Cornel West on MLK Jr, Catastrophe and Revolution (video)


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. I was at an academic conference for professors of Classics of the ancient Mediterranean world of the Greeks and Romans, in Philadelphia. Such a venue may seem like an unusual one to hear West — a political theologian who practices what he preaches — speak; it is the case that I (and he himself) were among the few persons of color at the conference. West had been invited to speak on a panel about “Race and Reception” in which two recent books were featured, one about African American writers and the classical tradition and the other entitled Afro-Greeks, on Anglophone Caribbean literature. West spoke about Socrates and about why he himself turns often to the Greeks because they are a “people sensitive to catastrophe.”

Catastrophe is a topic West has often spoken of and one that speaks powerfully to many of us in a time of economic downturn and political paralysis. In his August op-ed, West had written of the four catastrophes King himself had identified: militarism (“an imperial catastrophe that has produced a military-industrial complex and national security state”); materialism (“a spiritual catastrophe, promoted by a corporate media multiplex and a culture industry that have hardened the hearts of hard-core consumers”); racism (“a moral catastrophe, most graphically seen in the prison industrial complex and targeted police surveillance in black and brown ghettos rendered invisible in public discourse”); poverty (“an economic catastrophe, inseparable from the power of greedy oligarchs and avaricious plutocrats indifferent to the misery of poor children, elderly citizens and working people”).

Certainly we are no near anything like a solution or even a partial remedy to any of these catastrophes. Yet, after re-reading West’s words from back in August and after hearing him speak about what the ancient Greeks can still teach us, I felt both overwhelmed and hopeful. I could not help but think that, fifty years ago, the idea of him — an African American philosopher — speaking to a room full of scholarly erudites more used to learned exchanges about Egyptian papyri and the role of the military tribune in the late Roman Republic and now numbering among them some  classicists of color — that such a scene would have been considered not simply inconceivable, but impossible and even absurd.

It goes without saying that there is much more to do to create a just and equal world for all individuals of all races, ethnicities, genders, religions, socio-economic classes, disabilities. In remembering Martin Luther King, Jr., perhaps a fitting way to honor his vision is to acknowledge how far the civil rights movement has come, even as we recognize how much we have to do to claw our way out of the catastrophes that face us now and to create a world in which the voices of “everyday and ordinary citizens” are heard and harkened to, in which King’s words are not chiseled (incorrectly) into stone but enacted by us in the sometimes glorious, sometimes heartbreaking struggle of our daily lives.


Related Care2 Coverage

Feed the Dream Project Honors Martin Luther King, Jr.

Memphis May Finally Name City Street After King

Occupy Supreme Court: Cornel West Arrested (video)

The Failed Dream of the MLK Jr. National Memorial



Photo of King at the Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. in August of 1963 from Wikimedia Commons

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Eternal Gardener
Eternal Gardener3 years ago


Eugene Windchy
Eugene Windchy3 years ago

Larry, you are misinformed. Obama never has submitted a budget. He only makes a speech. Then the Congressional Budget Office says it cannot score a speech. Too vague. As I mentioned here earlier, Obama has the Office of Management and Budget with nearly 600 employees. Yet he never comes up with an actual budget, and he says it's the Congress's job to make budgets. So the Republican House passes a budget, and then the Democrat Senate, under Harry Reid, refuses to vote on it. The Democrat Senate has not passed a budget in nearly three years! Why is it people like Larry do not know this? Because the major news media, other than Fox, cover for Obama. They are part of the scam.

Robert Hardy
Robert Hardy3 years ago

How soon we forget. How sad we forget. MLK should be a tattoo on everyone's heart. He fought for us all.

LARRY H.3 years ago

President Obama is being blamed for a lot of things he has no control over. He has submitted budgets and the republicans have blocked everything he has tried to do. The President cannot legislate people into creating jobs. A lot of people try to endow the President with more power then he actually has. The President can only do what the house and the senate will let him do. If you have part of the government constantly blocking you, there is only so much you can do. Even at that the President has accomplished quite a bit, but the republicans don't want to give him credit for doing anything. Things will only get better when the people we elected, start to work to benefit the people who elected them.

Michael C.
Michael C.3 years ago

Well, I see that Diane 000 is back from haunting the halls of Homeland of probably know them by their catchy slogan...
"Keeping America Safe from Freedom and Democracy for over 10 years."

Welcome back, Diane 000, it was soooo quiet during those days of your absence, but I should not be selfish. While you were gone, my mind set off in wonder. What poor soul were you delivering up to the devil, for those 30 pieces of silver.

I am sure that you were attempting to make your words are compelling, actually when I read them I think you meant to be coercive. "Obamas claim to fame was that he was a Saul Alinsky "special" a "community organizer." Community organizers in Saul Alinsky's book "Rules for Radicals" are the agitators in a black community."

Alinsky wrote:

"What follows is for those who want to change the world from what it is to what they believe it should be.
The Prince was written by Machiavelli for the Haves on how to hold power.
The Rules for Radicals is written for the Have-Nots on how to take it away."

Yes, Diane O, the people utilized the Rules for Radicals to properly win the last election, we need not follow the path of evil, after all, the devil is over there in the corner, ready to laugh.

One of the greatest blessing of Saul works is that it is able to shape change, before your very eyes.
Don't expect us to use the exact same tactics in the next election, but do expect us to utilize Sauls Rules for Radicals. Game over!!

Winn Adams
Winn Adams3 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Marlene Dinkins
Marlene Dinkins3 years ago

thankyou for the article

Eugene Windchy
Eugene Windchy3 years ago

Marilyn, you need a new source of news. You are being grossly misinformed. Obama says it's the Congress's job to prepare the budget, although he has the Office of Management and Budget with nearly 600 employees (what are they doing for their pay?). Then, when the Republican House passes a budget, the Democrat Senate refuses to vote on it. The Senate has not passed a budget for almost three years! That's Republican obstructionism? As for the subprime crsis, this was caused by the Democrats who passed the Community Reinvestment Act. It requires banks to make subprime loans. I remember Janet Reno threatening to sue banks which did not make such loans. Then Democrats at Fannie Mae bought the loans wholesale and gave themselves multi-million dollar bonuses for doing so. Now Fannie Mae is I don't know how many billions of dollars in the red. As another means of coping with the subprime loans, Wall Street banks bundled them with good loans to fool people. That was reprehensible. But Democrats started this mess and profited from it.

Marilyn L.
Marilyn L.3 years ago

It really amazes the people who take swats like this at President Obama. We have seen what this President can do; even with the obstruction of the Republicans. Why people cannot see who is to blame for our situation and it not improving faster is beyond me. It’s truly astounding what he has accomplished during the past 3+ years with the obstruction. Oh yes, and let’s not forget it was many of those complaining, who would show the President how unhappy they were by not voting in the midterms or voting without thinking (I’m being kind) that gave him an ultra right House to work with. You showed him alright!?!? What you did was screw the American people.

The Republicans are directly to blame for what Bush left President Obama and the American people. We can even trace much of the bad decision and policy making back to Reagan. Since Reagan we had a pretty good run for 8 years under Democrat President Clinton; then GWB and disaster. The Republican Party has allowed itself to be taken over by the radical far right and in that group are a bunch of closeted and not so closeted racist and bigots.

You want to see progress than vote President Obama a new term and vote out of office as many Republicans that you can at all levels of government and in particular Congress.

Penny C.
Penny C.3 years ago

Thank you.