They emerge as if from ether, out of the clear blue sky, and suddenly they are everywhere talking about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Each King birthday and holiday brings an ever-increasing crescendo of talk and celebration – including entertainers to concert and banquet halls, community centers, churches and tent revivals, and the obligatory annual mass media regurgitations.
This month’s Martin Luther King Jr. “show” marks the forty-second year since the martyr’s last birthday on earth. Within that more than half a lifetime, legions of streets, avenues and boulevards have come to bear his name, as have schools, community centers and other places.
It’s a rare miss if one sees a Martin Luther King Jr. anything that is not in or near the dilapidated and deteriorated section of town, or the inner-city. It is somewhat diabolical that King was killed, and yet his name is stamped – indeed emblazoned – on the dying neighborhoods that giddy investment bankers anxiously wait to seize and gentrify.
Experts, including preachers, scholars, motivational speakers and civil rights advocates – many of whom were nowhere near King and the civil rights movement’s real action in Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi – have proven to be money makers for enterprising Martin Luther King Jr. celebration and commemoration producers. Even municipalities have gotten into the act of producing workshops, luncheons and/or dinners with guest speakers and big-name entertainers.
Hustling Martin Luther King is big time! Doing the work of political and community organizing – like pouring gravy over rice – is so mixed in with the feel- good celebration consumption that going forth with an action plan is neither mentioned by speakers nor contemplated by celebrants.
Every year, the ever-spreading concept is only to celebrate. Celebrate what? Celebrate the life of Martin Luther King Jr., that’s what. What a startling contradiction! Was King’s life about celebration, or about non-violent direct action against tyranny? King’s legacy is also being hustled.
What is so tragically muted in the King saga is his April 4, 1968 assassination by a high-powered rifle shot as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. That’s the day, every year, when poor and near-poor people, along with others of good will, should be engaged in direct action against injustice. King’s birthday commemoration should be designed as planning sessions across the United States for an outpouring of nationwide activity on April 4 against white nationalism and discrimination in a supposed democracy.
In the years since King was gunned down, scores of black men and boys have been shot dead or seriously wounded by law-enforcement officers all over America. Rarely have any officers been found in the wrong, which by sheer numbers is, at best, perplexing and appalling. Black-on-black crime has escalated during the same period with shootouts as well as the killing and injuring of innocent neighborhood residents due to drugs and other madness.
Schools, some bearing King’s name, are failing as ministers and other community leaders say and do nothing, even as latch-key children roam the streets after school amid locked church doors and scant or non-existent organized youth activities. Too many poor and near-poor neighborhoods don’t have sidewalks and sewers, or adult education and job training programs. These are God’s people, too. They are the people for whom King worked so hard, and for whom he sacrificed his life.
So it’s nice for your child or grandchild to recite the “I Have A Dream” speech during a King birthday celebration this year. But if his or her outlook for the future is nothing more than getting an education to get a job, then you have failed to motivate that young mind to be a change agent for tomorrow’s world. The lost generation that is now facing middle age sacrificed opportunity for comprehensive positive social change on the altar of individuality: selfishness.
And so here we are, still marginalized, about to participate in another birthday hustle of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
But, as usual, I will not be with you.