King memorial arouses the question of whether his legacy has been forgotten
Thousands of people gathered on Nov. 13, in Washington’s National Mall to inaugurate a memorial to honor the African-American civil rights leader, Martin Luther King Jr., most notably known for his inspiring “I Have A Dream speech, delivered in Washington in 1963.
That this remarkable man would be remembered with adoration is not surprising, but unfortunately the occasion also pointed out how American politicians never miss the chance to benefit from posing in the light of a national figure celebrated as a national hero.
It did not come as a surprise to see among the speakers King’s daughter, Yolinda Denise King paying tribute to her father; or talk show host Oprah Winfrey, one of the most successful African-American persons in America; or John Lewis, a great civil rights activist of the civil rights movement who was physically attacked and psychologically strained for daring to challenge segregation in America.
Yet it was completely startling to see ex-President Bill Clinton and President George W. Bush line up as two of the speakers, particularly the latter, as he stands in utter contrast to what Martin Luther King Jr. represented. If King were living today, he would undoubtedly be one of the fiercest opponents of the president’s war on Iraq.
Not only did King stand for non-violence – and using non-violence he advocated effective protest strategies that attacked segregation – but he was one of the sternest critics of President Johnson and the war on Vietnam despite his vulnerable position as a civil rights leader who was very much dependent on the president.
The decision to oppose Vietnam at an early point in the war was one of the most difficult King undertook in his life and by doing so he forfeited many supporters, including liberals, the media, politicians and the president himself. Even activists from his own camp doubted the wisdom of his decision, since the stance would expose the movement to attack from various opponents who had long awaited such a chance to see King vulnerable. Even the media, one of King’s most important allies, did not hesitate to tear him apart for his condemnation of the Vietnam War.
“They must have seen Americans as strange liberators, is not an Al-Jazeera statement concerning the Iraq war and the invasion of American troops, claiming to be liberators, but a comment made by King during a speech given in 1966 entitled: “A Time to Break the Silence, where he stated that there was a time when silence was betrayal.
The fact that President Bush was one of the main speakers during this memorial just shows how unfamiliar he is with the life and work of this man whose life was violently ended by a gunshot while leading a non-violent protest campaign in Memphis for underpaid and oppressed black garbage men. It also shows us that many more must open up history books and reread who this man was.
Sherif Abdel Samad is currently writing his Ph.D. in the field of American studies at the JFK Institute at the Free University of Berlin. He is writing about non-violence in the American civil rights movement.