I went back and forth on whether to post anything for this year’s official remembrance of Martin Luther King Jr., not because there’s no point but mainly because I didn’t think I’d have anything original to add. I didn’t just want to rehash last year’s occasion to highlight MLK Jr.’s late drive to build a poor people’s movement. Neither did I want to make this about my corner of the world, again, as in two years ago when I wrote about my experience with a first grade experiment to teach my all-white class about racial segregation. You can still read those pieces, plus the great writing from a year ago, because King, his life, and what he fought for is never not-relevant.
It’s that last part that prompts me to add these few bits today. King is always relevant. What I’d really like to read is a well-written, historically-grounded, piece comparing his experience with today’s post-Ferguson activist landscape. Especially given that the Poor People’s Campaign eventually led to place closer to the Occupy movement than the rather-sanitized marches we typically laud him for. Any suggestions?
Until and unless I find that perspective, of all the various outlets putting out content right now, this particular portion caught my eye, via some lesser-known MLK Jr. quotes compiled by Jenée Desmond-Harris:
10) He admonished those who couldn’t see the structural forces in need of combating:
“True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
Unfortunately there’s no source to properly attribute the quote to King, so that’s something to keep in mind. Regardless, it’s a slice of truth, and connects nicely with Elizabeth Bruenig’s recent campaign to get folks to understand the difference between charity and justice. It’s not enough be a compassionate individual, for if the spirit motivates you to alleviate the suffering of others then it should motivate you to question “the edifice which produces beggars…” in the first place. We are not singular islands of men and women, but a mass of humankind bounded by our relations to one another in a far grander picture.
This may be the context to understand King’s later efforts. His life ended in a far more radical place than most remember, where injustices worth fighting went beyond securing specific rights but to altering institutions themselves — those social establishments that continue to perpetuate unjust racial and socioeconomic structures. His wasn’t a dream wholly actualized, nor deferred, but perhaps a permanent call to keep pushing against these larger forces in the pursuit of a better world.