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Which Martin Luther King Do You Honor Today?


ALPERN AT LARGE - Our modern-day America is decidedly united in its veneration, respect and honoring of Martin Luther King, yet it remains as divided as ever over which lingering image and/or icon it envisions the late Reverend King.  One might almost wonder whether the two sides, both honoring and eulogizing the man, is referring to the same person. 


Yet Martin Luther King (MLK) is--as with Lincoln, Washington, FDR and JFK--is not just a man but a figure.  An ideal, a beacon of hope to which we transfer our own higher angels and higher visions.  He is a figure of hope and courage to the oppressed of this world, yet also a figure of greater demanding of one's own energies and sacrifices.  

He is both a figure of forgetting not the oppression amongst us, as well as a figure of jettisoning the excuses we place in front of our own advancement...and he is therefore both the most unifying and divisive figure in our modern day.  Not because of anything MLK did or said, but because of our own divided nature of demanding compassion to others and demanding courage of ourselves. 

One portion of America focuses on the past; yet another focuses on the present.  But to focus on the future, one cannot ignore either aspect of our existence.  To deny slavery and Jim Crow laws is to deny our nation's imperfect past (the same can be said for the horrible ways we savaged Native Americans and interned Japanese Americans, among other horrific nightmares in American history). 

Yet history and reality don't lie...although many try vigorously to distort them.  The hideous, horrible but undeniable truth is that the unspeakable horrors of black slavery in the United States has left the descendants of those kidnapped, tortured, enslaved and killed in by far a better socioeconomic environment than those descendants who now starve and live in utter poverty in Africa. 

Hardly a lionization of the nightmare of the American black experience, but certainly a promise of what America still remains with respect to the enabling and betterment of the future for those willing to fight for themselves and their children. 

As a Jew, I am certainly aware of the horrible way that Jews were treated--and still are treated--in some segments of this nation.  Yet the future of American Jewry, and of Asian and Latino Americans, holds incredible promise as well as ample economic and political empowerment.  Victimhood is shunned among American Jews, yet memory of the past is demanded--"forgive, but not forget" is an American Jewish credo. 

Hitler's "Final Solution" was final because his original efforts to expel Jews failed--and America under FDR was no exception to the rest of the world that wanted nothing to do with the Jews Hitler did not want.  Yet the same persecution of Jews led to the fleeing of German Jewish scientists who allowed the United States to discover and perfect the atomic bomb in our country...and not the Germany to which they were once loyal. 

In other words, as with American slavery, the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust, coupled with the racist and bigoted history of the United States, still allows for wonderful things to happen in a nation that evolves and confronts different aspects of our society to achieve a smarter, more nuanced and better future. 

So which MLK do YOU honor, the one who demanded an end to oppression or the one who demanded that people all be judged as individuals and not by their skin color? 

In an era where some of our most wealthy and influential individuals are African American (Oprah Winfrey, Will Smith and Morgan Freeman come to mind), the future of black America--and how the rest of the nation perceives black America--will certainly range from oppressed to respected to a "who cares" approach that gets past race altogether. 

There is economic injustice, but that is hardly limited to the African American experience. 

There is economic empowerment, but that is also hardly limited to the African American experience. 

There is racism, but that is hardly limited to the African American experience.  

And there is corporate and political advancement, but that, too, is hardly limited to the African American experience. 

What is certainly true is that those who care about African Americans (and about ALL Americans) will differ as to which method or strategy to pursue.  

Liberals and Democrats will, by and large, continue to seek support from the public sector to address past and present injustices.  For example, inner city schools just don't have the fiscal moxie to move students forward...which students deserve as arguably the great civil right not being addressed today. 

Conservatives and Republicans will, by and large, continue to seek support from the private sector to address past and present injustices.  For example, a majority of black Americans (particularly those in the inner city) favor school vouchers as the best method to access their schools of choice, and there is concerned about the proper culture in which to best educate inner city students and advance their futures. 

Blame will fly everywhere from insensitive white Americans to dysfunctional black Americans, from Republicans who did not attend (and should have attended) the recent march commemorating MLK's dream to Democrats who did attend but exploited this march to advance their own pet projects and political advancement. 

Yet the MLK we all know is still two-fold in our modern era.  We have a black President, but black unemployment is higher than ever--African Americans have NOT fared well under President Obama despite their undeniable support of the man. 

We want to be post-racial, but the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case still shows how many people (on BOTH sides of the political and racial aisle) are willing to take a side that more than borders on racism and racial stereotyping.  

And it's not to be forgotten that most African Americans who suffer do so for reasons that have nothing to do with that case--when one considers the bloodbath of Chicago youths, the misery of Detroit, and the ongoing hopelessness in our own nation's capitol, it is clear that African Americans need our support...but the approach to that support will be as divisive and debated as ever. 

The rise of the Latino, Jewish and especially Asian populations in our country further complicate the issues surrounding black American empowerment, and will create responses ranging from a demand for further assistance to a demand to end self-perpetuating excuses and agendas that keep African Americans from sharing in the American Dream. 

Yet it is the duality of MLK that makes him special--he is our link to our imperfect past as well as our link to a better future.  He is the demand that our society remember the nightmares of the past, as well as the demand that no one should allow themselves excuses to underachieve. 

And MLK is probably just a transference of our own ideals--anyone claiming to know what MLK would think, do or say in this modern era is probably just proclaiming themselves to have all the answers. 

Yet with the understanding that there will always remain two sides to our interpretation of MLK's experience and proclamations, there can remain an understanding that both sides need to be heard, and neither side ignored. 

Fifty years from now, Americans will be looking back at our own imperfect era, and it will be up to us to determine what progress we made as a society to advance the cause of black America, and of all America, and to follow the path that we thought the late Reverend King was demanding we walk and march.


(Ken Alpern is a Westside Village Zone Director and Boardmember of the Mar Vista Community Council (MVCC), previously co-chaired its Planning and Outreach Committees, and currently is Co-Chair of its MVCC Transportation/Infrastructure Committee. He is co-chair of the CD11 Transportation Advisory Committee and chairs the nonprofit Transit Coalition, and can be reached at [email protected] This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . He also co-chairs the grassroots Friends of the Green Line at www.fogl.us. The views expressed in this article are solely those of Mr. Alpern.)









Vol 11 Issue 70

Pub: Aug 30, 2013



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