If you are called to be a street sweeper, sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, “Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”
That is, by far, my favorite Martin Luther King quote. In fact, it’s one of my favorite quotes of all time, by anyone. And it is that philosophy that I honor on the third Monday of January each year. Martin Luther King clearly inspired millions (of all backgrounds) and had a massive impact on not only the United States, but on the world. But I’m left wondering what he would have to say about the America of today. As I wrote in honor of MLK’s birthday last year, 40 years after his assassination, Americans are still slaves. This year, I’d like to focus on the issues that made Martin Luther King famous: civil rights and the advancement of blacks in American culture.
In 1939 Martin Luther King was a 10 year old Atlanta resident who had already traveled to Europe and had sung with his church choir at the opening of Gone With The Wind. Meanwhile, roughly 87 percent of blacks in America were living in poverty. By the time Measure of Man was published in 1959 (still years before the Albany movement, Birmingham, and the March on Washington), poverty amongst black families had dropped a full 40 points to 47 percent and the incomes of blacks relative to whites had more than doubled.
1963 brought the March on Washington and the famous “I Have A Dream” speech which will be quoted with such abandon in the next couple of weeks, 1964 was, of course, the Civil Rights Act, 1965 saw “Bloody Sundy” in Montgomery, AL (often cited as the turning point for the civil rights movemement in the United States – King was notably absent, BTW), this was followed numerous failures and cancelled marches in Chicago and then, in March 1968, the assassination of Martin Luther King at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, TN. The following year the poverty rate amongst blacks in America had fallen to roughly 32 percent (where it remained well in to the 1990s).
In 1990 President George Bush (the first) invaded Iraq on Martin Luther King’s birthday.The day after America observes MLK’s 80th birthday the first black President will be inaugurated. King would, no doubt, be proud. But let us not forget that Barack Obama will not only continue the current invasion of Iraq, but has also come out in support of National Slavery!
Is this what Martin Luther King was fighting for? Is this what you are honoring on this national holiday devoted to him? Honestly, I think next Monday will just be another day of my distancing myself from as much of the celebration as possible.