There is a ripple of concern which some of us hope will become a wave and maybe even a flood that the dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial in West Potomac Park in Washington, D.C., on Sunday will be suffused with tear-eyed sentimentality or “human interest” nonsense about Dr. King, the individual, or some of the people in attendance and that none of what he really stood for and fought for will be acknowledged, much less acted upon.
It is hard to imagine that Dr. King himself would approve of such a memorial with the monumental-sized Chinese-made sculpture of his individual presence in such grandiose style, while the work to which he was dedicating his final years, The Poor People's March, is not only unfinished but also the country has regressed obscenely to the point where “our” government has been all but hijacked to serve the interests of only the wealthiest five percent of the population.
Still, not to rain on anyone's parade, it is a great thing and a great day for such a memorial, for any memorial of such consequence, to be dedicated to the memory of one of the most enlightened and influential Americans ever, who was not a president or a military leader or anyone who fits into the usual category of “heroic” figures in the American self-congratulatory narrative.
For those who are into such things as dates, which, in traditional cultures, represent the rhythmic cycles of the universe, the Aug. 28 dedication date is both significant and appropriate, as it represents so much of what Dr. King fought against and fought for.
That was, of course, the date, in 1963, of the March on Washington and the famous I Have a Dream speech. That address moved the country forward, arguably in a very real way — so real that, 18 days later, came the worst backlash from the most retrograde elements in the country, with the Birmingham church bombing and the death of four little girls. That tragedy forced Dr. King and others in the civil rights movement into some harrowing and profound soul-searching and examining what responsiblity they held for the consequences which tactics like the March could bring about: human drama on a level at which few of us are tested.
Yet, as important as that speech was, that Aug. 28 date was, and would come to be, highly significant for other reasons, as well. Only those who were part of organizing the March could say if they were aware that the date they chose was also the anniversary of the murder, eight years earlier, in 1955, of Emmit Till in Mississippi. Few people who saw the Jet magazine with the photo of the open casket with his mangled and distorted body have ever
forgotten the shocking experience. The open casket was requested by his mother so “the world could see what they did to my son.”
That, very notably, came after the U.S. Supreme Court launched the country into a whole new era by striking down the legality of segregation with the Brown Decision in 1954, so the event had even more power as a galvanizing force in people's resolve to fight the recalcitrant stupidity and barbarity of racism in the South.
The picture of a new America which Dr. King painted with eloquent words at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 came partly to life in spectacular fashion in 2008, on Aug. 28. as the nation watched Illinois Sen. Barack Hussein Obama accept the nomination of the Democratic Party for the office of President.
But the greatest challenge to Dr. King's Dream of a just, equitable and non-“racial” society came on another Aug. 28, three years before that heady moment in American history and 50 years to the day after Emmit Till's murder, when, in 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck the coast of Mississippi and Louisiana. The federal government's shamefully callous, inadequate and insulting response, under the Bush-Cheney regime, was arguably Dr. King's worst nightmare come to life. Its aftermath continues to raise the question of whether we are a better nation now, as we prepare for the pious dedication of a memorial to him in the nation's capital, not far from where he stood and spoke in 1963.
These historical incidences are worth citing, among so many others, because of what they meant, or would have meant to Dr. King's life, and because of what his life meant to them, in giving this forthcoming dedication, on that chosen date, a real sense of what it can potentially be — or not.
It does seem that
the dedication ceremony should be nothing less than a second March-on-Washington moment to wake up and shake up our government to the fact that the nation needs to live out the true meaning of its creed that “all men [and women] are created equal,” etc.
If there are not ardent reminders of the fact that the March on Washington was “for jobs and justice,” and that this demand still stands, if there is no renewed resolve to continue the work that Dr. King started, instead of just sentimental glorifications of him as an individual, then the big event on Sunday will be a tragically lost and wasted opportunity for which, to paraphrase George L. Jackson, “the generations of tomorrow might curse us, as we sometimes curse those of yesterday, for a lack of courage and creative imagination.”
Dinizulu Gene Tinnie is a Miami-based artist, art educator and historian. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org