to today could not have been more true. On a placard being carried by another marcher was an excerpt similar to this long excerpted statement:

"A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, "This is not just." It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of South America and say, "This is not just." The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.

"A true revolution of values will lay hand on the world order and say of war, "This way of settling differences is not just." This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death. [sustained applause]

"America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing except a tragic death wish to prevent us from reordering our priorities so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood." - Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Riverside Church, NYC, April 4, 1967

What have we wrought in this nation, where in the '60s we allowed our most enlightened leaders to fall victim to the fate of the bullet? Do we even allow them to grow safely to adulthood today?

King's final campaigns were for health care, economic opportunity, and just foreign policy informed by coalitions with peoples involved in democracies worldwide. Are these not the issues that plague us today?

We have missed his wisdom.


PS Check out this montage of King's words set in a modern context.

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