Sunday, January 14, 2007

It's MLK Day

John Nichols, "Dr. King and the Media":
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose legacy has been celebrated this weekend in Memphis by National Conference for Media Reform speakers such as Bill Moyers, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, actor Danny Glover and Democracy Now's Amy Goodman, often prodded the U.S. media to do a better job of covering the civil rights movement that he championed in the 195Os and 196Os.
King recognized that, while ending segregation and creating opportunities for African Americans was his first goal, getting the media to do its job had to be on the agenda.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner knew that organizing, marching and protesting in a vacuum would not bring change. The American people and their elected representatives needed to know that demands were being made for the redress of grievances.

As Jodie Allen, a veteran journalist with U.S. News and World Report, has noted, "Martin Luther King presciently saw that the pictures were worth a thousand words in showing this and that segregation could not persist in the face of illumination when the spotlights were on it."

King believed that the generally favorable coverage of the 1963 March on Washington represented a breakthrough, writing in his autobiography that, "If anyone had questioned how deeply the summer's activities had penetrated the consciousness of white America, the answer was evident in the treatment accorded the March on Washington by all the media of communication. Normally Negro activities are the object of attention in the press only when they are likely to lead to some dramatic outbreak, or possess some bizarre quality. The march was the first organized Negro operation that was accorded respect and coverage commensurate with its importance. The millions who viewed it on television were seeing an event historic not only because of the subject but because it was being brought into their homes."

"Millions or white Americans, for the first time, had a clear, long look at Negroes engaged in a serious occupation," King continued. "For the first time millions listened to the informed and thoughtful words of Negro spokesmen, from all walks of life. The stereotype of the Negro suffered a heavy blow. This was evident in some of the comments which reflected surprise at the dignity, the organization, and even the wearing apparel and friendly spirit of the participants. If the press had expected something akin to a minstrel show, or a brawl, or a comic display of odd clothes and bad manners, they were disappointed. A great deal has been said about a dialogue between Negro and white. Genuinely to achieve it requires that all the media of communications open their channels wide as they did on that radiant August day."

Unfortunately, the channels have not remained so wide open.

When King began in 1967 to express outspoken opposition to the war in Vietnam, historian Taylor Branch recalls, "The reaction of the press was the most damaging public reaction that he had from the white press." The Washington Post went so far as to declare that, with his opposition to the war, "King has diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people."

Similarly, King's attempts to advance an economic justice agenda –- the work of his final days as he came to Memphis to march with striking garbage collectors –- was dismissed as a both futile and dangerous.

Things have only grown worse as media consolidation has led to a dumbing down of our mass communications. As civic and democratic values have been replaced by the commercial and entertainment impulses of bottom-line driven big media companies, coverage of social and economic justice movements has declined. And the relatively serious examinations of fundamental questions of war and peace that were seen during the Vietnam War have been replaced by the embedded – or, as Pultizer Prize winning author Studs Terkel refers to it: "in bed with the administration" -- coverage of the Iraq quagmire.

This weekend, as Americas prepare to mark the 78th anniversary of King's birth, activists, journalists, academics, FCC commissioners and members of Congress have gathered in Memphis for the third National Conference for Media Reform. Jackson, Moyers, Sanders, Newspaper Guild President Linda Foley and 3,000 others are raising the alarm about the threat consolidation of media ownership and the embrace of bottom-line values poses to quality journalism and to democracy itself.

Dr. King understood that a free, diverse and adventurous press was essential to social progress. As Danny Glover explained in Memphis, the media-reform movement has embraced that understanding and are carrying it into the 21st century.

Recalling King's observation that, "Our nettlesome task is to discover how to organize our strength into compelling power," Glover told the crowd, "The nettlesome task about which Dr. King spoke is still being carried out by people who embody character, courage and the fortitude to make decisions in support of truth not spin, people who critically embrace diversity and reject monopoly."

Geov Parrish, "We could each be Dr. King":
TV whitewashes King's legacy; work is not over

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., would have been 78 on Monday. He has been dead for 39 years, as long as he was alive. As his living memory fades, replaced by a feel-good "I have a dream" whitewash that ignores much of what he stood for and fought against, it's more important than ever to recapture the true history of Dr. King -- because much of what he fought against is resurfacing or still with us today.

King, the man, was, along with Mohandas Gandhi, one of the two most internationally revered symbols of nonviolence in the 20th century. He spent his too-brief adult life defying authority and convention, citing a higher moral authority, and gave hope and inspiration for the liberation of people of color on six continents. MLK Day, the holiday, has devolved into the Mississippi Burning of third Mondays. What started out as gratitude, that they made a movie about it, gradually becomes revulsion at how new generations of Euro-Americans mislearn the story.
King is not a legend because he believed in diversity trainings and civic ceremonies, or because he had a nice dream. He is remembered because he took serious risks and, as the Quakers say, spoke truth to power. King is also remembered because, among a number of brave and committed civil rights leaders and activists, he had a flair for self-promotion, a style that also appealed to white liberals, and the extraordinary social strength of the black Southern churches behind him. And because he died before he had a chance to be widely believed a relic or buffoon.

What little history TV will give us around King's holiday is at least as much about forgetting as about remembering, as much about self-congratulatory patriotism that King was American as self-examination that American racism made him necessary and that government, at every level, sought to destroy him. We hear "I have a dream"; we don't hear his powerful indictments of poverty, the Vietnam War, and the military-industrial complex. We see Bull Connor in Birmingham; we don't see arrests for fighting segregated housing in Chicago, or the years of beatings and busts before he won the Nobel Peace Prize. We don't hear about the mainstream American contempt at the time for King, even after that Peace Prize, nor the FBI harassment or his reputation among conservatives as a Commie dupe.

We don't see retrospectives on King's linkage of civil rights with Third World liberation. We forget that he died in Memphis lending support for a union (the garbage workers' strike), while organizing a multi-racial Poor Peoples' Campaign that demanded affordable housing and decent-paying jobs as basic civil rights transcending skin color. We forget that many of King's fellow leaders weren't nearly so polite. Cities were burning. We remember Selma instead.

And we forget that of those many dreams King had, only one -- equal access for non-whites -- is significantly realized today. A half-century after the Montgomery bus boycott catapulted a 26-year-old King into prominence, even that is only partly achieved. Blacks are being systematically disenfranchised in our elections, and affirmative action and school desegregation are all but dead. Urban school districts across the country these days are as segregated and unequal as ever, and a conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court likely heralds a new era where employers and landlords can discriminate with near-impunity.

But an even bigger problem, as a generation dies off and the historical memory fades, is that Dr. King has become an icon, not a historical figure (distorted or otherwise). History requires context; icons don't. The racism King challenged four and five decades ago in Georgia and Alabama was also dominant throughout the country. Here in Seattle, few whites know that history: the housing and school segregation, laws barring Asians from owning land (overturned only in the '60s), the marches downtown from predominantly black Garfield High School, police harassment of both radical and mainstream black activists, the still-unsolved assassination of a local NAACP leader.

Every city in America has such histories. We don't know the stories of the people, many still with us, who led those struggles. And we rarely acknowledge that the overt racism of Montgomery 1955 is no longer so overt, but still part of America 2007. It shows up in our geography, in our jails, in our schools, in our voting booths, in our shelters and food banks, in our economy, and in the very earnest and extremely white activist groups that often carry the banner on these issues.

If our cities were serious about his legacy, Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. would run through downtowns, and there would be MLK Elementary Schools in the suburbs. Instead, in just about every big city in the U.S., school districts and city councils put King back in the ghetto, along with both the legions of people who worked with him and the many more who've taken up his work since.

Opponents of affirmative action and racial equality can claim King's mantle and "if he were alive today" approval only because in 2007, pop culture's MLK has no politics. And, for that matter, no faith. For white America, King's soft-focus image often reinforces white supremacism. "See? We're not so bad. We honor him now. Why don't those black people just get over it, anyway? We did."

All that is a lie. Dr. King's vision is today as urgent as ever. While Jim Crow and the cruelties of overt segregation are now largely unimaginable, much remains to be done. And for those who carry King's banner, the challenges of apathy and official hostility remain the same: the FBI and NSA spying on peace groups, listening to phone calls, monitoring e-mails, opening mail. An administration -- voted for by almost no African-Americans -- that reviles nonviolence and labels its critics as treasonous (rather than as communist dupes). And the moral outrage of Americans that made King's work so politically effective? We don't do that any more. We can torture thousands of mostly innocent Iraqis and Afghans, in plain sight, and nobody is held accountable. It'd take a whole lot more than Bull Connor's police dogs to make the news today.

The saddest loss in the modern narrative of Dr. King's career is the story of who he was: a man without wealth, without elected office, who managed as a single individual to change the world simply through the strength of his moral convictions. His power came from his faith, and his willingness to act on what he knew to be right. That story could inspire many millions to similar action -- if only it were told. We could each be Dr. King.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., nonviolent martyr to reconciliation and justice, has become a Hallmark Card, a warm, fuzzy, feel-good invocation of neighborliness, a file photo for sneakers or soda commercials, a reprieve for post-holiday shoppers, an excuse for a three-day weekend, a cardboard cutout used for photo ops by dissembling Cabinet members and ungrateful Supreme Court justices. Be sure to check out the Three-Day-Only White Sale at WalMart. Always a better price. Always.

Dr. King deserves better. We all do.

1 comment:

Jay Whipple said...

Dr. King Deserves Better in Charlotte, NC!

http://drkingdeservesbetter.blogspot.com/