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It only makes sense that we show respect for those who have chosen to participate in the Martin Luther King Memorial Dedication ceremonies this week. Millions of Americans truly appreciate the legacy of Dr. King, and their involvement in the ceremony is reflective of this sentiment. So, my desire not to participate in the commemoration is out of respect for Dr. King’s principles, but with full understanding of those who choose to disagree.

As a people, I argue that too few of us possess the passionate desire to fight the tough battles necessary to see Dr. King’s dream come to fruition. No differently from those who attend church every Sunday vs. those who do the hard work to live a good Christian life, America gives us a license to embrace rampant hypocrisy. America has not taken very many steps to fulfill the dreams of Dr. King and in some ways, we are worse off than we were when he was alive. It is for this reason that I question our decision to celebrate the building of a group of granite statues paid for by those who continue to treat Black people as second-class citizens.

It is because of my concern for this hypocrisy that I’ve chosen to stay home on the day that the Dr. King Memorial is dedicated. I am not sure if Dr. King would attend this ceremony himself if he were alive today. I speculate that instead, he might be spending the week protesting on Wall Street, fighting for labor rights or battling the epidemic of mass incarceration.

Here are a few questions I think Dr. King might ask about this memorial if he were alive today:

Dr. King Question #1: Is there anything better we could do with that $120 million dollars, given that 40% of all Black children are in poverty?

The MLK memorial is going to cost a cool $120 million. That’s enough to pay $10,000 on the mortgages of 12,000 Americans who’ve lost their homes from foreclosure and predatory lending, enough to buy a meal for 24 million hungry children, or enough to pay the salaries of 2,400 inner city school teachers who’ve lost their jobs due to budget cuts. I’ve always been impressed with Dr. King because he seemed to work to embrace the spirit of Jesus, another revolutionary who was rarely welcome into anyone’s fancy church. Although not a perfect man, Dr. King fought for the poor, stood up for children, and did what was right without concern for the consequences.

If Jesus were walking the earth today, he wouldn’t want us to build another temple or statue in his honor. Instead, he might ask us to stay home and do God’s work instead. While Dr. King is certainly not Jesus Christ, he is a man with enough integrity that I believe he would reject this corporate memorial in the same way that he would not accept a BET Award being presented by Lil Wayne.

Like those men who are conditioned to have sex with any beautiful woman who offers it, some of us are also tempted to accept awards and honors from anyone who gives us a little money and fame. Being honored in this way is good for the ego, but not so good for the soul. So, there are some situations where it might be best to just walk away.

Dr. King Question #2: Why is Walmart on the list of major donors for the monument, in spite of the fact that they are entirely disrespectful of my positions on labor rights?

Walmart, who gave a full 10% of the funds necessary to build the King Memorial (they actually signed the first letter of credit that opened the door for the monument to be built), has a long list of multi-billion dollar labor and human rights violations that have served to make the company into the economic behemoth that it has become today. They’ve been connected with numerous sweatshops around the world, their workers are underpaid and not allowed to unionize, and they’ve been accused of massive amounts of racial and gender discrimination. If Dr. King were alive today, he’d be standing in front of Walmart with a picket sign, not asking them for money to build a statue.

I came face-to-face with Walmart power when we fought on behalf of Heather Ellis, the college student who was going to get 15 years in prison after cutting line in one of their stores. I watched as the host of a major Black radio show seemed to throw Heather’s life and future under the bus because Walmart was one of his major corporate sponsors. I also watched as Walmart (a company that is notorious for having intense camera security) “accidentally” lose the video footage showing Heather being slammed to the ground by police outside the store.

As a Finance Professor, I can tell you that Capitalism 101 teaches us that the King Memorial is an easy investment for Walmart if their $12.5 million dollar donation compensates for the billions they’ve stolen from all of humanity with egregious labor practices. Also, how many Black folks lost their jobs and livelihoods after the massive BP oil spill in the Gulf Coast last summer?  The memorial is being built on money from BET, which has created an entire generation of anti-intellectual Black youth and (admitted by Sheila Johnson, the founder’s wife) even served to fuel the Black HIV epidemic by promoting a lifestyle of sexual irresponsibility with non-stop booty-shaking videos.  Accepting money from corporate crooks to build a memorial for Dr. King is no different from praising the local drug dealer for giving away a few toys at Christmas.

Dr. King Question #3: Do you even have a clue about what my dream really means and do you really think it’s anywhere near being fulfilled?

Dr. King fought for American equality in all areas that mattered, including education, economics, and incarceration, among others. As it stands, African Americans continue to be oppressed in ways that would make David Duke blush. Black children are not being educated, the wealth gap has grown to a level almost as high as when Dr. King was alive, Black unemployment is the highest that it’s been in a quarter-century and there are more Black men in prison than there were enslaved back in 1865.

Whose dream is this?

I also could not help but notice that the words “racism” and “Black” were completely left out of the list of quotes that were placed on the King memorial.  Was this deliberate?  Did the organizers not realize that racial justice was an important part of King’s work, or is he just another white liberal who should host a show on MSNBC?

Dr. King Question #4: Why have people come to value style over substance?

What should a series of Walmart statues and monuments really mean to us anyway? Our anxious, knee-jerk reaction to symbolic signs of respect is in deep contrast to the fact that Black folks are rarely willing to collectively fight for any meaningful cause.  Like our teenage children, we’ve become addicted to status symbols and somehow use these symbols to give us the humanity that has been denied us for the last 400 years.

Any corporation being allowed to donate to the MLK dedication ceremony should be able to show that it has an equally honorable track record when dealing with the issues that Martin Luther King cared about the most.  The company should have a solid track record on corporate responsibility, labor rights, diversity and other issues that would matter to Dr. King.  Would a man let me steal his dying mother’s estate and then use the funds to pay for her funeral?  That’s what we’re doing when we allow companies like Dutch Shell (who was linked to the murders of African activists who peacefully protested the company’s exploitation of the Nigerian people) to help but Dr. King’s memorial.

Also, Black folks might want to stop believing that money is somehow the trump card which justifies any ethically-questionable decision. The choice of powerful companies and organizations to back the King memorial does not, in any way, increase the relevance of the venture itself. It is both sick and sad that we continue to seek validation from the descendants of our historical oppressors, and then wonder why almost no one in America respects us.

Dr. King Question #5: What are you going to do now?

Unfortunately, many Black folks love to gather for a party and then go home. There is a cognitive disconnect that creates significant distance between what we should be doing and what we choose to do. Even within the most educated among us, we have quite a few PhDs, but very few “Ph-Dos.” Many people have a hard time understanding that ideas without action are effectively worthless.

Perhaps the day has come for us to practice what Dr. King once preached. Rather than popping bottles at the clubs every other night, we can start filling up the libraries instead. Instead of just politely listening to what the pastor says on Sundays, we can replicate pastors like Jeremiah Wright and Father Michael Pfleger, who have worked to implement the visions of a higher power. Maybe we can learn that without sacrifice, there is no progress, and that no one will give us respect until we learn to truly respect ourselves.

It is forgivable that we are choosing to build the Dr. King Memorial under such a dark period in American economic history – I am choosing not to attend the ceremony, but I have complete respect for those who disagree. But like a man with bad credit who’s been given a loan that he doesn’t deserve, America has created this memorial as a promise to reach a higher standard when it comes to our commitment to social justice.

We must be sure to keep this promise to Dr. King, and truly memorialize his life by making America into a nation that acts on the vision he laid out before his death. But creating that vision is going to require hard work, and it’s not something that we can buy at Walmart.

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


We Must Revise The Inscription On King Monument