Citizen Green: 50 years after Martin Luther King Jr.

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Fifty years ago today, an assassin’s bullet struck down Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights movement’s prince of nonviolent revolution. The unforgivable irony of King’s death is that the racist who fired the bullet took out the one leader of the black freedom movement who most eloquently articulated the conviction that Christian love could transform oppressors into friends, that America despite its continuous shortcomings could redeem its noble creeds.

Exactly one year before his assassination, during his speech opposing the Vietnam war at Riverside Church in New York City, King concluded that racial oppression was inextricably bound up with poverty and militarism.

“I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values,” he said. “We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

Wanna go? The Ministers’ Conference of Winston-Salem & Vicinity leads a rally in support of $15 an hour for city workers at Winston Square Park, located at 310 N. Marshall St., at 6 p.m. An ecumenical worship service takes place at Goler Memorial AME Zion Church, located at 620 Patterson Ave., at 7 p.m.

At the time of his death, King was organizing the Poor People’s Campaign, an effort that broadened his purview from civil rights to an interracial movement for economic justice, and it was logical that he would go to Memphis to support the sanitation workers strike. As an indication of how relevant King’s vision is today, or perhaps how little progress has been made in the intervening half century, the Ministers’ Conference of Winston-Salem & Vicinity is leading a rally and ecumenical service today to support a $15 an hour minimum wage for city workers.

The mythology around King’s legacy was set in motion before the assassin’s bullet had even found its mark. In King’s final speech, at Masonic Temple in Memphis, he said on the eve of his death: “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!”

Since King’s material death is an indisputable fact, it’s tempting to believe the other half of the couplet — that racial harmony and economic justice lay just over the horizon. The saying often quoted by King — “the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice” — reinforces the myth of a nation redeemed through the sacrifice of a martyr.

It’s both a cliché and true to say that the Dream remains unfulfilled. Unfortunately, King is such an outsized figure that his death has become a kind of historic coda. The string of campaigns that marked King’s relatively short career — from the Montgomery bus boycott through the Birmingham children’s crusade and Selma to the Memphis sanitation workers strike — have a feel of being preserved in ether. It’s as though the dramas that culminated in 1968 were so stunning that we’ve become numb to all the history that unfolded afterwards.

It’s instructive that the historic span since King’s death is equal to the time that passed from the end of World War I to 1968 — an era that included the Great Depression, the New Deal and the establishment of labor law, the defeat of fascism, the Cold War and the civil rights movement, of course. Looking at America’s course after King, it’s hard to see a picture of progress: The stultifying racialized poverty identified by the Kerner Commission remains unaltered, schools have re-segregated, the labor movement has been knocked down, the carceral state has ballooned, the middle class has hollowed out while wealth inequality has exploded, and 9/11 precipitated endless wars abroad and imperial decline. A few bright spots include black electoral representation, increased recognition of the rights of gay and trans people, and professional advancement for women.

History doesn’t stop. Yet strangely, the 1960s can seem more real than the seismic events of the past 50 years. History records that social tensions were coming to a boil in 1968 because of frustration among young people that the Vietnam war had dragged on so long. Yet full-scale military commitment in Vietnam began only in August 1964. How many people even consider that the Afghanistan War has been underway for 16 years now with no end in sight?

Hope is hard-wired into the human psyche, so it’s hard to give up the idea that a promised land was the consolation prize for King’s death. Maybe, instead, we might recognize, like King, that we have the option of being actors in history instead of victims to it.

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