As I sit in my study today I listen to Bob Marley's timeless, "Redemption Song". The words still hit me as hard as they did the first time I heard the tune over a decade ago. I still remember the most striking lyrics to me where, "How long shall they kill our prophets while we stand aside and look?" As I listened and reflected on those words I thought of the countless numbers of folk who have given the ultimate sacrifice for the cause of freedom in this country.
Today, forty-one years ago in Memphis, Tennessee, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was assassinated--another prophet killed. I was curious to see how would this day be treated by the mainstream media outlets, so I scanned the television to see what would be said, if anything at all. I was horrified to see that the two most advertised specials were the re-airing of CNN's "Eyewitness to Murder: The King Assassination" (which first aired last year) hosted by journalist Soledad O'Brien as part of the cable news station's "Black in America" series, which has drawn a great deal of my ire for its misguided attempts at promoting racial tolerance or inclusion. Additionally, I noticed that several news reports spoke about the release of some new photos from the day of Dr. King's assassination. Life magazine apparently has released thirteen new photos from that dreaded day.
I have just viewed the photos and I am profoundly frustrated. There is one very gruesome picture that shows a man cleaning up the blood from the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, and that image while graphic is very telling. King's memory been hijacked to mean one of two things: (1) a snippet of a speech that does not recount the first most revolutionary aspect where he declared, "America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned," or (2) the fact that he was murdered, killed, assassinated...(whatever nomenclature you choose to use) on this day. Do we view King to bring him out twice a year to recall his grand oratory and strength of purpose like some kind of holiday ornament? What does his death and more importantly his life mean to us?
In his usual flare for making convoluted, problematic comments (like the one that Bill Clinton was more black than Barack Obama) Andrew Young mentioned that viewing the photos, "In Christian terms" Young proclaimed, "you know that after the cross there is the resurrection. In secular terms you learn to realize that without a storm there's no rainbows."
There are couple of things wrong here. Young is giving power to the pictures from the standpoint that you must see the death of King to understand his message and secondly, he is likening King to the Christ, which has not atypical of many in their recollections of the slain leader. Let me first say that I do not have a problem with the pictures as a remembrance of the horrors and evil of the human condition. They, like pictures of those whites who gathered to partake in the spectacle of lynching give us a sobering pause into the history of violence in this nation. My issue about viewing the pictures has more do to with how we contextualize them. In a voyeuristic world where we are inundated with images in the "twenty-four hour news cycle" we must be vigilant in our interpretation of our history.
Dr. King was a man first and foremost and full of the frailty and shortcomings that we all are, however, his courage in the face of insurmountable odds is worthy of celebration and honor. Although we must remember that when he spoke out against the Vietnam War, there were not a lot of people "celebrating" him--white or black. Dead men make such convenient heroes for the cowardly. Furthermore, it is not fair to King's legacy to even flirt with the type of messianism that Young is employing in his comments.
We should consider and concentrate our thoughts on WHY King was killed. He spoke truth to power. He placed himself squarely in the cross hairs of an assassin's bullet just one year to the day before his death when he delivered his most prophetic critique of the United States. The title of the speech was "Beyond Vietnam/A Time to Break Silence" and from the pulpit in Riverside Church in New York City he called the United States the "greatest purveyor of violence in the world today." That is still the case forty-one years later.
In a society where children are witness to any number of violent scenes, my thoughts center around how they view Dr. King and his death. While they enjoy the world of rainbows that Young thinks they reside in, is King's holistic message being transmitted and translated outside of a few posters, commercials, photos, buttons and documentaries? Those of us in the African American community must always ensure that his death is not diminished to a "flashbulb" moment where there is this gulf of disconnection that we saw illustrated with Jesse Jackson's comments directed at then Senator Obama mentioning that he wanted to castrate him. Jackson's visceral comments and even sadder crocodile tears at the inauguration give witness to the generational gap that persists between those who "marched with King" and those who would read his words and watch him through video a generation later.
In my study of history, I always have stressed to students (as my mentors have stressed to me) context. The contextualization of history is important. Children in schools all across this nation no matter what the color are introduced to African American history as one that begins in chains with no mention of the dignity and majesty of the cultures that transplanted Africans were stripped from. That type of teaching is incredibly powerful in the most destructive kind of way. Africans who were brought to these shores were men, women, and children who were human beings not chattel.
Similarly, Dr. King was not just some fallen hero who marched for so called civil rights, but indeed lived his life to help the dispossessed in America and abroad. In his historic "Beyond Vietnam" speech, King soberly pleaded, "
"Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the sons of God, and our brothers wait eagerly for our response. Shall we say the odds are too great? Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard? Will our message be that the forces of American life militate against their arrival as full men, and we send our deepest regrets? Or will there be another message -- of longing, of hope, of solidarity with their yearnings, of commitment to their cause, whatever the cost? The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise, we must choose in this crucial moment of human history."King's words ring ever true as President Obama has just made his first visit to Europe as the first black leader of a western nation. There is a fervor of anxiety, hope, and excitement that these nations are imbued with that must also take hold in our communities if we are to rise like a phoenix from the ashes of militarism, materialism, and racism.
As "Redemption Song" fades out and Marley strums the last few chords, I wonder how long will we let them continue to kill our prophets in our collective memory and do nothing. What we remember is just as important as how we remember. Marley reminds us, "Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery; None but ourselves can free our mind." How many of us are willing slaves that choose not to free ourselves and instead give into a society that would tell you how to remember and what to remember.
Lest we forget. Lest we forget.