shall we celebrate King’s birthday? Conversations
with Vincent Harding
Citizen, January 2006
Over the holidays
my old friend Vincent Harding, the African American historian who
worked closely with King during the 1960s and drafted his 1967 anti-Vietnam
war speech, spent several days with me. When he couldn’t make it to
my 90th birthday party in June, Vincent explained, he resolved to
visit me during my 90th year and before I might be leaving this life.
A lot of our discussion centered around
how in the last three years of his life King called for a revolution
in values against the triple threats of Racism, Materialism and Militarism.
Why do most King celebrations back away from or ignore this message?
Is it because he was going where most Americans don’t want to go –
so that there was almost a sigh of relief when he was assassinated?
King’s challenge was not only directed to white people. As Vincent
put it ten years ago: “All we need to do is look around us and see
how much over the past 15-20 years we Black folks have decided (consciously
or not) to fight racism by seeking for ‘equal opportunity’ or a ‘fair
share’ in the nation’s militarism and materialism. In other words,
we have chosen to fight against one of the triple threats by joining
the other two.” (Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero. Orbis 1996).
King was deeply affected by the rioting, burning, pain, anguish, fears
of youth in the cities of the north. He felt these children were his.
In 1966, the year after Watts exploded, he lived on and off in the Chicago ghetto where he knew “the grapes of wrath
are stored.” Listening to young people, he concluded that the education
we need “in our dying cities” is education that empowers youth to
participate in creating change in themselves and in their surroundings. That is why we founded
One night we invited a few people, mostly in their late teens and
early 20s, to dialogue with Vincent. In response to their questions,
he shared these thoughts.
“The most profound thing I learned from MLK was that change does not
come automatically. ‘Things’ do not change. People who are committed
to change, who are change-makers, have to decide what kind of change
they want to commit to.”
“Jimmy Boggs was always teaching around the question, ‘How do you
become the human being.that you have the
potential to become? You are not born a human being. It is a journey
that you have to make.’”
“During the mid-60s we were wrestling with the contradiction that
the Vietnam War was LBJ’s war and at the
same time LBJ was the best friend Blacks had ever had as President.
But as the war continued, Martin recognized that there was no way
he could remain silent and be human. The invitation from Clergy and
Laity Concerned to speak at Riverside Church gave him the opportunity
to take a stand in a setting that made clear what was involved was
not just ‘politics’ but the need for a revolution in values.”
“During his last few years MLK knew he was a marked man. When I told
this to a group of middle school students, a 13-year-old asked, “If
King knew this, why didn’t he just ‘chill
out?’ While I was thinking through how to respond, a 12-year-old girl
came up and said, “What do you mean ‘chill out’? He had work to do.”
“What people believe in their hearts is what I call ‘Faith.’ Martin
believed that we are all one; that there is a fundamental commonness.
“Because I am a Christian I am called to speak not only for the poor
of this country but also for the poor of Vietnam.”
“Only after Malcolm was assassinated and his autobiography published,
only after King was assassinated, did we have the materials to recognize
that there was a falsehood in setting up MLK vs. Malcolm. Malcolm
decided that he couldn’t continue Mr. Muhammad’s non-involvement in
the struggle. That is why he was killed.”
“Anger can get you out there, but as time goes on, it plays less of
a role and we need to be clear about the vision, the spirit, the
goal. Anger can add power to commitment to change but there is also
a danger in it.”
Emma asked “How do you encourage students like those at my high school,
who are only interested in the latest gadget, to truly honor
King’s birthday rather than just sleep in?”
Vincent replied, “You will probably have to push yourself by taking
on more responsibility because you have had access to a new way of
thinking...Maybe you could bring together a few of the people you
hang out with and plan an event to commemorate King’s assassination
in April. You don’t have to wait until next year.”
A few days later Emma sent me an email saying “I loved going to the
discussion. I was amazed at his level of enthusiasm about each question
and it reminded me of what I love in teachers (particularly the good
ones). Their amazing ability to make each person feel unique and that
they are the only ones in the world who had ever thought of such a
question; that you are a genius to think that way. I look forward
to skipping homework on a regular basis and going to more discussions.