Poems and Reflections on MLK Day

President Lyndon B. Johnson and Rev. Dr. Marti...
President Lyndon B. Johnson and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. meet at the White House, 1966 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Granted, the day is now over in most of the U.S., but let’s not rush things for once, okay? Huffington Post was ahead of the game and posted its Three Poems for Martin Luther King Day back on Friday, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth talking about after some reflection, right?

But that’s the current rationale that the blogging gurus try to teach these days: Talk about things early so that you can get more hits on your site while people are making internet searches on the topic. The game for many becomes one of numbers and views, rather than thoughtful consideration of the day at hand. Sigh. How about we actually take a little time for the meaning of a day to set in, instead of packing up our thoughts and decorating the mall for the next big money-maker?

And maybe I’m just rationalizing my own lateness to the topic, but honestly by the time I put sufficient thought into something so that I think I can open my mouth, thousands have already tweeted the hell out of it with their initial gut reactions. I guess I should at least be happy that MLK Day is being talked about so much before Valentine’s Day, you know the next big commercial sales day that has so little to do with the saint and martyr it was named after? Then again we may be able to blame Chaucer for making up the holiday himself.

First some commentary, then some poetry:

I read an article this morning with a title that was perhaps more condescending than the author intended–perhaps, insisting in no uncertain terms that I am not qualified to determine whether or not Martin Luther King’s Jr.’s Dream has yet been realized. In one sense the writer had a fantastic, strong and important message as he reminded people that King did far more than just march and gave rousing speeches. He brought about tremendous change, especially in encouraging blacks to not be afraid, to fearlessly and non-violently stand up to those who would deny them their freedom.

Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X meet bef...
Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X meet before a press conference. Both men had come to hear the Senate debate on the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This was the only time the two men ever met; their meeting lasted only one minute. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now this article has been bouncing about the web for three years now, and while it has much to be said for it, it also puzzles me. When some of us say that we are concerned that King’s Dream has still not been achieved it is not at all an insult to Dr. King. Quite the opposite, it’s a respectful salute to all he has done, and started, and a rallying cry to not let the work go unfinished. It’s rarely, to be fair, a situation of privileged white liberals claiming to own King’s legacy for ourselves. It’s a desire to stand with him and what he stood for because we have similar values. After all, I know what it’s like to not be able to pay the bills. And while I don’t know what it’s like to be a slave or to have ancestors who were treated as property, I have been physically threatened; I have seen friends beaten and hospitalized just for walking out of a gay bar. I have personally lost my job, not because of my skin color, but because of my sexuality. And even if I hadn’t, I would feel deeply that such injustices and brutalities were wrong and to be opposed.

I realize it’s not the same. I still have many privileges just because I’m a white male, and that’s the sort of inequality I am talking about when I say that the Dream, while coming a very long way, has not fully been realized. I implore you to not see a friends who desire to help as people attempting to usurp your own dream, or assume some status as martyr that we didn’t earn. Instead why not take the hand of friendship and solidarity as it is intended? We have dreams too, and I dispute the fact that King’s Dream was only for the negro, chiefly yes, that’s undoubtedly but not solely. In King’s own words from that famous speech of forty years ago:

. . . for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.

We cannot walk alone.

Now I think I should say something here. You’ll notice I have not given a link to the article in question. It was published in 2011 and it’s very easy to find on the internet, but I confess that some of my doubts as to its motives stem from the fact that it was a “diary” on a liberal political site that has been rife with allegations of sock puppet scandals, fake profiles and choosing drama over substance for the sake of ratings and stats. Having friends who were good, smart liberal, long-standing members who got kicked off for questioning the integrity of some of these potential sock puppets kind of sets the stage for my nagging doubts about many of the things written there. So no, I won’t name them, and I won’t link to it.

English: Dr. Martin Luther King giving his &qu...
Dr. Martin Luther King giving his “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington in Washington, D.C., on 28 August 1963. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Having said all of that, it’s quite possibly a true story about what a young man learned from his father about Martin Luther King, but there is just enough going over board, just enough stoking the fires of controversy to make me wonder. Even the author when responding on another progressive site said he was surprised it did not get more backlash. And in the time since the shake ups I am referring to occurred it has come out in the news that radical political conservatives have indeed been exposed as making a practice of hiring “sockpuppets” to pose on liberal websites just to shake things up and preach their agenda, posing as moderates against what they see as the extreme left. So the plea “please don’t tell me that Martin Luther King’s dream has not been achieved,” and the arguing against Hillary Clinton at the end of the piece do leave me a bit suspicious no matter how helpful and eye-opening the rest of the article was.

Somehow around the edges of the story for me leaks the implication that the “black struggle” in America is over and that we shouldn’t link King’s legacy to issues of poverty and inequality. And yet 2012 Census data shows that the majority of those below the poverty level in the US are Black, followed closely by Hispanics, at 35 and 33% respectively, with only 13% of those below poverty level being white. Does this sound like King’s dream of equality to you?

It’s no slight to the man forty years later to say there is still work to be done, instead it’s a failure that we need to own ourselves. So why this person insists that I have no basis or authority (ie. I’m not black and I didn’t grow up under the terrorism of the segregated south) to say that King’s Dream was not achieved makes me scratch my head. It makes me wonder if it was not in the spirit of a much more subtle and cleverer version of Sarah Palin’s Facebook post from earlier today when she glibly said:

Happy MLK, Jr. Day!

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Mr. President, in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. and all who commit to ending any racial divide, no more playing the race card.

I hope that my suspicions are wrong, and that the article was just someone so respectful of Martin Luther King that he did not want his accomplishments to go misunderstood and under-reported, because as far as we have come, there is further yet to go. Again from King’s Dream speech:

I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

. . . and when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:

Free at last! Free at last!

Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

And finally some poetry:

Langston Hughes Lincoln University 1928
Langston Hughes Lincoln University 1928 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, perhaps all of that musing on my part was just to say that I do still feel there is work to be done, and the Black poets of U.S. history still have something relevant to say to us about it. Today the Poetry Foundation posted “In Memoriam: Martin Luther King, Jr.” by poet June Jordan. The Academy of American Poets posted to Facebook today this link to Langston Hughes’ poem “Let America Be America Again.” The Huffington Post article I mentioned at the beginning of this article also included a poem by Langston Hughes called “I Too Sing America.”

While we’re at it I would like to suggest to you an old favorite of mine by Hughes, “Harlem” which asks that famous question, “What happens to a dream deferred?” As well as the related piece “Dream Boogie.” All of these still seem applicable today, and forgive me if I cannot help but identify somewhat, even if the poems are not directly about me. Isn’t that a big part of what poetry does?

Tony Hoagland, not a stranger to controversy himself, caused quite a stir nine months ago during National Poetry Month when he wrote an article for Harper’s entitled “Twenty Little Poems That Could Save America.” Of course the controversy this time was more about that now-old debate about whether or not poetry was in fact a dying art in need of revival in the United States. Many agreed with him, and many defended the state of poetry by vehemently showing how the art is in fact growing again. While I did come in slightly toward the center, I leaned heavily toward Hoagland’s case in the comments. I admire his passion, even if he is in danger of overstating the case sometimes. I figure at least that way the case gets heard, and he does make some very valid points.

Oddly enough, like MLK supporters being talked down to in the political article I mentioned, frequently defensive poets missed the point that Hoagland was actually on their side, wanting to expand poetry to more and more young people. In those twenty two poems he suggested for the cannon was this piece by Kerry Johannsen:

Black People & White People Were Said

to disappear if we looked at
each other too long
especially the young ones —
especially growing boys & girls
the length of a gaze was
watched sidewise
as a kingsnake
eyeing a copperhead while hands
of mothers and fathers gently
tugged their children close
white people & black people were said to
disappear if but nobody ever said it
loud nobody said it
at all& nobody ever
talked about where
the ones who didn’t listen
went

And in this day when young black men are stopped and frisked simply because they are young and black, I cannot help but still find the following poem by Sterling Brown very relevant. I learned this one back in my college days at IWU. I wonder if the white Christian men running that place knew that I had an amazing poetry teacher who taught this to us.

Southern Cop 

Let us forgive Ty Kendricks.
The place was Darktown. He was young.
His nerves were jittery. The day was hot.
The Negro ran out of the alley.
And so Ty shot.

Let us understand Ty Kendricks.
The Negro must have been dangerous.
Because he ran;
And here was a rookie with a chance
To prove himself a man.

Let us condone Ty Kendricks
If we cannot decorate.
When he found what the Negro was running for,
It was too late;
And all we can say for the Negro is
It was unfortunate.

Let us pity Ty Kendricks.
He has been through enough,
Standing there, his big gun smoking,
Rabbit-scared, alone,
Having to hear the wenches wail
And the dying Negro moan.

So yes, Martin Luther King Jr. was an amazing man who stood up, encouraged others to stand up, and put an end to an age of fear, began a mission of expanding civil rights to all American citizens. Is the battle for equality over? No, not for Blacks, not for Hispanics, not for LGBT people, but it has come a long way, and I am grateful we have days like the one we had today in which we can remember where we were, honestly, the violence of it, and how we stood up against it to get to where we are today and look ahead to what is yet to be done.

There are still poor people, black and white, living in houses not fit for humans; Still young people killing themselves because they’ve been bullied into believing they are not worthy of love. Still people who cannot marry. Still people who cannot pay for a higher education, and who, despite anti-discrimination laws, are passed over for jobs and scholarships. It goes on. And so do we.

I hope it’s alright with you that I do use the word “we.”

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16 Replies to “Poems and Reflections on MLK Day”

  1. I read the article in question and liked it. I understand the angle you took on it, but I didn’t see it as being so condescending, because I think the author is right when he says that we narrow King’s legacy to the changing of laws, when he helped engineer an enormous cultural shift.

    I did grow up in the segregated South. In the 1980s and 1990s, segregation wasn’t institutionalized, but it was still real. There are some places you go and others you don’t. There are some people you talk to and others you don’t. Where to live, where to shop, these are important decisions, and after a while you stop thinking about them because it’s too firmly ingrained that you only go to the white section of town. A few years ago, I drove through Alabama frequently, and I always got dirty looks if I stopped for gas in the wrong section of Eufaula.

    And this is why I think that Dr King’s vision is not yet realized. We still see skin color as a significant difference between people.

    In other news, Dr King’s movement relied heavily on the organizational and oratorical talents of Bayard Rustin, an openly gay African-American activist. No one talks about him any more, not even on MLK Day, even though the two were close friends. King’s opponents used photographs of Rustin hanging out in the bathroom while King was in the tub as proof that King was a gay communist trying to bring down America. So it makes perfect sense to use the word we. The movements have always been related.

    Like

  2. Thank you David for this thought provoking and passionate post. And you can most definitely include ‘me’ in that ‘we’. I am with you! Let us keep on keeping on, with our necessary insistence on equality. Blessings, Gina

    Like

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