Wednesday, January 20, 2010

King: `Now is the Time to Make Real the Promise'

King: `Now is the Time to Make Real the Promise'


By James Carroll


Boston Globe

January 18, 2010


The great Martin Luther King Jr. address of 1963 at the

Lincoln Memorial is remembered as the "I have a dream''

speech. But King spoke an even more compelling line

that day: "When will you be satisfied?'' It was the

question that had so often been put to him and his

fellow "devotees of Civil Rights,'' and it carried the

accusation that he was a malcontent - never happy with

the incremental progress offered to black Americans, as

if the shift from slavery to Jim Crow should have been

enough. "No!'' he answered.


King launched the civil rights movement, but was not

satisfied - because he saw that racial discrimination

was embedded in violence. Therefore he drew the link

with the nation's violence in Vietnam. He then brought

together powerful movements opposing racism and war -

but still he was not satisfied. He saw how the brew of

racism and violence was essential to poverty, and he

recast the movement again, launching the Poor Peoples'

Campaign. Yes, a class revolt, and it got him killed.

"No! No! We are not satisfied!'' he had declared in

Washington, "And we will not be satisfied until justice

rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream!''


If King were with us today, one imagines him speaking

less of dreams and more of dissatisfaction. For

starters, he might eschew the word "poor'' in favor of

"impoverished,'' since poverty is not a natural state,

but the result of social structures, policies, and

market systems tilted to protect the privilege of a few

at the expense of many. That's more clear this year

than ever. In the four decades since King's murder, it

is true that doors have opened to African-Americans,

even including the door to the White House. Wouldn't

that leave him satisfied? But one hears the answer,

"No! No!'' And then that rolling cadence, the prophetic

voice denouncing, say, the vast American prison

population, disproportionately made up of young black

males, most of whom are guilty not of violent acts, but

of the crime of, well, being dissatisfied. Rather than

educate or motivate such malcontents, and rather than

address the conditions that condemn them to

dissatisfaction, America would rather snatch them from

the streets and lock them up.


Since King's time, the free markets have gone global,

and now vast populations of humans have been declared

redundant. Having made connections between civil

rights, domestic poverty, and US wars, King can be

readily pictured today making further connections with

the cast-aways abroad - the impoverished masses who

have been declared superfluous by the world economy.

The catastrophe of Haiti would be no mere symbol of

global inequity to King. He was attuned to the real

suffering of individual human beings, and would be part

of the effort to alleviate it there. But would he be

satisfied with the compassion of the moment? Moral

sentiment unattached to structural analysis, and to

changes in systemic causes of poverty, is worse than

useless. The Haiti earthquake might be deemed an act of

God, but King would rage at any characterization of the

foundational Haitian plight that left out historical

factors like slavery and colonialism, or the defining

contemporary influence of the United States, which,

across the years since King's death, has, in relation

to Haiti, defiled the meaning of neighbor.


What is the key to King's greatness? It was his

ferocious dissatisfaction that fueled his capacity to

dream, and to articulate his dream in a way that made

its fulfillment possible. Yes, King's dream did come

true when Barack Obama took the oath as president one

year ago this week. But equally, King's dream, even in

coming true, continually fired his refusal to be

satisfied. No! No! King would be a malcontent today:

"When will you be satisfied?'' And today, Haiti would

define his answer. His burning unhappiness on behalf of

that benighted nation would ignite his urgency and his

action. " Now is the time to make real the promises,''

he said in Washington. "Now is the time to open the

doors of opportunity to all of God's children.'' In

nearby Haiti we glimpse the far distance that separates

this world from justice. Now is the time to close it.


James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.


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