If one were to look up “tenacity” in a dictionary, one might well simply search for logo of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, or a photograph of the MLK Memorial Foundation’s Executive Director Harry Johnson Sr. In 1984, the men of Alpha Phi Alpha proposed a national memorial to Dr. King, and they continued to push until President Bill Clinton signed legislation in 1996 proposing the establishment of the memorial. The Alphas used their congressional juice to get an area and foundation established, and to take leadership in raising money for the memorial. One of their own, former Alpha President Harry Johnson Sr., has been indefatigable in his efforts to take the King Memorial from concept to reality. I am sure that there were times when Johnson wondered whether the dream of a King monument would be realized. This weekend, however, on the 48th anniversary of the “I Have A Dream” Speech, Johnson’s dream, and the dream of millions, has come to fruition. The Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Monument is the only recognition of an African American on the National Mall. It is the only tribute on the Mall to someone who has not been a President of the United States.
It is tempting to use metaphor to suggest that the inclusion of an African American icon on the Mall suggests inclusion of African Americans in our society. It is tempting to use the grand sweep to discuss how far Black folk have come. From segregating to inclusion, with the inclusion reflected in the White House, with President Obama presiding over what is, unfortunately, a crumbling nation and a shattered economy. We can wax eloquent until the real deal of our national reality slaps us in the face.
This is, of course, to take nothing away from the majesty of the celebration of the monument. There is an excitement around the way this monument, against all odds, has been constructed and is being celebrated. But even as we relish and enjoy the moment, it is important to ask “What Would Martin Say?” as we celebrate. He said,
“The curse of poverty has no justification in our age. It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization, when men ate each other because they had not yet learned to take food from the soil, or to consume the abundant animal life around them.” When he uttered these words, the poverty rate was about 10 percent; now it exceeds 12 percent, with the rate for African Americans and Latinos flirting with 25 percent. Shouldn’t some of our celebration of Dr. King include the continuation of his fight against poverty? Somehow poverty isn’t often referenced, the socially blind cruelty simply accepted. We cringe at those who stand on streets begging for money, and moralize that they ought to get work. Yet, we see unemployment data that suggest that there is little work to be had. We don’t connect the dots. We are, in the words of King “socially. . .cruel and blind.”
So even as a statue opens to the public, doors close to too many Americans. Even as people throng to celebrate, there are those who are supportive, but who have had nothing to celebrate in a long time. The debt ceiling has imposed a particular ugliness on the current climate. As cities gird up for fall and winter, they are grappling with the reality that many will be unable to pay for utilities, and have the possibility of freezing this winter. Some were buttressed by federal funds, funds that must be cut. Similarly, there are cities where there is vacant housing and also homelessness. Why not put some of the homeless into vacant homes. Banks are often special villains, chasing profit and repelling the people whose dollars have inflated their bottom line.
Here is what Dr. King said, “We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. … You see my friends, when you deal with this, you begin to ask the question, ‘Who owns the oil?’ You begin to ask the question, ‘Who owns the iron ore?’ You begin to ask the question, ‘Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that is two-thirds water?’"
Dr. King spoke to economic restructuring. So does the Tea Party, though from another perspective. Too many have been silent about the economic disparities that define our nation, even as they celebrate Harry Johnson’s amazing accomplishment. While Johnson’s dream has been realized, Dr. King’s dream for economic justice, which means economic restructuring, remains deferred. This is a dichotomy and also a tragedy.
Julianne Malveaux is an economist and president of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, North Carolina.