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Honoring MLK: Why the New Memorial is Not Enough

August 30, 2011, 10:35 am | Posted by Beth Dahlman

Jamelle Bouie over at the American Prospect has a great reflection on why the new Martin Luther King Jr. memorial here in Washington is a less-than-complete tribute to his legacy:

By 1966, Dr. King had moved from his familiar message of nonviolence and racial equality to a more radical attack on the foundations of American life. “When I say question the whole society,” he says in his speech “Where Do We Go From Here?”, “it means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together.” In pushing this message, King aligned himself with views–black nationalism, left-wing redistributionism and radical pacifism–that were wildly at odds with the views of most Americans.

Of course, many of those views remain widely at odds with most Americans, which is why we don’t hear much about them.

Bouie continues:

Like all saints though, we’ve had to diminish Dr. King’s message to inoffensive platitudes to make him acceptable to the country at large. The Martin Luther King Jr. memorial depicts a defiant King, but the King we celebrate isn’t the one who declared, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” It isn’t even the more palatable King who explained justice as “power correcting everything that stands against love.” The Martin Luther King Jr. that we celebrate is more akin to the George Washington who never lied than any person who actually existed.

King’s work for Civil Rights is most certainly praise-worthy, and we absolutely should memorialize the person, and the movement that helped this nation move so far away from the violence of Jim Crow. But in failing to lift up economic justice and pacifism – which King saw as inextricably linked – we lose a vital part of his legacy, a loss which is particularly noticeable as right-wing commentators like Glenn Beck attempt to appropriate his memory in support of conservative policies King would have never endorsed.

In a time when working class families and the social safety net they depend on are under unprecedented attack and the war in Afghanistan is about to reach its 10th anniversary, it’s clear we need more than a stone monument honoring Dr. King. We need movements to address the work for justice that’s not yet finished.

Photo Credit: Jason Rosenberg, Flickr

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