It’s been over 40 years since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death. In mainstream media and dominant rhetoric, Dr. King is seen as a “black leader” who embodied the civil rights movement. While I’m not going to claim that I know everything about the civil rights movement, I do know that Dr. King was a much more complex individual than the way mainstream media portrays him. One facet of his complexity was his tendency to prophesize. I was listening to an old episode (around October of 2006) of Real Time with Bill Maher and musician/actor/social activist Harry Belafonte commented on the smuttiness of the 2006 mid-term election campaigns by referring to something Dr. King told him before he was assassinated – something that Harry felt was very prophetic and the prophecy that I see occurring today.
Before Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, he told Harry that he felt everything that they had fought for during the civil rights movement was not living up to his expectations. He was worried that we, as black people, were heading towards integration and integrating into a “burning house”. When Harry Belafonte pressed him on that, Dr. King essentially said that America had lost its moral compass and even its soul. This may strike many people as very odd because we are constantly told that Dr. King fought for integration when the truth is more complex than that. In speaking out against the Vietnam War, he said,
“It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor — both black and white — through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam and I watched the program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.”
His speaking out against the war in Vietnam would have negative repercussions. The press ridiculed him. People within the black community felt he got too big for his britches by going fighting for civil rights and getting involved in the peace and anti-poverty movements. He was even dis-invited from the White House, the same place where he stood and watched President Lyndon Johnson sign the Civil Rights Act into law in 1964. While we all honor Dr. King every year on his birthday, many hated him when he died.
Fast forward to 2008. This nation is involved in an unjust, illegal, imperialistic and immoral war in Iraq while the economy is in horrible shape, millions of people are without healthcare and the cycle of urban despair continues in America’s inner cities. As a black male who went to an at-risk, inner city school district, the latter issue is extremely important and personal to me. Every week I step out of the Stanford bubble to go tutor in East Palo Alto, I feel like I’m stepping into, both, another world and a time machine. On the one hand, the class differences between Palo Alto and East Palo Alto are so apparent that it’s not even funny and, on the other hand, all the kids I see – mainly black, Latino and Pacific Islander, no white kids – remind of the kids I grew up with. And, in some respects, I’m reminded of myself. It saddens me to witness the same nihilistic attitude towards life, the glorification of gang culture characterized by gang tags and the laziness towards school among such as sweet children. Such social inequality and urban despair is not a new phenomenon. It’s a tragic part of American history and the ugly side of American capitalism.
Not only is social inequality a part of the broader American political-economic system but so is war. The nation was founded on the genocide of an entire group of people – the Native Americans – all cloaked under the phrase “Manifest Destiny”. In order to fund such expansion and become a world power, America enslaved millions of black Africans in order to provide labor for its monopolization of cotton, an important cash crop that was an integral part in creating the American hegemon we know today. Couple that with the Spanish-American War of 1898, the Vietnam War, the multiple American interventions in various countries throughout the Cold War, and the present-day war in Iraq and it’s easy to see that war and conquest are deeply ingrained in American history, foreign policy, society and the broader American psyche. Today, this nation spends far more on death and destruction than social uplift – resulting in the deaths of millions of people and a massive amount of human suffering. This is the “burning house” that Dr. King was talking about.
Amidst all this, many people just go with the flow of things. A combination of brainwashing by the American corporate media and preoccupation with superficial needs and wants keep the American people from really rising up to challenging the reigning system and powers-that-be. Materialism, consumerism, the desire for power, the urge to climb the corporate ladder in American society, among other things, keep us trapped in this burning house. Am I asserting that every American is brainwashed, selfish and stupid? No, but I do want to point out that the way the American socio-political landscape operates keeps the masses of people too preoccupied to instigate real change. Sure, people vote (well, some people vote) but no election has really succeeded in ridding America, or even the world, of the deeply ingrained plagues of racism, militarism, poverty, materialism and other forms of dehumanization and destruction. Such drastic change must come from the bottom, not the top.
There is hope for humanity. Every major social movement has occurred from the bottom: the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the women’s rights movement, the end of British imperialism in India, and so on. No one single protest or anti-war meeting will change the world in an instant. People who want to get involved in social movements fall into the trap of thinking, “I’ll go to this one protest and go home. That’s enough to save the world.” While it is important that we all tend to our lives, in order to achieve real social change and real liberation from this ugly world we live, the mentality has to be “I’m going to this protest, then go back home to take care of my individual needs and then go to another protest or social justice meeting because I’m in it for the long haul.” Real social change demands real dedication, real measurable goals and a sense of foolishness to believe that YOU can change the world. If every member of the human race recognizes their interconnectedness with every other human being on this planet, we can truly change the world and create a better place for ourselves, our children, and our grandchildren. While Dr. King may not get to the Promised Land with us, let’s escape the burning house and pave the way to the Promised Land together. Either we get there together or we perish together.