Many around the world watched with great pride as President Obama spoke at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial dedication. Black civil rights, political, and entertainment royalty were present, surrounded by thousands of people who wanted to be close to the tribute on the National Mall for a non-president.
Everyone from Rev. Al Sharpton and members of the Congressional Black Caucus to Nikki Giovanni and Aretha Franklin were there as presenters and participants alike. References were made to all forms of black resistance and struggle, providing the audience with a picture of the movements that shifted the country and the world to change. That is all but one movement and its leader.
Left out of the MLK Memorial celebration by every speaker was the fact that it was the 16th anniversary of the Million Man March. And Minister Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam and the march’s charismatic and often chastised convener, was no where to be found in Washington DC.
Quietly and off the record, some in black leadership circles questioned if the memorial dedication should have been held on the anniversary of the march at all. Many believed it would have been a challenge for the president to speak at the memorial if too many references were made to the Million Man March and Farrakhan.
Well, mission accomplished. It was a “Farrakhan Free” event. But in the name of remaining politically safe, did the broader community lose an opportunity to connect the spirit of MLK to movements that came after him, which he arguably would have supported?
King himself believed that it was essential for black men to do for themselves what no legislation could do. He once said, “I have come here tonight to plead with you, believe in yourself and believe that your somebody, No document can do this for us. No Lincolnian Emancipation Proclamation can do this for us. No Kennisonian or Johnsonian Civil Rights Bill can do this for us. If the Negro is to be free he must move down into the inner resources of his own soul and sign with a pen and ink of self-asserted manhood his own emancipation proclamation. Don’t let anyone take your manhood.” This was not the some total of the King that was honored yesterday, but it was certainly a part.
I, like so many black men my age, remember getting on a bus from Toledo, Oh with men 30 years my senior and boys a decade my junior with no certainty of what we would see hear or experience once we got to Washington. I remember seeing hundreds of buses on the highways carrying thousands of mostly men who gave each other affirming embraces of solidarity at rest stops and restaurants along the way.
There were no fights, mass robberies, incidents of vandalism, or criminal activity reported anywhere in the country associated with the pilgrimage of men in route to an event that above all else was encouraging them to atone. Was this an event that could not be mentioned during yesterday’s celebration?
The truth is, that too many mainstream black leaders are still afraid of being mildly associated with Minister Farrakhan. And while I am not writing to defend Farrakhan, his every action, or statement, I would like to defend the event — that on October 16, 1995 only Minister Louis Farrakhan had the credibility and capacity to pull off.
He made a statement in Philadelphia during the formal commemoration of the march last week that summarized his thoughts about then and now:
The Million Man March could never have happened unless Christian pastors joined with us to make it happen. If we could rise above our differences to produce what was never seen before and hasn’t been duplicated since, then what is our call today? To rise above the things we differ about because the future of our people depends upon our ability to mobilize for action to bring about the results that we’ve been begging others for which will never come to us. We have got to do it ourselves and if we don’t have the mind and the spirit to bring ourselves out of the condition that we are in, then we deserve whatever chastisement Allah (God) will bring upon us for our refusal to accept our responsibility.
I was moved by the president’s remarks that spoke to the humanity of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. President Obama captured a piece of what we all need to talk about. Seeing the humanity in each other, even as we disagree on issues of ideology and policy.
While it’s not the president’s job to lift up the name of the Million Man March, I wish someone would have looked beyond the flawed man and acknowledges their brother, Farrakhan, for the contribution he’s made to the legacy of the man being honored.
This was most certainly King’s day. He was and should have been the focus of all that was done in word and spirit. But if the event was going to be on the anniversary of the march, what an opportunity to honor King by building bridges in the face of past disagreements.
The MLK event was an inspiring one that I hope spawns movement and not just talk. King’s true legacy exists within the work of all those willing to be despised in life for speaking words others refuse, to build infrastructure others will not, to create transformation others don’t have the capacity to.