The Legacy of a King

“A social movement that only moves people is a revolt. A social movement that changes both people and institutions is a revolution.” -MLK, Why We Can’t Wait, 1964, p. 117

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Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy is a touchstone of modern United States history. American children learn the story of MLK as one of triumph, of arrival at an American promise land of finally-delivered equality to long-suffering communities. That’s the abridged version, anyway. In reality, King’s infamous Dream of desegregation, of racial equality measured by economic equality, is pitifully underrealized in the U.S. today. As one example, the San Francisco Bay Area is one of the most diverse, liberal cities on the planet, and it is also segregated to a disturbing degree. (See the Tenderloin, Hunter’s Point, Japantown as compared to Nob Hill, Twin Peaks, Pacific Heights for details. Same goes for Oakland compared to Berkeley; East Palo Alto to Palo Alto.)

Even before his assassination, Dr. King enumerated the challenges of fighting for lasting equality in a scathing indictment of the American mainstream:

“The majority of white Americans consider themselves sincerely committed to justice. They believe that American society is essentially hospitable to fair play and steady growth toward a middle-class Utopia embodying racial harmony. But unfortunately this a fantasy of self-deception and comfortable vanity. Overwhelmingly America is still struggling with irresolution and contradictions. It has been sincere and even ardent in welcoming some change. But too quickly apathy and disinterest rise to the surface when the next logical steps are to be taken. Laws are passed in a crisis mood…but no substantial fervor survives the formal signing of legislation. The recording of the law itself is treated as the reality of the reform.” -MLK, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community, 1968, p. 4-5

Unsurprisingly, King’s more complex philosophies are rarely quoted or brought up in The Civil Rights Story. It’s clearly in part because he’s truly radical in his articulation of justice. I also think it’s because his pronouns–such as “God,” “Negros,” and “Man”–can trigger intense discomfort in 21st century politics.

Most notably, King’s spiritual commitment and the Christian doctrine that founded his political activism seem misplaced in today’s ideological spectrum. Though they use similar vocabulary, the lunacy of today’s religious political activists– i.e. Michelle Bachman, Paul Ryan, and Todd Akin–are nowhere close to King’s expressions of compassion and equality.

“There are three dimensions of any complete life…: length, breadth, and height. The length of life… is not its duration or its longevity, but it is the push of a life forward to achieve its personal ends and ambitions. It is the inward concern for one’s own welfare. The breadth of life is the outward concern for the welfare of others. The height of life is the upward reach for God. These are the three dimensions of life, and without the three being correlated, working harmoniously together, life is incomplete.” MLK, The Measure of a Man, 1959, p. 36-37

For present-day progressives, I wonder if King’s reliance on ‘God’ to define a fulfilling human life makes his broader point harder to swallow? Has the pervasiveness of his Christian philosophy in his writings contributed to a highly abridged version of his legacy? Does it freeze his message in time, deeming it a distant relic, isolated from today’s brand of highly polarized politics?

“[M]an is a being of spirit. That is what the psalmist means when he says, ‘Thou hast crowned him with glory and honor.’ Man has rational capacity; man has a mind; man can reason. This distinguishes him from the lower animals. And so, somehow, man is in nature, and yet he is above nature; he is in time, and yet he is above time; he is in space, and yet he is above space. This means he can do things that lower animals could never do. He can think a poem and write it; he can think a symphony and compose it; he can think up a great civilization and create it.” -MLK, The Measure of a Man, 1959, p. 17

As you can see, categorizing King based on today’s political standards gets complicated pretty quickly. In his written works, King reveals ideological loyalties that seem contradictory today: he’s both rational and spiritual, a modern philosopher and a devout practitioner. Within one argument, for example, King calls out the failures of America and the ‘West’ in manifesting its ideals by invoking a disembodied, God-like voice. Then, later on the page, he alludes to American Exceptionalism as a sound basis for pursuing justice:


“Oh, I can hear a voice crying out today, saying to Western civilization, ‘You strayed away to the far country of colonialism and imperialism. You have trampled over one billion six hundred million of your…brothers in Africa and Asia’…[and] It seems I can hear a voice saying to America: “You started out right. You wrote in your Declaration of Independence that ‘all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights…’ But, America, you have strayed away from that sublime principle. You left the house of your great heritage and strayed away into a far country of segregation and discrimination. You have trampled over…your brothers. You have deprived them of the basic goods of life. You have taken from them their self-respect and their sense of dignity. You have treated them as if they were things rather than persons. Because of this, a famine has broken out in your land. In the midst of all your material wealth, you are spiritually and morally poverty-stricken, unable to speak to the conscience of this world. America, in this famine situation, if you will come to yourself and rise up and decide to come back home, I will take you in, for you are made for something high and something noble and something good.’ ”
-MLK, The Measure of a Man, 1959, p. 29-30

I love reading King’s written works because 1) he’s a brilliant writer, and 2) they beautifully embody the natural contradictions of the human experience. His ideas and words soar above linear history and the limits of human nature, yet his vocabulary is surprisingly anachronistic, shaped by and for his unique moment in time.

His teachings, his actions, and the timeliness of his powerful vision established MLK as a leader of his era. But his overarching message rings true in any time: challenge what you see, challenge what you know, and challenge injustice with radical compassion until freedom and equality are both the letter and spirit of the law. His ability to express the richness of a pluralist existence resonates with a growing realization about our global fate:

“As long as there is poverty in the world I can never be rich, even if I have a billion dollars. As long as diseases are rampant and millions of people…cannot expect to live more than twenty-eight or thirty years, I can never be totally healthy… I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the way our world is made. No individual or nation can stand out boasting of being independent. We are interdependent.” -MLK, The Measure of a Man, 1959, p. 48-49

With that last sentence, it’s clear to me King’s legacy isn’t just a frozen moment, and it isn’t just a speech at the Lincoln Memorial or a ‘triumphant’ struggle for Civil Rights. His words indeed sparked a revolution, because he didn’t just move people, he moved them (and their kids) to an unprecedented breadth of social activism that we’re seeing flourish in our networks.

“It is true that these elements [the marching, the confrontations, the protests] have meaning, but to ignore the concrete and specific gains in dismantling the structure of segregation is like noticing the beauty of the rain, but failing to see that it has enriched the soil.” MLK, Why We Can’t Wait, 1964, p. 116-117

With the advent of the Internet, we’ve rediscovered our collective potential to propel social change. In Blessed Unrest, Paul Hawken estimates that well over one million nonprofits, NGOs, social enterprises, and grassroots community groups founded in the last twenty years constitute “the largest social movement in human history.” These organizations are part of King’s legacy, part of the kind of hope, resilience, creativity, and community building (and celebrity fundraising) that he led through Selma and Birmingham.

We’re in a time when we desperately need to regenerate ailing systems, to solve pressing global problems. Martin Luther King, Jr. for his divinely human beauty, the Hercules of progressive social change. But beyond leading his contemporaries, Dr. King also enriched the soil of political activism for the growth of future generations. Based on Hawken’s research, I think King’s nonviolent leadership and radical compassion did indeed start a revolution. I also think this is just the beginning, just the initial fruits of his reign.

I can’t wait to see them multiply.

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‘Where the Sidewalk Ends’

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Image from Wikipedia.org.

Just for giggles, let’s entertain the idea that the Mayans were right and some profound universal alignment/shift/calendar moment happens on 12.21.12. And let’s say this ‘moment’ is a slice in the space-time continuum…
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Headnotes (‘cuz there’s not exactly room at the end, ya know?):
*Any arbitrary-yet-precise moment we choose to anticipate (12:21:12, for example) will unfold around the world continuously for 24 hrs on 12.21.12. Twenty-four hours on the infinite edge of a portal. Hmmm…what could we do with that?

**Concept of distinguishing human time from ‘meta-time’ borrowed from the current planetarium show at the Cal Academy of Sciences. It’s about local and global seismology, digital earthquake simulations, and our planet’s geological evolution. Translation: all kinds of Nerd Heaven.

***Whoa. That was fun, huh? 😉
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Here’s where I’m going with this: What if 12.21.12 (+12:21:12*) is a rupture in the fabric of spacetime, where/when we can slip into an alternate dimension of infinite possibility? As with other imagined portals, what if we could enter and exit them in an instant and never know the difference? The moment would pass in the blink of an eye, but its impact has real-world consequences (a la 1990s Contact). Our attempts to measure this phenomenon “in human time”** are incomplete, so skepticism abounds that it actually exists.

If this portal exists, we could use it to infuse Our Era—whether it’s ending or beginning—with all of the _______ we can muster. [#joylovegratitudepeace]

Why not? What have we got to lose?

‘Cause that’s the ultimate moral of the epic stories: there’s good/bad, evil/sacred, fear/courage, etcetcetc within everything and all of us, and it’s what we choose to bring forward that wins in the end.

Image from "Ramblings of a Minnesota Geek" (mngeekramblings.blogspot.com).

Boromir struggles with the intoxicating power of The Ring. *dun-dun-DUH!!!* Image found on “Ramblings of a Minnesota Geek” blog.

What if—rather than fearfully wait for what might happen when Everything Changes—we stretch our imaginations beyond what ‘makes sense’ (because there’s sure as hell plenty about this world that doesn’t make sense to me anymore) to believe in something absurdly improbable, take this once-in-multiple-millenia opportunity, and breathe regenerative light and fire into it. If we can embrace our collective, intense, white-hot destructive/creative power to dissolve bullsh*t and injustice, we could actually initiate this progressive, feminine shift that so many people are talking about.

So, why not? Why not just give it a shot, and our ‘objective,’ protesting egos be damned? (To the death of the ego–)

Are you ready to go over the edge, to stare into the depths of our wildest dreams about what’s possible and not just recapture what we’ve lost but reclaim our ability to ignite new life and purpose into a world on the brink? You’ll never know you left, but the world will never be the same. It will be better.

Hey, look: here it comes. It’s Where the Sidewalk Ends

___,___,___,___,

Ready?

___,On the count of one,___,___, two,___,___,thr–

[let(s) go]

***

The Wisdom of Cecile Richards

Cecile Richards is the current President of Planned Parenthood and it’s action fund. I had the pleasure of hearing her speak at the Castro Theater in San Francisco, on October 10, 2012. In the current political climate, critical women’s rights are at risk of being curtailed. All people deserve access to education and services that support their best choices, for their values and purpose. Cecile Richards embodies the best of the civil rights movements of this country–courage, vision, voice, and service. A gigantic thank you to The Commonwealth Club, Mother Jones, Global Fund for Women, and NAWBO-SF Bay Area for making this event possible. There’s nothing like witnessing extraordinary leadership to inspire a new generation of activists.

“We’re like the Fandango of reproductive health care.” –on the ease of access to information on sexual health via Planned Parenthood

“It was about…being part of the community…and there’s nothing tedious or drudg[ing] about that.”
–on her exposure to political activism at an early age

“I don’t understand why women’s health care is a partisan issue. It’s not.” –on the intense political polarization around women’s health issues

“[It doesn’t matter] who is in office, we’re never going away.” –on the resilience and importance of Planned Parenthood to our social well-being

“The whole pro-choice/pro-life labeling is completely irrelevant in America [today]…The next generation isn’t really interested in any labels [around politics]…We have to think [critically] about labels and terminology that limit conversation [around these issues].”

“It’s not just about preventing pregnancy, it’s about sexual health. Are we ever going to be in a place in this country where we agree that sex is a good thing?”

“The fastest-growing patient population at Planned Parenthood is young men.”

“The last place these decisions [about family planning] should be made is in government and in the legislature.”

“Providing young people with comprehensive sex education is actually not a big turn-on. Young people with more access to information about STIs and birth control actually wait longer to have sex.” –on abstinance-only sex education

“Everything is bottom-up.” –on how Planned Parenthood has been using social media for their advocacy and messaging

“Social media is the most democratic vehicle we have now for stories people wouldn’t otherwise see.”

“As it turns out, young men in their 20s are just as interested in birth control as young women.”

“After Glen Beck’s comments about how ‘only hookers go to Planned Parenthood,’ it turns out a there were a few non-hookers who had visited and they started talking on our Facebook page.” –on of her most memorable moments in the past year of overwhelming popular response to partisan attacks on women’s health

“1 in 5 women have been to Planned Parenthood in this country.” –on Glen Beck’s above assertion

“I’m still stunned that we’re having this conversation again” –on the debate around the legality of contraception

Moderator: “A recent study showed that universal [access to] birth control would be the fastest, cheapest way to reduce abortion rates. Why do you think pro-choice and pro-life advocates can’t unite behind that?”
Cecile: “I honestly have no idea.”

“1/3 of our new Peer Health Advocates are young men.”

“That’s going to be the big difference in this country [for this generation]” –on advocacy amongst young men for women’s health issues

“Elected officials need folks on the outside to keep them moving in the right direction.” –on why she prefers advocacy and organizing to politicking

“The shaming that goes on with women in this country is inexcusable.” –on Sandra Fluke and ‘legitimate rape’ hoopla

“The more we can see women early-on and get them preventative care, the more women’s lives we can save.” –on the importance of breast cancer screening to women’s health

“By God, I hope in my lifetime we have a woman President of the United States.” –in response to a request that she run for President

“I cannot overemphasize how important it is for women to get in positions of power deciding policy.” –on how women can make the biggest difference in affecting social change

Cecile Richards earned Inforum’s 21st-century Visionary Award, presented by The Commonwealth Club. On October 10, 2012, she spoke and was interviewed by Clara Jeffery of Mother Jones magazine at the Castro Theater in San Francisco, CA. The event was sponsored in-part by NAWBO-SF Bay Area.

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