MLK50: Beyond dreams and promises

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by Rev. Earle J. Fisher
Special to The New Tri-State Defender

People from all over the globe have had April 4th 2018 marked on their calendar for a long time.  And while many in Memphis highlighted the date as well, those of us who have been on the ground or involved in the political developments here over the past few years conceded that MLK50 would be incapable of solving all of our city and country’s problems.

We knew that the eyes of the nation and world would be on Memphis and it was our responsibility to do all we could to make sure the truth about how far we have or have not come would be told.  By any means necessary.

We knew that in spite of any public relations campaign to the contrary, the majority of Memphians, and Black Americans in general, had not progressed much at all.  As Sharon Austin points out, “Poverty is still too common in the U.S. In 1968, 25 million Americans — roughly 13 percent of the population — lived below poverty level. In 2016, 43.1 million — or more than 12.7 percent — do.”

Clearly, King’s dream and vision of the promised land has not resulted in a beloved community devoid of racism, classism, and extreme militarism.

Even after April 4th, 2018, in most cities with a high number of black and brown people, it will still be easier to get a gun or drugs than it is to get a job with a livable wage, an adequate public education, or access to the ballot box.  King’s landmark legislative victory was the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.  Yet, over 50 years later voter suppression is far too common.  According the Brenan Center for Justice’s recent Voting Laws Roundup, “lawmakers in eight states have introduced at least 16 bills making it harder to vote, and 35 restrictive bills in 14 states have carried over from previous legislative sessions. If passed, the laws would increase restrictions on voter registration and limit early and absentee voting opportunities, among other changes.”

These are the realities that King continues to call from the grave for us to change.

One strategy we’ve sought to implement in the past 12 months to offset some of this injustice is the reclamation of King’s less notable speeches and quotes.  One of King’s least familiar pieces is his final public sermon, “Remaining Awake Through A Great Revolution.”  King was admonishing us to #StayWoke in 1968.

And past is prologue.

This is the sermon about Dives the Rich Man, who went to hell because, according to King, “he sought to be a conscientious objector in the war against poverty.”  This conclusion is a theological stretch, which is not uncommon for King.  Luke 16:19-31 does not project Dives as conscientiously objecting to the poor, necessarily.  It does present him as indifferent to the poor.  His wealth (or access to resources), his privilege if you will, placed him in a predicament whereby he preferred charity over justice.  We see so much of this sentiment from the rich, wealthy, and politically privileged today.  Charity allows us to tip beggars out of pity or employ them with slave wages and claim we’ve made substantial progress.  Justice demands that we change the conditions that make people poor, thus providing the economic empowerment and healthcare access that feeds our stomachs and treats our sores.

King uses this text, primarily, as a platform to promote his Poor People’s Campaign.  He righteously defends his commitment to aggressive, radical confrontation through direct action. He acknowledges then what we must continue to acknowledge today, our racist structure and unjust system “doesn’t move around questions of genuine equality for the poor and for black people until it is confronted massively, dramatically in terms of direct action.”  Now, there’s a MLK quotable we won’t find in any governmental publications.

King is explicit regarding poor and black people – yes, black specifically.  King said it. This is a pivotal point for us moving forward, especially in Memphis.   While it is important to note the numerical majority of those experiencing poverty are white (which makes sense since white people are the numeric majority in the country), the Institue for Research on Poverty highlights, at 24.1 percent, “the poverty rate among blacks is more than two times greater than the 11.4 percent poor rate for whites.”

King also affirms our need to consistently confront the political establishment. This too is critically important as we chart our path forward.  Social justice initiatives such as those King advocated for must be maximized by progressive policy support.  However, in spite of all the fanfare that has been associated with MLK50, the Memphis and Shelby County administrations failed to put together any concrete policy proposals to offset the current realities – in spite of recommendations provided in January.

What this sermon shows is King’s theo-political maturation beyond a dream into an uncompromising demand for the fulfillment of a promise.

A political revolution is, again, upon us.  The Poor People’s Campaign has been revived.  And again, we must be reminded to #StayWoke.  We cannot suppress our way out of poverty.  We cannot incarcerate our way into public safety.   These are mythical dreams and broken promises that continue to contaminate our community.  In the spirit of King, we deserve and must demonstrate for better conditions.  The plight of our people will drastically change for the better, only when we demand more than dreams from civic leaders and push for more than promises from political leaders.

(The Rev. Earle J. Fisher is senior pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church and lead organizer of the Memphis/Shelby County Voter Collaborative.)