Sunday, March 30, 2008

5298: 40 Years Later.

From The New York Daily News…

America is changed, but falls short of Martin Luther King’s vision of justice

By Errol Louis

An assassin’s bullet struck down the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. 40 years ago, but a great many blacks — protesters and preachers, journalists and judges, authors and activists — think America’s just starting to fulfill King’s dream.

Thousands are set to converge on Memphis this week for a solemn commemoration of the assassination on April 4.

Each will have his or her personal and political interpretations of what King’s stormy, splendid life and sudden, tragic death meant.

There will be remembrances of the days when blacks had to ride in the back of the bus, could not eat at lunch counters in the South, had to use “colored” bathrooms and could not stay in fine hotels, even in some places in the North.

Those days are gone now, but we still have not reached King’s goal of a country where people will “not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

Activists, walking in King’s footsteps, will be coming to Memphis for demonstrations aimed at pricking the nation’s conscience about a wide range of social ills, including police brutality, failing urban schools, the AIDS epidemic and the decline of organized labor.

Mainstream politicians and civil rights leaders will announce a new urban agenda to help complete King’s unfulfilled dream of a nation freed from the shackles of racism, poverty and injustice.

A group of ministers, led by the Memphis-based Church of God in Christ, will mull King’s contributions to a theology of liberation that used biblical prophecy to organize extraordinary, nonviolent courage and valor from millions of poor and disenfranchised Americans.

All the different agendas — and millions of private remembrances that will take place from coast to coast — will be right on target.

King’s genius lay in challenging Americans to make an individual, personal commitment to social justice — and that makes most remembrances about his life and legacy deeply personal.

“I couldn’t get over how my mother just fell apart,” says the Rev. Al Sharpton, who was 13 years old on the night the television flashed news that King had been murdered.

“She cried like it was a member of our immediate family,” he reminisced. “My mother was from Dotham, Ala. To her and her generation, Dr. King was the difference in how their everyday life was conducted.”

Still, the long fight to break down the system of formal racial segregation in the South, King’s best-known struggle, was only part of his legacy.

For a generation of Christian and Jewish thinkers, King inherited and expanded a home-grown liberation theology that linked spiritual and political progress.

King was tutored by ministers including Howard Thurman, a friend of King’s father who wrote extensively about social justice, built one of the nation’s first integrated congregations and developed a close relationship with Mahatma Gandhi.

Another King mentor, the Rev. Vernon Johns, a farmer and preacher, preached social activism to a reluctant congregation in Montgomery, Ala., that eventually voted Johns out.

They replaced him with the seemingly mild-mannered King, who would set off and lead an international human rights revolution.

Four decades after King’s death, divinity students pore over sermons and writings by Thurman and Johns to discover the roots of King’s thinking about faith, politics and nonviolence.

“He was a person of faiths, plural,” says Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis. “He could speak to a Jewish audience in a language they shared. The photo of him marching with Abraham Heschel was a defining moment in American history.

“It showed that when we stand together, we can make a difference. That’s a story of religion in its best possible moment.”

What most people remember about King — his soaring oratory and nonviolent civil disobedience — remains as basic to American politics as voting and town hall meetings.

“King proved to me that movements are built not on charismatic leadership, but the institutionalization of social change,” says Mark Winston Griffith, a Brooklyn-based writer and community leader who works on predatory lending and other economic fairness issues.

“I’ve attempted to live his ideal of the servant leader.”

One of the most obvious legacies of King — the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act — provided federal protection that allowed millions of blacks to register and vote, leading to the election of hundreds of black politicians to local and federal posts.

“We’ve come a long way and there’s still work to be done,” says the Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker, a top aide to King who later moved to New York and built Canaan Baptist Church, a major Harlem institution.

“I think Barack Obama’s candidacy is the front edge of Dr. King’s dream; I’m more excited about it than anything else,” Walker told me. “It goes toward fulfilling Dr. King’s instruction that we be more concerned about a person’s character than the color of his skin.”

For Sharpton, political advances take a backseat to King’s role as a protest leader.

“Too many people forget that it was Martin Luther King the activist that became worldwide-known. He never was a politician, never ran for office,” Sharpton says. “He chose to be free to remain a challenger to the system. The media does not tell the truth about how controversial and despised he was at the time of his death.”

Forty years after King’s murder, his most visible legacy is the habit of organizing people to protest injustice, argue against those in power and battle for society’s outcasts.

It’s as close, and as urgent, as the next protest.

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