Thursday, September 16, 2010

Vincent Harding on understanding Martin Luther King's "I have a dream"

My friend Vincent Harding has started a blog here with some words on his own spiritual and political vocation. He and Rosemary and their childen had a profound friendship with Martin Luther King and his family. He wrote the initial draft of King’s “A Time to Break Silence” on Vietnam. See here and here. He has long emphasized King's visionary aspect, especially in his last year when King became a kind of nonviolent democratic socialist. These words are of equal and startlingly original importance in King’s questioning and, what Harding calls, astronaut-like development. Vincent uses this metaphor to suggest a democratic territory far beyond where many dedicated but outside the civil rights issue conservative companions like Andrew Young were willing to follow – see Harding’s poetic Martin Luther King, The Inconvenient Hero (Orbis). Vincent has continued, these many years, King's quest for democracy.

Speaking out against American aggression in Vietnam, King knew that Lyndon Johnson would cut off even the minimal protection King had received. King's questioning, he knew, was but for the time to his assassination (a year to the day, April 4, 1968, in Memphis from when he gave the speech at Riverside Church in Harlem, April 4, 1967). Harding reflects deeply and pointedly on how far removed our system of government, even with the miraculous election of Barack Obama, is from awakening the poor, enabling people to speak and be heard by the government without mass revolt and protest.* It is an oligarchy, and in sharp decline. Vincent makes a telling analogy between Glenn Beck’s recent sayings about King and Governor George Wallace. Inflamed by racism, ignoring the violence and degradation King and the civil rights movement challenged, and seeking to harm poor people, Beck and the renamed tea party** allude to King as if they had some understanding of what he meant. They are opposites. They have even less relation to King than to the real and multiracial (black and white sailors and, to a lesser extent artisans) Boston Tea Party. Beck makes millions on Fox television – he does it for the money, as he once said - and is often welcomed by the elite. Only one member of the white Birmingham elite, “lawyer Vann” (a very decent guy) would speak to Martin King during the struggles in Birmingham. In Bach’s Magnificat, Jesus sends the rich tinnily, lingeringly away empty (divites dimisit inanes). In so far as they act like Beck, these "partiers" send themselves emptily away.

Death was King’s near companion from the many assassination attempts stating with bombing his apartment in Montgomery when he was 26 - he had left - until his murder at 39. In the summer of 1964, my friend Andy Goodman was one day in Philadelphia, Mississippi before the Sheriff, the Klan "preacher" Edgar Ray Killen and a mob took him out with James Cheney and Michael Schwerner and slew them. See "Neshoba" here and here and the poem Th ro w n here.

Here are some of Vincent’s words about King’s prophecy:

“King spoke for the hundreds of thousands of mostly black marchers on the mall [1963] and their significant number of white allies gathered at the time, when he declared that ‘Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.’ (For those of us who teach this speech, where might we go with our students if we asked them—and ourselves—what King could have meant by “the promises of democracy,” and what could we mean now?—especially as we look closely in 2010 at our re-segregated, underfunded and often directionless public schools, at our black and brown-filled private prisons, at our still deeply segregated residential communities, our never-ending wars, and their officially sanctioned pillage from the funds required to heal the starkly rising inequalities of our nation, to meet the desperate needs of our poorest children and our wounded mother earth.)”

Racism also functions for the elite, more or less consciously, as a means of divide and rule. The segregation of black and brown people, especially Mexican and Arab prisoners, is linked to the increasing imprisonment, lack of legal aid, and the like for poor whites. The prevalence of blacks on the front lines in Iraq or Afghanistan is linked to the disproportion of rural whites – the extreme foreclosure of peacetime possibilities for one (in joblessness and foreclosures) is linked to the foreclosure of decent possibilities for the other. In addition, as King said in the “Letter from the Birmingham City Jail,” the personalities of the privileged are distorted (Senators Democratic and Republican are particularly good examples, though I except Russ Feingold and Barbara Boxer among others from this judgment). If the poor are attacked and degraded, those who profit and more importantly, look away from the damage they cause, become less than human. As Hegel says in Phenomenology of Spirit, one cannot be recognized as human – ceases to be human - when one so degrades one’s fellow humans. Alternately, white South Africans as the film Invictus shows, became fully human when they renounced apartheid. The Matt Damon character realizes, understanding what Mandela went through and what he became – King and Mandela are comrades in spirit – what it meant for the star rugby player to become a citizen of the new South Africa. On what democracy is, consider also the words of Desmond Tutu at the opening of No Future without Forgiveness on what it meant for South Africans, black and white, to stand together in long lines, the first time as equals, to vote. Democracy, as Abraham Heschel heard in King’s words, his being, and the movement he led, is for all of us. Perhaps it also, as Vincent suggests, unites us with the dead, is in the presence of ancestors.

Vincent has done many things to further democracy, and invite more people, particularly young people, to participate and make it new (Alice Walker's "we are the ones we have been waiting for" is one of his favorite insights). He created the King – Gandhi-Fannie Lou Hamer Center at Iliff School of Theology as well as the Veterans of Hope – King’s word - which will live in America to work for what King and Harding represent, beyond the shining promise and much more limited achievement of Obama, in a long future of struggle. Vincent has recently held meetings with Rene Marie (when she sang the black national anthem at instead of “the” national anthem at Mayor Hickenlooper's 2008 State of the City address in Denver) and on the meaning of Obama’s election. There, he enabled several hundred people, in a wholly integrated crowd, to speak to and sometimes debate – not the same for Native Americans as for blacks, for instance - what this meant to each.

He once asked me to speak to a multi-racial group of teenage writers and visual artists whom he had engaged in a summer class – the Ambassadors of Hope he named this creative colloquium. I read some poems here and here. Vincent remarked that just then, perhaps these teenagers hadn’t heard someone engaged with socialism and anarchism in that way (not quite the period of the Panthers – here - but still many radical words and thoughts are common among young people). Vincent is interested in who each of us is, sharing our narratives. He visits my classes sometimes in nonviolence (I find myself listening to him often with an intensity stronger than even what is involved customarily for me in teaching) and asks each person to give her name, her reasons for being in the course, and her maternal grandmother's name. The linking of the generations - the presence of a history - is profound in this starting point. I often now do the same thing in my classes. In international studies, this question especially brings out the diversity of who is conversing in the class. As opposed to the typical impersonality of lecture classes which aim to associate in some abstract way a grade or number with a name, each person's reality, the hint at a story, makes the class from the outset democratic. Vincent was not in SNCC (though Stokely Carmichael lived with him and Rosemary for a time, and he took, and went further with, ideas drawn from throughout the movement), but this idea - especially for me - honors the SNCC commitment to democracy.

A thoughtful student of mine, Vlad Shchukin, a Russian √©migr√©, raised from the age of 10 in Miami, took seminars on Plato’s Laws and nonviolence with me last year. Following my suggestion, Vlad went to work with Vincent Harding last spring (the King-Gandhi-Hamer Center is right across Warren Street, a stone’s throw, from the Korbel School of International Studies) and worked on programs on John Perdew’s “The Education of a Harvard Man” in Five Points (the center of the black community in Denver), and went to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s 50 year anniversary conference in North Carolina. Perdew organized in SNCC in Southern Georgia (also organized day laborers) - just outside the storm of Philadelphia, Mississippi - and his one man play tells a story that Andy Goodman, too, might have told. Vlad wrote a fine paper on King’s cell in Birmingham and Socrates's in Athens; perhaps this experience made his understanding of these matters more multivocal, multiracial, visceral, and democratic.

Democratic individuality seeks and is part of a long conversation with Vincent and others about democracy. Here is the full post.

Re-Visiting King’s “I Have a Dream” Speech
By Vincent Harding| Published: SEPTEMBER 5, 2010

For a variety of personal and political reasons I have continually chosen to take seriously the deep wisdom shared in 1968 by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of Martin Luther King’s most valued friends, teachers and co-workers. Just months before King’s assassination Heschel introduced his dear brother, comrade and leader to a gathering of rabbis with this unequivocal statement: “The whole future of America will depend on the impact and influence of Dr. King.” Those words come alive for me whenever I find us Americans trying—consciously or otherwise—to lighten the impact and re-make in our own image the tough meaning of this demanding pastor and prophet, avoiding or ignoring the powerful challenges King continues to present to us all.

Nowhere is this escapist process more evident than in our Sunday School-type approach to the iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, beginning with our choosing to forget that it was delivered in a controversial setting identified as a “March for Jobs and Freedom.” Perhaps even more important is what we have determined to ignore (and refuse to teach) from the early, theme-setting portion of the speech. There, remembering the dozens of hard struggles for racial justice that were currently raging across the country, symbolized by the police attack dogs, the battering firehoses and the youth-led nonviolent determination of Birmingham, King spoke for the hundreds of thousands of mostly black marchers on the mall and their significant number of white allies gathered at the time, when he declared that “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.” (For those of us who teach this speech, where might we go with our students if we asked them—and ourselves—what King could have meant by “the promises of democracy,” and what could we mean now?—especially as we look closely in 2010 at our re-segregated, underfunded and often directionless public schools, at our black and brown-filled private prisons, at our still deeply segregated residential communities, our never-ending wars, and their officially sanctioned pillage from the funds required to heal the starkly rising inequalities of our nation, to meet the desperate needs of our poorest children and our wounded mother earth.)

Refusing to lighten up in that early, now neglected part of the speech, encouraged by thousands of “Amens,” “Yes, Lords” and continuing rounds of applause from the sweltering, fully engaged crowd, King said, “Nineteen Sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content, will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual.” Promising no easy, painless victories for democracy, King drove on to predict “There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwind of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.” At the same time, true to his own best spiritual and social convictions concerning the redemptive power of creative nonviolent struggle, King called on all who were committed to a new America to “rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.”

To forget or avoid (or fail to teach?) these words of King is to miss some of the deepest understanding of what Rabbi Heschel meant by “the impact and influence” of this man who loved us so fully and who therefore insisted that we face ourselves and determine to deepen the continuing, absolutely necessary struggle to open our best possibilities for us all, and for our children. Indeed, his references to our children are among the most misused and misunderstood elements of the speech. And as I reflect even further on this speech/sermon/love song-Jeremiad, and on the many unkind cuts it suffers—as well as the enlivening challenges it presents to us all, I remember that my friend, Martin, was only 34 years old when he delivered it on behalf of millions of others. And I recall (we were, with our wives and children, Atlanta-based neighbors and co-workers at the time) that in 1963 he and Coretta had only recently experienced the joy of the birth of their fourth child. Following those memories I knew how important children were to him, how much he regretted his constant absences from the lives of his own beautiful gang. So it is also clear to me that the two major references to children in the speech were not meant to be sentimental throw-away lines. Rather they deserve to be taken (and to be taught) seriously.

As King tried to share the heart of his dream with the gathering in Washington and the millions watching on television (and the countless numbers watching from wherever our ancestors reside) it was natural that he should turn to his children—and all of our children—to clarify his meaning. First, he said, “I have a dream my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

That, of course, has become one of the favorite statements that is cherry-picked from the speech by persons who often seek to avoid acknowledging and dealing with the continuing destructive power of racism in our nation and, therefore, may have missed “the impact and influence” and deep meaning of King’s statement. With that dangerous, light-weighting process in mind, I have lately asked myself and others, how do we really measure the content of a child’s character? How do we measure (I like that word better than “judge”) anyone’s character, including our own? Can we do it without intentionally opening ourselves to each other, without coming close to each other, without sharing one another’s stories, aspirations, hopes and fears? Indeed, can we really measure the content of our own individual character without regularly practicing deep levels of honest self-reflection? In other words, it seems clear to me that King’s dream was offering us no easy way forward, either with our children or ourselves. To explore fully the content of our characters surely requires our best thinking and working, to open that necessary pathway into each other’s lives. To place nurturing, loving hands on the lives of our children.

At the same time, I find that King’s second, dream-sharing statement about children is, interestingly enough, much less currently quoted, but its impact and influence are no less needed to be taken into our lives in 2010. For King, the state of Alabama was very much on his mind when he thought of the children. For not only was that the state in which he had begun his pastoral ministry, his Movement leadership and the co-parenting of their children, but he had come to the March on Washington with deep memories of that year’s hard struggles for democratic social change in Birmingham. At the same time he could not forget Alabama’s governor, George Wallace, who was constantly choosing to represent the deep and deadly commitment to white supremacy and “segregation forever” which was (and still is) present in so many parts of the nation. So it was a personally grounded and audacious act for King to place his dream and his children’s lives into that context, when he said “I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its white governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification [does that mean the same as ‘We must take our country back’?], that one day, right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today!”

Now, nearly half a century later, it seems clear to me that the challenge to realize such a humane dream is worth our deepest thoughts, most imaginative social planning and creatively audacious community-organizing—as well as politically and financially costly local and national policy changes. How do our children, all our children, African-American, many kinds of white children, especially the poor, Latino, Native American, Asian-American, Middle-Eastern—each and all of our magnificently expanding, variously-hued bright band of youthful living hope—how do they all become claimed as “ours” by all of us? How do they all get close enough to each other, on a regular basis, to hold hands long enough to recognize that they are indeed sisters and brothers, children of the great creating Life Force, however we name him/her?

Surely our re-visioned, re-created schools, communities, religious institutions, and democratized civic leadership have some role here. Besides, by now we certainly know that such a children-centered dream as King’s cannot, must not be confined to Alabama, but needs to be brought alive in Oakland, in Denver, in Kalamazoo, in St. Louis, in New Orleans, in Chicago, in Phoenix, in Birmingham, in Philadelphia, in D.C., Baltimore, Providence and Anchorage.

In other words, the challenge exists wherever there are children (with their families and teachers?) living in damaging isolation from their sisters and brothers, from “the promises of democracy.” How do we help them find, identify and hold each other closely? Surely this hard question was a significant part of what King had in mind when he urged the vast multi-racial, multi-generational congregation on the Mall to “Go back to Mississippi; go back to Alabama; go back to Georgia; go back to Louisiana; go back to the slums and ghettos of the northern cities…” He urged them, black and white together, “to walk together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together…. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force, knowing that we will be free one day."

Perhaps King knew that our own as well as our children’s freedom, depended on all of us finding our lost sisters and brothers, discovering our real purpose in life. Perhaps he also knew that it was only in such struggles for our multi-racial, democratic family that we ultimately discover and develop the true content of our character on a personal and national level. Perhaps indeed, Rabbi Heschel was opening such truth, such struggle, such challenges to us all when he later declared that

“The whole future of America will depend on the impact and influence of Dr. King.” So as we teach our children (and ourselves) to prepare for active, costly, thoughtful participation as creative citizens of a multi-racial, democratic, national family, we are compelled to go with King to his deepest levels of hope and struggle, to delve into the transformative possibilities of his dream. As we engage with a world community seeking to rediscover its post-industrial purpose and direction on an endangered Mother Earth, we do well to remember King’s call for compassionate, life-giving “soul force” to replace our own long, crippling dependence on extractive force and death-dealing military power, from the “rockets red glare” to this seemingly unending time of “shock and awe.” Let us instead stand quietly in awe of life itself and of our great national and personal potentials for sharing, building, enhancing life. Perhaps we shall then discover not only the content of our character but the deepest meaning and purpose of our freedom, constantly singing with King and with all the other known and unknown continuing creators of our forever emerging nation, “Free at last, free at last; thank God Almighty, we’re free at last.” And even as we sing, we remember in our ears and in our hearts the sound of the bombs exploding in the Birmingham Church, taking the lives of the young girls, just weeks after the great March. And we know as well that the martyrdom of Medgar Evers and of John F. Kennedy before the year was over were all part of the drama on the mall. And still we sing together. And still we work together. For that unyielding determination to bring a new nation to birth is surely the best measure of the content of our character, and the best sign of the impact and influence of Dr. King.

(Now, a final, loving word to my dear friends, the teachers everywhere: Please be sure to ask your students what freedom means in 2010—for children, for adults, for the American nation, for the world community. And perhaps you might let them hear your own answers, your own dreams. What a beautiful exchange! Perhaps we all may even discover the meaning and power of “soul force” in the 21st century. What a great promise! Fannie Lou, Ella, Martin and Dr. Thurman.*** Do you see us? We’re on our way. And we won’t turn back.)

Vincent Harding


*I wouldn’t underestimate the democratic spirit of the Obama campaign. One white campaign worker in a mainly black area was approached by two young men, dreads and tattoos, about whom he felt some trepidation. They thanked him from the heart for working on the campaign and gave him a hug. Their democratic spirit of hope united and engaged this white man beyond, except in the abstract, what he had known about life before. In their greeting, the two also created for themselves a deeper sense of what it means to be human.

I live in the mountains southeast of Denver – a district that had elected the virulent racist Tom Tancredo as its Congressional Representative. 17 people including me and my wife showed up for the Democratic caucuses in 2004 (as the American elite has gone increasingly off the cliff to the Right, I have occasionally worked for Democrats - not being one - to restore for example the rule of law - see here). 350 showed up in 2008 to vote on Barack v. Hillary. There was one black family. 5 caucuses of roughly 70 people each. The closest vote Hillary got was 58 to 12. The whole district voted for Obama because his words embodied hope. It was a celebration to be at that meeting. The caucus was in February. If that meeting could occur in the mountains, what was happening in the country was clear.

Obama's Presidency has sadly and deliberately weakened this movement, which will not simply revive in the mid-term elections. Even Obama has made himself - to some large extent - into a (corrupt, cautious) Democrat. At most (as a flickering hope), faced with a radically diminished voting pool, the Democrats seek to squeak by, retain frail majorities...

**The New York Times promptly reported the change of name from the ludicrous tea-baggers in a way that the editors would never do for a leftist or democratic movement from below.

***Fannie Lou Hamer, from Ruleville, Georgia, was a great leader of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party which forced, by its resistance to the racist Mississippi delegation in 1964, the gradual democratization of the Democratic Party. Ella Baker was one of the most forceful leaders of the NAACP who promoted and protected the independence of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Dr. Howard Thurman, a great political philosopher and theologian, travelled to see Gandhi who shared with him the thought that American blacks could make nonviolence a world wide presence, and taught Martin Luther King at Boston University.

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