Last August, just as the new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial was to be unveiled on the National Mall and in the wake of the debt ceiling debacle, philosopher Cornel West wrote a New York Times op-ed, Dr. King Weeps From His Grave. West excoriated President Barack Obama and his administration for failing to address this country’s truly pressing issues of poverty and economic injustice:
The age of Obama has fallen tragically short of fulfilling King’s prophetic legacy. Instead of articulating a radical democratic vision and fighting for homeowners, workers and poor people in the form of mortgage relief, jobs and investment in education, infrastructure and housing, the administration gave us bailouts for banks, record profits for Wall Street and giant budget cuts on the backs of the vulnerable.
In the absence of such a vision, of a “King-worthy narrative to reinvigorate poor and working people,” West wrote that “right-wing populists” seized the moment to push through tax cuts while advancing “ridiculous claims” about how these would spur economic growth. He called for what King himself would have, for “revolution,” for something other than the majestic marble monument created to honor King.
That monument was both lauded and criticized at its unveiling. Some five months later, a quotation carved in the marble is being changed. The inscription currently reads “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness” and is a much-shortened version of King’s words in a sermon known as the “Drum Major Instinct,” in which he told his Atlanta congregation how he would like to be remembered at his funeral. Poet Maya Angelou said that the shortened version of the quote made King sound like an “arrogant twit.” These are King’s own words:
“Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”
King made the speech in February 1968, two months before his assassination in Memphis, Tennessee. Looking at the complete version, I’m hard-pressed to see how the shortened version — utterly lacking King’s characteristic rolling cadences — could have been offered as a quotation. There can be no substitutes for his own powerful words.
An even more significant change has occurred in the past five months since West wrote that “King weeps from his grave.” Back in August, this is how West described the revolution the needed to happen:
…a revolution in our priorities, a re-evaluation of our values, a reinvigoration of our public life and a fundamental transformation of our way of thinking and living that promotes a transfer of power from oligarchs and plutocrats to everyday people and ordinary citizens.
West’s words now seem prophetic. A national sense of dissatisfaction with the status quo of rising inequality between the haves and the have-notes helped to fuel the Occupy protests that began last fall and continue even now in the cold of winter. The revolution that West spoke of has become real, not merely rhetoric.
The question remains, how to keep it real? How can we create real change in lives of the the 99 percent, while adhering to King’s legacy of non-violent, peaceful protest in the name of social justice, economic justice and an equal place at the table for all?
Just over a week ago, I was fortunate to hear West speak.
Photo of King at the Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. in August of 1963 from Wikimedia Commons
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