Honor King, but not with symbols 

This November we're to see the groundbreaking for the $100 million Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial. Something called the Stone of Hope is supposed to be the centerpiece of the memorial. I haven't seen any artists' renderings, but I'm sure it will be big and impressive, the way these monuments are supposed to be.

A lot of people have been fighting for this monument for a very long time, just as a lot of people fought for the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday for a very long time. So, I'm sure these people who fought so long and hard are thrilled that their efforts are finally bearing fruit. Once completed, the King monument will attract tons of visitors and probably a fair amount of press coverage as well, and that will be a swell day in D.C. Just swell.

Nearly 40 years after King was assassinated, and just a few months after hundreds of thousands of poor blacks had to wait an unconscionable amount of time to receive any sort of assistance from the federal government as they watched their homes and neighborhoods being washed away by one of the most devastating natural disasters this nation has ever seen (yeah, I brought it up again, and I'm gonna keep bringing it up), King supporters have finally received permission to build a monument to his memory on the National Mall.

I wonder what King would have to say about all this.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not in any way suggesting that King doesn't deserve the monument. Of course he does. King's extraordinary contributions to the development of this nation — not just to the progress of African-Americans — should make it obvious that he is more than deserving of this type of recognition. No, my problem is the tendency that some folks have to place far too much emphasis on things like holidays and monuments as evidence that so much progress has been made, as if having a statue built somehow means that we, as black people, have now arrived. I guess whenever we encounter someone who doesn't believe that black folks matter much in this society, we will soon be able to drag them off to the National Mall, point at the King monument with pride, and say, "See? See? Look at that! I told you we matter, and there's the proof right there! And every year we have a national holiday too!"

I guess I'm just not getting that warm and fuzzy feeling like I'm supposed to.

For my money, the best way to remember someone of King's stature is with concrete action designed to further the objectives for which he sacrificed his life. Call me a heretic, but to hell with the statues, monuments and holidays. We don't need them. This may sound twisted, but just because he is worthy of these things doesn't necessarily mean that these things are worthy of him. There are better ways.

When King first took his place at the forefront of the civil rights movement as a little-known preacher in the 1950s, segregation was the order of the day, the Klan was operating full force, and lynchings weren't just something you witnessed at a popular yet controversial photo exhibit. As all of us know, the civil rights movement led to massive change throughout the country, and King is the most highly touted symbol of that change, although he did not orchestrate the civil rights movement single-handedly. The end of legalized segregation was the most significant aspect of that change. As has been pointed out by a number of academics and other experts on that time period, the goal of ending segregation was not to sit next to white people at the lunch counter and to join them in the restrooms of America. The goal was equality, and it had long been proven that the "separate but equal" doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson was a lie. Separate would never be equal.

In the years following King's assassination, and after segregation had supposedly been defeated, it became clear that segregation could not be killed by legal means alone. If white folks didn't want black folks in the neighborhood, they either found alternative methods of screening them out, or they simply packed their bags and moved to the suburbs. Once too many blacks moved into those suburbs, then they moved out of there and moved into new and improved and whiter suburbs. Take a look at how the racial demographics of Southfield have changed over the last several decades or so and you'll see what I'm talking about. The same applies to the public schools, which studies have shown remain just as segregated today as they were prior to our civil rights "victory" over legalized segregation. Where legalized segregation left off, de facto segregation has taken over. It is no longer the nation's laws standing in the way of integration, it is the nation's residents. We just don't want to be around each other very much.

On the upside, blacks certainly have many, many more elected representatives than when King was alive, and it would be hard to argue that there aren't more opportunities. There are more blacks in high positions at major companies, and we are certainly more visible in other areas as well. I still remember my childhood days when my mother used to come running every time I yelled excitedly that a black person was on TV. Now we have BET.

But while the 20th anniversary of the King holiday is something to be observed, there's not much to celebrate in black America.

According to last year's State of the Dream 2005 report, released by the group United for a Fair Economy, the African-American unemployment rate has been at least 9.9 percent since January 2002, and the black median income was 62 percent of the white median income in 2003. In 1988, two decades after King's assassination, blacks were at 55 percent of white median income. Whereas three-quarters of the white population own their own homes, most blacks still rent. Other studies continue to show that black infant mortality is way above white infant mortality, and black males are still way overrepresented in the prison system. It just goes on and on and on.

So where will we be on the 40th anniversary of the MLK holiday? Hopefully not building another MLK monument.


In somewhat related news, Washington, D.C., Councilman Marion Barry, whose district sponsors an annual MLK parade, got in some hot water recently after apparently trying to reschedule the festivities for April 1 when the weather will be warmer. Naturally he's now denying he ever intended to make an April Fool's joke out of the rights leader, and the date has been moved to April 8. But you have to wonder if ex-Mayor Crackhead's judgment may have been just a tad impaired. Forgive him, for he knoweth not what the fuck he is doing.

Oh. You hadn't heard.

According to a recent Washington Post account, Barry tested positive for cocaine during a drug test he had to take last fall after pleading guilty to misdemeanor charges resulting from his failure to file tax returns for six years. Barry, scheduled to be sentenced Feb. 8, could wind up serving 18 months behind bars. At the age of 69. For cocaine use and tax evasion.

Do another line for the people and keep that dream alive, Brother Barry.

Keith A. Owens is a Detroit writer, editor and musician. Send comments to [email protected]

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