Dr. King is one of Wrongo’s few heroes. He set an example for activism and success in the political arena that few other activists have matched, except for the founders of our Republic. Maybe that is why he is one of only two individuals (George Washington is the other) who have their names attached to a federal holiday.
In the 1950’s and 1960’s, MLK transformed America. In the ‘50’s , America was a place where you didn’t question why we did things the way we did, you just followed your parents. By the end of the ‘60’s we were questioning everything. We changed a few things, and by the 1970s, many of us were living under a very different set of social mores than those of our parents.
MLK, along with others in our churches and a courageous few politicians created a real “moral majority” (not the phony ideal espoused by Jerry Falwell 25 years later), comprised of people of all races, educational and economic strata who came together to support the Big Idea that Separate was not Equal. MLK gave voice to that Big Idea.
His presence, power and persuasiveness drove our political process to a place and to an outcome in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. These ideas were completely unthinkable 10 years earlier in 1954, when Brown vs. Board of Education was decided by the Supreme Court.
Wrongo participated in the Civil Rights movement from 1958 to 1962. That participation changed my viewpoint on race, religion and politics. Sadly, and wrongly, Wrongo left active participation in the movement, thinking that Dr. King’s Big Idea had taken hold, and that it permanently altered our political landscape.
Yet here we are in 2016, with all of the New Deal and Great Society reforms under attack.
Here is something Wrongo guarantees you have never heard. It is a 1986 recording by Eartha Kitt detailing Dr. King’s activism, his many, many arrests, and the few attempts on his life before he was killed in Memphis on April 4, 1968. Kitt made an album called “My Way: Musical Tribute to Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.” with The Black Academy of Arts & Letters (TBAAL), the nation’s largest African-American cultural arts institution. Here is Ms. Kitt, not singing, but speaking about MLK:
Those of you who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.
It is clear from that recitation that MLK paid a high price for his beliefs. Ms. Kitt also paid a price for hers. In 1968, during LBJ’s administration, Kitt made anti-war statements at a White House luncheon. When Lady Bird Johnson asked her about Vietnam, Eartha replied:
You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed. No wonder the kids rebel and take pot.
She had trouble finding work after that. Whatever you may think of her talents, it is contemptible that she was branded “a sadistic nymphomaniac” by the CIA. This was in the late 1960s, not the 1940s.
Today, the mass movement type of activism is dead. In our current political climate, holding large rallies rarely results in political change. Most people just send a tweet, and think they’ve accomplished something. The failure of demonstrations today is a symptom of a failure in our democracy. And the way the Occupy Movement was forcibly removed from American cities makes it difficult for anyone to want to engage in civil disobedience.
Consider how quick the police are to shoot unarmed black men today. How long would MLK be able to demonstrate, or drive his car, or march to Montgomery before being shot, not by an assassin, but by the police on the streets of America today?
Our founders wrote the Constitution in a way that explicitly provides for “the right of the people peaceably to assemble”. Despite that protection, legislation in cities across America has chipped away at those rights in the name of public safety. Along with this erosion of rights, comes the military-style weapons and tactics, the pepper spray and temporary suspension of civil rights that we saw in NYC, Ferguson. MO, and Oakland CA.
Today America urgently needs a political movement with a forceful, charismatic leader.
Someone who can tie together the various threads of what is wrong in our society. Someone who can show us how these things are interrelated, and who can point us in a direction that could restore our now-fading civil rights and our middle class.
MLK remains the hero of a generation of Americans for whom activism was a building block of their personal journey to adulthood.
In most ways, our nation has never recovered that sense of can-do, or that all things are possible for your Big Idea. Today there is no one like MLK who can rally us to drive Big Ideas to reality.