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January 21st, 2008


02:53 pm - Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter
i miss you, dr. king.

“If any of you are around when I have to meet my day,” King told the congregation of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church on February 4, 1968, two months before his assassination, “I don’t want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long. Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize — that isn’t important. Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards — that’s not important. Tell them not to mention where I went to school. I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to give his life serving others. I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to love somebody. I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question. I want you to be able to say that I did try to feed the hungry. I want you to be able to say that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked.”[1]

everything i read about him seems so timely. his talk against the vietnam war. his disappointment that even liberal presidents waited for popular consensus to catch up before enacting change. but most of all for me, his concern about economic disparity and poverty at the root of inequality and injustice.

"In their furious combat to level walls of segregation and discrimination, Negroes gave primary emphasis to their deprivation of dignity and personality. Having gained a measure of success they are now revealed to be clothed, by comparison with other Americans, in rags. They are housed in decaying ghettoes and provided with a ghetto education to eke out a ghetto life. Thus, they are automatically enlisted in the war on poverty as the most eligible combatants. Only when they are in full possession of their civil rights everywhere, and afforded equal economic opportunity, will the haunting race question finally be laid to rest."[2]

see that part about being afforded equal economic opportunity? if anyone can explain to me how that fits in with using king to justify "colorblind laws" and eliminating affirmative action, i would be much obliged.

"Today Negroes want above all else to abolish poverty in their lives and in the lives of the white poor. This is the heart of their program.To end the humiliation was a start, but to end poverty is a bigger task. It is natural for Negroes to turn to the labor movement because it was the first and pioneer anti-poverty program.... Negroes are not the only poor in the nation. There are nearly twice as many white poor as Negro, and therefore the struggle against poverty is not involved solely with color or racial discrimination but with elementary economic justice."[3]

he questioned the role of "charity" in our society - rejecting the idea that the poor should depend on charitable handouts from others. he wanted to attack the system. he wanted to prevent people from needing charity in the first place.

"A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life's roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring."[4]

i am shamed by his talk of action, of the importance of working outside traditional methods of "legislation and law."

"Are demonstrations of any use, some ask, when resistance is so unyielding? Would the slower processes of legislation and law enforcement ultimately accomplish greater results more painlessly? Demonstrations, experience has shown, are part of the process of stimulating legislation and law enforcement. The federal government reacts to events more quickly when a situation of conflict cries out for its intervention. Beyond this, demonstrations have a creative effect on the social and psychological climate that is not matched by the legislative process. Those who have lived under the corrosive humiliation of daily intimidation are imbued by demonstrations with a sense of courage and dignity that strengthens their personalities. Through demonstrations, Negroes learn that unity and militance have more force than bullets. They find that the bruises of clubs, electric cattle prods and fists hurt less than the scars of submission. And segregationists learn from demonstrations that Negroes who have been taught to fear can also be taught to be fearless. Finally, the millions of Americans on the sidelines learn that inhumanity wears an official badge and wields the power of law in large areas of the democratic nation of their pride."[2]

i find myself most challenged by dr. king's religion. as an atheist, most of my experience with religion is seeing used as a club. bow down to your husband. go to hell if you're gay. outlaw abortion. pledge allegiance to god and the flag. get turned out of the government funded homeless shelter if you won't go to mass. no potentially life-saving research involving embryos. teach kids creationism.

but that's not how dr. king used his faith. this is how it motivated him:
"“So this morning, as I look into your eyes and into the eyes of all of my brothers in Alabama and all over America and over the world, I say to you: ‘I love you. I would rather die than hate you.’ ”[5]

i am so baffled and overwhelmed by the thought of religion used to comfort, to heal, to unite. i recently heard a political figure, the gang czar of los angeles, say that his fundamentalist faith informed his work only in that he believed every human to be made in the image of god and thus worthy of infinite love, compassion, and forgiveness. which seems so foreign to me.



it's so amazing it makes tears spring to my eyes. and galvanizes me to do the very best i can to honor his work, his ideas, his dreams, and his legacy.



[1] The Prophet Reconsidered, chronicle of higher ed, jan 08.

[2] Let Justice Roll Down, from the March 15, 1965 issue of The Nation

[3] Speech to labor unions, May 2 1967

[4] Speech, April 4 1967.

[5] The 'Love Thy Enemies' Sermon, Nov. 17, 1957. Quoted in "Radical Love Gets a Holiday", Sarah Vowell, nytimes jan 08.

as long as you are looking at mlk jr sources, you should also read the Letter from a Birmingham Jail, April 1963.

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