Pondering a Post-Martin Luther King Nation


This is a video clip of Barack Obama’s speech yesterday in Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church — Martin Luther King’s church. I reflected on it here — and despite Obama’s surprising and refreshing critique of intolerance in the African-American community, I still don’t like politicking from churches.

In tribute to Martin Luther King, AP’s Deepti Hajela reminds us that King was reviled by many in his time — even by some who were trying to support his cause of racial equality. He was the person running against the grain and it was hard for some of the more risk averse to support him.
Today, Martin Luther King is an icon, and his cause has become sacrosanct — so sacrosanct sometimes that people have stopped thinking about the emerging tectonics of racial politics.
debra dickerson.jpgThe best guide I know of to discuss race in a post-post-MLK era is journalist and author Debra Dickerson, a former fellow of the New America Foundation and Washington Post editorial writer who needs to get back to blogging. She now teaches journalism at SUNY Albany and has written The End of Blackness: Returning the Souls of Black Folks to Their Rightful Owners and An American Story. This profile captures a bit of Dickerson’s story in brief.
It’s important I think to remember Martin Luther King and to realize that race is still an issue in the country — but I can also easily imagine Debra Dickerson writing a provocative essay saying “enough already. . . we need to get beyond Martin Luther King.” (just to be clear — Dickerson has not said this but I bet the thought has crossed her mind)
And actually, getting beyond MLK is probably truer to the vision he wanted the country to achieve in the first place.
— Steve Clemons


21 comments on “Pondering a Post-Martin Luther King Nation

  1. Kathleen says:

    Carroll… you might be interested in an article at DU
    Brother Malcolm: Letter From Mecca,
    some good pix.. Martin and Malcolm


  2. marcos el rubio says:

    I found your off-hand objection to politicking from the pulpit odd, especially given MLK’s world-changing use thereof, & the fact that B.O.’s presence in THAT pulpit on THAT day was an inately political event- he wasn’t there to lead the Apostles’ Creed. I second your statement to the extent it voices an objection to tying some sectarian version of revealed truth to a political position or preference, although I suspect my objection is more an expression of visceral revulsion to evangelical brownshirts than to the phenomenon itself. Apres tout, MLK was suffered to continue calling for social revolution in part because he couched it in judeo-christian imperatives. My $0.02.


  3. Kathleen says:

    Linda,, Grady Hospital… brings back memories for me too… my husband was a newscaster at WAGA, Channel 5.. I taught at St. John’s Catholic School.. the whole Catholic, Jewish, Protestant thing was a whole other wicket in Dixie. In the 60’s churches did get invovled in the Peace and Civil Rights movements, the Berrigan Brothers. Reverend William Sloan Coffin to name a couple.
    There was some danger… if you were white and working with “nigras” and on the cusp of the movement.


  4. Kathleen says:

    Carroll… for me, Malcolm is to civil rights what jazz is to gospel.


  5. Linda says:

    Hey, y’all, it’s still too cold, but you’ve warmed my bleeding liberal heart. Kathleen, I worked for federal government in the mid-1960s, and it was the first time I was in the South–never saw segregation first hand. In those right after all the civil rights acts were passed, we were told to be cautious about saying we worked for federal government as it could be dangerous. It wasn’t really. I had the pleasure of working with Elbert Tuttle III, M.D. in setting up the dialysis unit at Grady Hospital. The nursing department was integrated, but I didn’t know until later that our project integrated the social work department by hiring the first African-American social worker at Grady. I also learned that Dr. Tuttle’s father was one of the very brave federal judges who ordered integration and was under death threats. Judge Tuttle died of natural causes in the late 1990s and in his 90s.
    At the same time, I wondered why over two day visit to U of Mississippi Medical Center, this little old African-American man was always sitting at a corner table in the hospital cafeteria. It turned out that he was an employee, hired to integrate the cafeteria!
    So there has been progress…now on to heat of my favorite spectator sport–not football in sub-zero temperatures but debates in SC!


  6. Kathleen says:

    Linda.. I lived in Atlanta 50 years ago, before the civil rights movement really got off the ground. Blacks rode the back of the bus, went to seperate schools, drank from seperate water fountains, etc, The hottest spot in town was the corner of PeachTree Street where Margaret Mitchel was hit by a car and people stood for Dixie as though it was the National Anthem. Dr, King and President Carter have made a difference.


  7. Carroll says:

    I love Malcom X for helping Black Americans to stand tall.
    Posted by Kathleen at January 21, 2008 03:23 PM
    I don’t even know that much about Malcom X
    but I am for standing tall…stand by me… stand up… stand for yourself, stand for something…Power to the People…all of it…Amen!


  8. Carroll says:

    Posted by Linda at January 21, 2008 03:23 PM
    Well I am all for what you are involved in….in fact what I have been saying, probably not expressed too well, is that bringing all kinds of people together by uniting them in common causes or against common evils does more to wipe out superficial differences than sitting around talking about our differences and picking at scabs.
    But I distrust that rhetoric in politicans because most often it is a way of shifting the spotlight away from what they have contributed to the problem(s) and onto the public instead. However looking back at Obama’s speech it is probably fitting for a MLK observance.
    I am absolutely not a cynic about people, I am a cynic about what we are up against in getting any “change”.
    Listen, the problems this country has are 90% a product of the political establishment, not of the public, and uniting society is not going to solve them unless that uniting is all of us against DC bizness as usual. The establishment that has and wants to keep the power and money is not going to give it up and change anything or make the country fairer just because the rest of us are all nice and love each other. You will absolutely have to fight for it and take it, not ask for it, take it, because they are not ever going to give it up willingly. In other words we need a fighter not a preacher..maybe Obama will turn out to be a fighter,I don’t know.
    Some people are people persons and have the patience to nuture movements and good causes and some of us are better suited to Paul Revere rides and trying to agitate the public into seeing what they have to do…or who they have to do it to..LOL.
    Way to go on your projects ..kudos.


  9. erichwwk says:

    Linda writes:
    “I don’t want to argue with anyone. I think one of the values of this or any blog is that people around the country can express their views and learn from each other.”
    However, my views are based on different personal experiences, knowing what happens to those that over stay, refusing to believe things can’t be/get THAT bad in THEIR country. Unlike perhaps others, I have both means and opportunity to leave, to live where i wish, but stay precisely because I see this as one of the sickest countries on earth, the country most supplying arms and producing the most WMD and giving them out like candy; condoning senseless murder and promoting terrorism and thwarting democracy worldwide– and where change will have the most meaning. Like the people in Atlanta on MLK day, I want to help, keeping one pragmatic eye on the martial laws and another on the 600 domestic, and numerous foreign, detention camps for dissidents. There are plenty of good people here, but it still one of the very few countries on earth condoning capital punishment (check who in th Western Hemisphere, or the world, shares this view – this alone makes the US too barbaric to be considered for membership in the EU). So just like Dillinger, when asked why he robbed banks, I stay because this is where the work is.
    And a mea culpa. I read Debra Dickerson as saying DURING, when in fact she says, BEFORE. Changes the meaning totally. Just to show how hard it is (at least for me) to leave ALL my baggage out, and always things as they are.
    “no black person before the civil-rights movement would have concerned himself with such superficial things”


  10. Linda says:

    Carroll and others,
    Love GBS and his quotes, and I have a healthy dose of cynicism if one uses the dictionary definition that deals with being distrustful, but I see no point in being the part that is “sneering” and “disparaging.”
    I grew up in Rust Belt, lived almost 50 years in Ann Arbor, MI; LA, DC, and Manhattan and for the last three years in Atlanta that is not full of red-necked bigots any more than any place else. We do have Neal Boortz on the radio who gave Huckabee the FAIR tax. People generally really are more polite here than any of the above places. There are pros and cons to any place. There are stretches of some highways named for Lester Maddox and for Cynthia McKinney. But two of the best places here are the MLK Historical District and the Carter Center.
    The King Center for Non-Violent Social Change for many years has promoted MLK Day as a day when people should engage in community service–and that’s what people in Atlanta do on MLK Day–even people who disagree a lot. While I am straight, I belong to a very diverse synagogue founded by gay and lesbian Jews where half the congregation is very pro-Israel and half are not big supporters of Israel (half where I am). This weekend we are preparing and furnishing an apartment for a family with four children who are arriving this week as refugees from Burma. But this weekend there also are fundamentalist evangelicals here working on Habitat for Humanity and other projects. Also we are blessed to have Sam Nunn”s daughter, Michelle, who founded “Hands On Atlanta” that is expanding into a national “Hands On” program. The idea simply is to find all kinds of volunteer experiences and coordinate them, i.e., enable say a college alumni group to once or twice a year all volunteer for a day together on a project.
    That doesn’t mean that I think we should have “1000 points of light” or that private charity can do everything. Indeed I think government should be doing a lot more and be bigger and also more effective and spend money on health, education, etc. and not on DOD.
    All this is merely to say that there may be different strokes for different folks. But here in Atlanta, MLK Day is special for some very good reasons. I don’t want to argue with anyone. I think one of the values of this or any blog is that people around the country can express their views and learn from each other.
    This is my view from Atlanta where it is clear and sunny but way too cold today.


  11. Kathleen says:

    Julius Ceasar once said, “I came, I saw, I conquered”. The trick was in the seeing. To conquer a problem you have to see it as it really is, not as you would like it to be. Somnehow, we have to combine seeing things as they are, with still having hope of conquering our problems.
    I’m amazed that in all the recent talk of who did what in the Civil Rights Movement, no one is mentioning Malcolm X. Without Malcolm, Dr, King would not have been perceived as moderate, he would have been the extremist.
    Blsck Pride played a pivotal role in everyone getting over the concept of racial inferiority. I think this is why we can have a viable black candidate today.
    I love Malcom X for helping Black Americans to stand tall.


  12. Carroll says:

    “Linda says “But I do have hope that we surely can turn many things around from the past seven years. I truly wonder why some of you stay here if you are so angry, cynical, etc.”
    Well I think us cynics and realist are definitely underappreciated by the hopefuls. We have a thankless task.
    Someone has to do the dirty work of watering and weeding the garden every day while the optimist wait around hoping for right weather conditions to make the flowers to bloom.
    “The power of accurate observation is commonly called cynicism by those who have not got it.”
    George Bernard Shaw


  13. aeolius says:

    First thanks for being you and holding determinedly to the Center.
    Second thanks for the Dickerson blurb. Her book has been ordered at Amazon speed.
    Carl Jung talks about the psychological need for Archetypal figures. One of the downsides of an egalitarian system is the lack of ready-made figures who will receive these projective images. Instead we take mortals and Augustus-like immediately immortalize them. Thus the popular wall hanging of JFK,RFK and MLK still sold in minority neighborhoods.
    With King deified, and with an established priesthood maintaining Dogma, it becomes heresy to move beyond the official political correctness. (It is instructive to see who cast stones at Mrs. Clinton and her attempts to elevate the role of the “evil” LBJ)
    Is it not the Politically-Correct “Brain Police” who by paternalistically insisting on the myth of the good but foolish darkies, block the progress of black folk?
    I suggest it is this P-C group that needs to change


  14. Beth says:

    This was an excellent speech, and I am once again disappointed that Steve has to throw a shadow on Senator Obama’s campaign at a time when clearly he’s giving us historic leadership (yep, I’m a devout hope-monger until the election’s over!). I truly think this is an issue of generations–I’m more inspired than ever at MLK’s work. Perhaps those who came of political age with Nixon have lost all faith in the American people, but I haven’t.
    About the secularism: Given the critical nature of religion in our political discourse, the injection of the teachings of non-violence certainly deserved to be heard in addition to the crazies (weren’t some of them Generals?) calling for crusades against Islam!


  15. DonS says:

    Linda says “But I do have hope that we surely can turn many things around from the past seven years. I truly wonder why some of you stay here if you are so angry, cynical, etc.”
    Could it be as simple as different strokes for dfferent folks. Different paths to the same end. Etc., etc. One person’s cynicsm is another’s realism. That sort of thing. I have been wishing for my country to reform itself for as long as I have begun to see them. And the last 30 years of my life I have been working in non-profit, low income, multi-ethinic settings aimed at making this a more just and “perfect” society. Oh, and I forgot low paying (hah-hah, I sympathize with Nick Burns); probably if they’d been better paying settings I’d be less cynical, also a hah-hah.
    A clue to why you and I may view the glass as either half empty or half full — and BTW I don’t take you comments specifically directed at me or anyone else, although I have thought of emigrating (wihch is not as simple as one might think) — is that I did not find Ronnie Raygun in the least likeable, but rather shallow and contrived, and his so-called leadership straight out of a B-movie.
    But I guess that’s what the peeps want.


  16. erichwwk says:

    Glad to see one of the most important figures in American History discussed, on the day set aside to honor him. Amy Goodman has a nice tribute on her Democracy Now program, that moves as much as when MLK was alive.
    One might also reflect how former President Reagan, and the South in general inc Arizona opposed honoring King. And how the NFL refused to hold the Super Bowl in Arizona because of that. One of my favorite Charles Barkley quotes was, when traded to the Phoenix Suns, “You better believe they’re going to have a MLK day before I leave”.
    That said, let’s not forget that MLK tied poverty and the anti was movement together. MLK rightly saw that race was merely a subset of the larger problem, the use of force to discriminate against some subset of people, to extract wealth for the benefit of a privileged few.
    Race is just one of many such criteria to separate man into an ‘elitist class’, and into an indentured servant class. Skin color, like sex or racial features, merely is a characteristic that meets the discriminatory requirements. It is easily recognizable, and difficult to alter, when one is looking for SOME OTHER CLASS to do that low chaste work, whether it is unskilled physical labor, dangerous labor, or just dirty, smelly labor. A childhood friend wrote his doctoral dissertation in economics on how America essentially became rich, not by the Protestant work ethic, but by its ability to indenture whole classes of people.
    In regards to Debra Dickerson, I intend to read her, initially out of respect for Steve Clemons and the New American Foundation. What I found out from Amazon.com readers comments (47) of her work, is that her views do not have consensus. ‘The end of Blackness: has 9 five star reviews, 10 four stars, 3 three stars, 4 two stars, and 21 one star. BTW http://tinyurl.com/29pefz gets one to the cache of her 2004 Atlantic article ‘Getting Over Blackness’ — the profile Steve links to – for those w/o a subscription to the Atlantic. It is well worth a read. Thanks Steve.
    While I already have found differences with Debra Dickerson recollection of historical fact, (eg “no black person before the civil-rights movement would have concerned himself with such superficial things” as not being able to get a cab) ????? , I also found enough that convinces me to read more. Some quotes that made it into my collection:
    “If you really want to elevate our community and help our folks, then we have to make people understand that it’s not what’s in white people’s hearts that’s important but what’s in ours.”
    “I am not saying there isn’t racism absolutely not. I’m saying that I think some strategies are more effective than others. A vast amount of energy is expended trying to pinpoint who is or isn’t a racist, or trying to shut down people like me, who are on the same team but maybe have a different viewpoint. Why isn’t the urgency directed toward fixing actual problems? I’ve seen people praying outside the Supreme Court, for example, who could be in an inner-city community teaching someone how to read.”
    And I loved this exchange:
    Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts :
    “You mention at one point that black people should concede that we are a numeric and political minority. Is your view that instead of organizing around the idea of race, there should be more coalition-building across race, and more organizing around specific issues”
    Debra Dickerson:
    “Absolutely. It’s not that I think it’s “La-di-da, I don’t care that we were slaves and we’re the luckiest black people in the world.” I’m not one of those folks. I’m just pragmatic; I think of the ways I turned my own life around. I think you address the problems of racism indirectly. If you educate that cadre of folks who are slated to be uneducated then you’re combating racism. If you get black mothers to practice good prenatal care or good birth control, then you’re subverting racism. I think you can organize around concrete problems instead of around race; don’t get mad, get even.”


  17. Dan Kervick says:

    Steve, honestly I don’t know what you are trying to suggest about a “post-Martin Luther King” nation. This nation has barely even begun to understand, much less internalize and follow, Dr. King’s message. Perhaps in some century to come we can advance to a post-MLK stage of cultural advancement. But we’re still in a pre-MLK stage now.


  18. DreadPirate says:

    It’s a great speech. I haven’t seen it, until today. I haven’t been completely persuaded towards Obama or any DEM candidate, yet. But if Obama continues to remain positive, insightful and provacative in this manner, I’d be willing to overlook Obama’s weakness in foreign policy making and towards an apparent potential ability to disarm our defenses and prejudices through his words.
    Change begins by transforming our hearts and minds, here and abroad. I totally agree.


  19. Steve Clemons says:

    Linda — good historical observations. I cross-posted this item over at TPMCafe.com as well and the first commenter didn’t get my meaning. Perhaps I wrote it poorly, or perhaps folks don’t want to get what I’m saying. Thanks…and more later!
    Steve Clemons


  20. Linda says:

    It’s difficult not to wonder if Dennis Kuchinich or Ron Paul were their parties front runners and gave a speech at a church or were endorsed by anyone who didn’t have a record of agreeing with you on every issue that the same things wouldn’t be written about them. It’s not a perfect world or a perfect country. But they can’t be elected President any more than Ralph Nader could be.
    One surely doesn’t have to triangulate as much as Clinton did. And while I hated his policies, Reagan could lead because he was likable and inspired people.
    Three things were clear to me in 1968: 1.) There was and now still is a military-industrial-complex. 2.) After the 1967 war, it was very clear that ME and possible WWIII was likely to start because of Israeli-Palestitian issues. 3.) MLK was against Vietnam War and was focusing more on poverty and less on race. 4.) Richard Nixon as President wasn’t going to fix it.
    And really no President has since then. I haven’t renounced my citizenship or moved to another country—and I seriously doubt that it will get that much better here in my lifetime. But I do have hope that we surely can turn many things around from the past seven years. I truly wonder why some of you stay here if you are so angry, cynical, etc.


  21. JoeCHI says:

    Even as Obama preaches about being against homophobia, he collects the endorsement from Bush’s spiritual advisor, pastor Kirbyjon Caldwell in Texas.
    Caldwell heads a ministry, METANOIA, that runs a “de-gayifying” program for youth.
    Once again, Obama is all words, and no action.


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