Monday, January 21, 2008

Today is the greatest . . .

Of course, today is MLK Day, and so it is incumbent upon conscious people to both remember the man and what he stood for. But this proves to be a tricky procedure, as it turns out, because the MLK remembered on television and in our culture at large is not the man himself, but the safe, historically triumphant saint of civil rights. We should remember, also, that he was an agitator who spent the last years of his life denouncing US foreign policy in general, and the Viet Nam war in particular. has a link up about this version of MLK that we don't tend to remember today, the one that Ronald Reagan did not want to canonize.

So, how best to remember the man? First and foremost, we have to re-remember MLK in his totality--not as a historically isolated, single-issue spokesperson whose dream was "realized," as is often said. Rather, it behooves us to honor the man by acknowledging the failures of the civil rights era, the miles we still need to traverse, and the long-enduring and still active presence of racism in our society.

My favorite commentator on this topic has got to be Tim Wise, a public speaker and civil rights activist who has dedicated his life to unveiling the prevalence of racism and white privilege that remains in our society. In addition to being the absolute best rhetorician I have ever seen (I've heard him speak on three different occasions), Wise is the authority on institutional racism and the cultural inertia that has prevented MLK's dream from being realized. Watching Wise is always a potent and enervating reminder of the failures of civil rights, and the absurdity of how this holiday has become part of a self-congratulatory ideology of arrival rather than an impetus toward systematic reform.

Wise speaking on MLK Day in 2007:

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