Today, all across the country, we observe a holiday in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In our schools, children are introduced to, or reminded of, his life. Inevitably, radios play the words of his “I Have a Dream” speech on the Washington Mall in March of 1963. For many of us, thanks to education and the smoothing effect of time, that speech defines who he was and makes him, comfortably, a hero. It was certainly how I viewed Dr. King when, as a student at Swarthmore College in the Fall of 1985, I walked into a classroom and met Vincent Harding. Vincent was, at the time, a visiting professor at the college. Long before that, he had worked closely with Dr. King. Professor Harding brought all of the students assembled, in the safety and comfort of a small liberal arts college, face to face with the last years of Dr. King’s life, with his calls for a “Poor People’s Campaign,” and with his calls for revolutionary change rather than a comfortable march to the mountaintop.
Four years ago, on the occasion of the swearing in of Barack Hussein Obama as President of the United States, it seemed as though we, as a people, had fulfilled Dr. King’s dream of March 1963. Our President was a person of color. His children, like children of color all over the country, lived as equals with the children of white people. King’s words now sounded like a clarion over the space of time — reminding us of where we had been and giving us room, comfortably, to celebrate where we had arrived. The celebration of Obama’s first inaugural was a hopeful time. As a country, we joined hands, we heard Aretha sing and we looked forward.
Vincent Harding would not let us smooth over Dr. King. He wanted us to understand that Dr. King’s ministry wasn’t about holding hands and singing. He wanted us to hear the words of the older, though not very old, King: “Our only hope . . . lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit [of America] and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism.” King traveled to Memphis to fight poverty. His battle ended there. And, with the passage of time, and the need to glorify him, so too did our collective memory of what he sought. Today, it seems to me, is the right time to fix that. It is time for us to remember and to act.
On the occasion of the President’s second inaugural, let’s focus on the problems that drew King’s attention after March of 1963. The gap between rich and poor has never been greater. Our country has been at war for as long as any of us can remember. Our collective economic fortune has suffered both as a consequence of these wars and of our inability to create opportunity for those with less to succeed. The challenges the President faces are so great that they are vividly clear on his aging and worried face. But these are our challenges. And, on this day, we must remember that no one man, neither a President nor a long dead hero, can fix them alone.
Vincent Harding writes: “Somewhere . . . this encouraging, disciplining promise stands forth: ‘When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.’” It is not too much to say that we were, at Swarthmore in 1985, ready for Vincent Harding. The question today is whether Barack Obama and, by extension the country, is ready for Martin King in January 2013. There are signs that we are: the President is pushing for meaningful gun control and is committed to withdrawing our troops from Afghanistan (militarism); he is committed to marriage equality (combatting hatred); and he has passed meaningful health care change and is grappling with immigration reform (poverty). At the same time, there is still a long way to go. Challenges and opportunities travel together. This second term is an opportunity for all of us. I like to think that we are students and that we are ready now for the teachings of Dr. King. Today, we celebrate; tomorrow, we get to work.
For those interested: http://www.amazon.com/Martin-Luther-King-Inconvenient-Hero/dp/1570757364/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1358779029&sr=1-3&keywords=vincent+harding