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martin luther king memorial

As the date for the Martin Luther King Memorial dedication approaches, I am finding ways to convince myself that I should be excited and inspired. I think about the extraordinary life of the man whose speeches my mother made me recite when I was 12, and how Dr. King’s intellect was accompanied by the courage and action necessary to impact a nation. Although I wouldn’t dare compare myself with this amazing man, I can say that Dr. King’s commitment to putting his academic and spiritual training to work for the masses serves as a perpetual model for nearly everything I do each day.

But there’s another part of me that becomes saddened and even disgusted by our decision to celebrate Dr. King’s life in a way that would probably insult him. Economic inequality has actually worsened over time, and the very politicians who claim to admire the life of Dr. King are quick to urinate on the ideals for which he stood. In fact, I venture to say that if he were alive, King would not attend this ceremony himself.

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As it stands today, Black male unemployment is now over 40 percent in many urban areas, African Americans are being incarcerated at holocaust proportions, and inner city children are leaving school without even learning how to read. All the while, the political predators who care nothing for our issues are more than happy to stand and smile at the dedication ceremony for a man they would ignore and ridicule if he were alive right now. The truth is that they are glad to honor Dr. King with a memorial, as long as both he and his spirit remain in the grave.

We commemorate the life of Dr. King without having the license to do so, like the pastor who recites the word of God as he molests his children and cheats on his wife. We don’t deserve Dr. King, and our decision to memorialize him while rejecting him is entirely reflective of the hypocrisy to which our nation has become accustomed. One must also wonder how Dr. King might feel about a country that continues to oppress the people he claimed to represent. We can’t profess to love a man and simultaneously destroy the people he cares about the most.

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African Americans may also want to take a moment to reflect on why we are very quick to get excited about America’s commemoration of Dr. King (we unfortunately still need white American validation to feel entirely human), but remember almost nothing about the life of Malcolm X. Most of us know that without Malcolm, there would be no Martin, but Martin had the unfortunate job of presenting a less-digestible form of Black leadership. But by accepting Dr. King’s message of integration while forgetting Malcolm’s message of economic independence, we’ve effectively committed ourselves to a more sophisticated form of slavery.  As a result, we scream about chronic unemployment without having a clue as to how to create our own jobs. We also find that the milk and honey dream of integration has become nothing more than a nightmare of second-class citizenship.

The point here is not to say that the King Memorial is a waste of time and money. It’s to remind all of us that we must deeply reflect on the state of the world around us, reclaiming our collective reality without pompous and empty celebration. Substance must be valued over style, and the duel Pyrrhic victories of having a Black president and a memorial for Dr. Martin Luther King must be balanced with a clear assessment of exactly what’s happening in our country. The monument for Dr. King must not be made of granite — it must be a monument of the mind in which all of us seek to understand and IMPLEMENT the ideals for which Dr. King gave his life.

Right now, the imagery of a Martin Luther King memorial is as false as a church built in the middle of a brothel. We must earn the right to honor Dr. King in the same way that a man must complete his course work in order to put a degree on his wall. Dr. King gave us an assignment many decades ago, and we have failed miserably. So, it is out of respect for Dr. Martin Luther King and his memory that I will pass on the dedication ceremony altogether.

Dr. Boyce Watkins is as Professor at Syracuse University and founder of the Your Black World Coalition.  To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here

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