This past Monday, this nation celebrated the memory of one of our greatest minds, one of our tallest souls, one of our lost children. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day celebrates the memory of our American Gandhi, a man who dedicated his life – and, in Memphis, gave his life – to the idea that is America: all are created equal.
To be sure, the “Negro” was counted only as 3/5ths of a man in the document that first established the ridiculous experiment that became America, and women were counted not at all, but more than two hundred years have passed since that original ink was put to paper. Ours is a self-improving republic, thanks to the genius of those founding documents. A “Negro” now sits in the highest office of the land, and a woman (who lost the chance to sit in that exalted seat by only an eyelash or two) now commands the most important and influential position in the Federal government, save the one enjoyed by her immediate superior.
Ours is a nation of genius, and of assassins, in equal measure. We reached the moon, cracked the genome code, we feed millions, liberated Europe and Asia from horrific tyranny sixty years ago, and daily export the idea that one should be able to speak their mind without fear of the gulag or the work camp or the executioner’s bullet…and yet we do this even as the souls of slaughtered Native Americans, enslaved Africans, and ten times ten thousand Iraqis shriek their condemnation from the blood this nation has spilled in its pursuit of “greatness.”
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I have been preaching this gospel, in word and deed, for almost twenty years: America is an idea. You can take our cities, our roads, whatever is left of our manufacturing base, our crops, our armies, our weapons, you can take the land itself from Portland, Maine, to Portland, Oregon…you can take it all, and the idea that is America will still remain, as robust and vital as the day it was first conceived. It is the idea that sustains me, the brilliant simplicity of actual equality, and it is the offenses to the idea that I have pledged my life against.
Some will argue that I and those who believe as I do are doomed to failure. Perhaps this is true; the forces arrayed against what I and others of like mind hold true and dear are stupendous, overwhelming, and well-placed in money and in media. Even the “Hope and Change” president of the present maintains and extends the elaborate shame of our past, apparently deaf to the howls of those of us who would have him, and us, do right at long last.
It is what it is, as someone once said. You look for a toehold, a place to grab on to, a front – no matter how meager – from which to wage your own siege, against all that has gone so catastrophically wrong with this old experiment, in trying to do right.
We define ourselves through comparison to that which we oppose. In this, we are seldom lacking in inspiration. Take, for example, this report about the newest way the Powers That Be have chosen to crush and prosecute the Occupy movement. It isn’t enough for a prosecutor to charge a protester who has been beaten and Maced by police with assault. No, we’re going here:
Sergio Ballesteros, 30, has been involved in Occupy LA since the movement had its California launch in October. But this week, his activism took an abrupt turn when he was arrested on a felony charge – lynching.
Whether the police allegation in this case will be pursued by by California’s courts is uncertain. But the felony charge – which carries a potential four-year prison sentence – is the kind of accusation that can change the landscape for would-be demonstrators.
“Felonies really heighten the stakes for the protesters,” said Baher Azmy, legal director at Center for Constitutional Rights in New York. “I think in situations where there are mass demonstrations and a confrontation between protesters and police, one always has to be on the lookout for exaggerated interpretations of legal rules that attempt to punish or squelch the protesters.”
Lynching: “For many African Americans growing up in the South in the 19th and 20th centuries, the threat of lynching was commonplace. The popular image of an angry white mob stringing a black man up to a tree is only half the story. Lynching, an act of terror meant to spread fear among blacks, served the broad social purpose of maintaining white supremacy in the economic, social and political spheres.”
Once upon a time, the (lily-white) power structure used lynching as a means of maintaining control. Now, in the shadow of the holiday celebrating Dr. King’s life and work, they are deploying this accusation in order to punish and prosecute people who have exercised the right gifted by this idea, this country, this place of alleged freedom: the right to speak your piece, “to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
The idea remains intact, even after so prolonged an assault from so determined a foe.
It is, as ever, worth fighting for. As Dr. King said, “An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”
Dig in, people.
Dig in deep.
The Promised Land is far and wee, and all we have in the meantime is ourselves, our hopes, our dreams, each other, and the promise of an idea that – with our blood, sweat, and toil – may yet be fulfilled.