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