It was a beautiful, sunny Sunday in the nation’s capital as tens of thousands of people from all across the country gathered to finally dedicate the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial. The event had the spirit of an extended church service as we celebrated Dr. King for his prophetic words, his self-sacrificing actions, his faithful perseverance, and his radical pursuit of justice. King’s “dream” of a pluralistic beloved community served as the guiding motif for the celebration and indeed is the starting place for the American collective memory of Dr. King. However the speakers at the dedication would not allow us to become complacent in thinking that the real progress that America has made suggests that the dream has been fulfilled.
Some focused on systemic disparities with racial undertones, citing black male incarceration statistics, black high school drop out rates, failing schools and the like. Others reflected on the inclusive ideology of Dr. King and insisted that the cooperation of all oppressed populations would be needed to overcome the ills of today’s society. Still others insisted that when a man can be executed on recanted eyewitness testimony, justice remains elusive in America.
Beyond reflections on the racial progress of America, the speakers engaged the post-1963 King by extending the dream of racial justice to a broader dream of economic justice for all. What was most interesting in this regard was the tenuous way in which many of the speakers claimed kinship with Occupy Wall Street. Rev. Bernice King, Dr. King’s youngest child, described his “Poor People’s Campaign” as an attempt to galvanize “poor people from all walks of life to converge on this nation’s capital and stay here and occupy this place until there was change in the economic system and a better distribution of wealth.” Her brother, Martin Luther King III, gave a litany of economic grievances that have inspired the “young people of the occupy movement.” Rev. Jessie Jackson called the occupiers, “the children and offspring of Dr. King’s poor people’s campaign and resurrection city” and advised them to “keep protesting. Remain nonviolent. Stay disciplined. Stay focused.” Rev. Al Sharpton used the language of occupy to not only describe Dr. King’s intended plans for the Poor People’s Campaign, but as a meme to inspire the attendees to “occupy the voter booth” and see economic justice be done in America.
In this sense, the occupy movement was very much on the minds of the speakers and attendees of the King memorial dedication. Nevertheless, I found the connection between the two tenuous at best as many of the speakers admired the occupy movement from afar, yet did not assert that the masses gathered to commemorate the King memorial join forces with the occupiers. In fact, while OccupyDC was camped in at McPherson Square in DC on Saturday, Al Sharpton’s National Action Network was marching through the same city, staging their own separate protest at the same time. If we juxtapose this lack of actionable engagement with the actions of OccupyAtlanta in refusing to allow Representative John Lewis to address their assembly, then we witness a paradoxic of mutual admiration and mutual mistrust between the veterans of the Civil Rights Movement and the youth of the Occupy movement. This paradox is causing both camps to keep each other at arms length, to the detriment of both. Occupy could benefit from the wisdom and experience of those who fought for racial and economic justice in the 50s and 60s. The allies of the CRM who continue to press on for racial and economic justice need the energy, the sense of urgency, and the bodies of the youth in the Occupy movement. Occupy could use a more clear of mission, a stronger sense of strategy, and the tools of coalition building. The older generation, as exemplified at the King memorial dedication, can more authentically connect historical social justice movements to the Occupy movement. These two coalitions need each other, even if they do not realize it yet. Indeed, perhaps as one sign read at the dedication, it is time to “occupy the dream.”