Here in New York Martin Luther King’s legacy is celebrated partly with a day off work. My feeling is that the infotainment culture has managed to repackage Martin Luther King into a two-minute cliché that we dust off every year for his birthday and then again for our so-called Black History month. In that way, the power and meaning of his struggles and the struggles of those that walked by his side are lessened.
King himself has been made into some legendary historical figure and in that way, his humanity has also been lessened, thus taking away from the power of his message.
I’m with my man, Michael Eric Dyson, who has called for a moratorium on the “I Have a Dream” speech.
40 years later, everyone wants to claim Martin, even the very same conservatives who despised when he was alive. Conservatives love to cut-and-paste Martin’s words to justify their hatred towards affirmative action, but Kng was on record for affirmative action. Not too long ago Mitt Romney had to retract the lie that he had seen his father walk with King. It never happened. In fact, do you people know that Mormons didn’t allow blacks full participation into their religion until the 1970s? Do you know that the Mormon religion and its founders considered Blacks inferior? I’m guessing you didn’t know this, but it’s true.
The way I see him portrayed today on CNN and the mainstream media, I see a nice and tidy repackaging that doesn’t even come near King’s radically progressive views on labor, war, and a host of other issues. All I see and hear is “I have a dream… ”and it’s lost so much of its power.
So today, instead of rehashing the cliches, I will try to recount how this man’s life and message has affected my life.
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“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
— Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” April 1963
“Organizing is getting the masses off their asses.”
— Saul Alinsky
It’s not much, it’s a small patch – a lot – in the middle of a Brooklyn block. The lot is teeming with children on this hot NYC summer day and there are flowers, and a playground. There’s even a wooden stage and on some evenings, you can come to this lot and watch plays, or listen to music. Towards the back of the lot, there’s a patch devoted to growing vegetables, and Don Americo, an aged and gentle man tends to his “children,” this year’s crop of corn and tomatoes. There’s talk of building a casita, so that the people of the neighborhood can use the lot in the cold winter months.
To step into this little green oasis in the middle of the stark urban decay that surrounded it, is to be transformed. And I smile because it wasn’t always like this…
As I sit down on one of the benches, I reflect back to several years before when this lot was a rat-infested abandoned lot where crack addicts and prostitutes took care of business under the cover of overgrown weeds. I never imagined it at the time, that it could become something like this – a safe place for children and the people of the neighborhood.
Not even me…
Several yeas before, I took a job as an organizer for a national organization. The pay was miserable, the hours long, and it was a thankless job, but I took it because I hadn’t been able to work for almost two years. My past was serving as an obstacle to gainful employment. I had to quit graduate school and my marriage had dissolved. It seemed as if everything I had worked for was imploding. So I took this job as an organizer and they put me in the neighborhood I was raised – Bushwick, in Brooklyn.
Organizing is a very difficult job under any circumstances, but on top of trying to convince a largely disaffected population to get involved, I also had to convince them to pay me for the opportunity to do it. The organization I worked for ran on membership dues and collecting those dues was a large (too large!) part of my job. Now, I have a lot of experience in separating people from their money and in the beginning, I was getting members left and right. Then, one day, a woman gave me five of the last ten dollars she had because she believed in what I was saying. After that, I said fuck the membership dues.
By then, I had become disillusioned with the organization and with the people I was trying to organize. People didn’t care and nothing was being done. I came to Bushwick hoping to make a difference, but the neighborhood had changed tremendously since I had last set foot there and, well, shit wasn’t working.
I walked by this empty lot and I decided that I would concentrate on that. I really didn’t have a plan, but somehow that lot called to me. I began by knocking on each and every door on the block. My pitch was simple: I would ask people how they felt about the lot, what they would do with it if they had the power to change it, and then tell them that there was a group composed of their neighbors working to make such changes. Basic organizing 101 type-shit.
I knocked on every door on that block and I got, like, five people who were interested. One of them was a girlfriend I had when I was in high school, who had become a teacher, Enid. Enid would become my champion. She was the true organizer, fast on her feet, full of energy, and really aggressive. Three were church people who wanted to make their neighborhood safer. Lastly, there was Doña Maria, who would become my leader, my muscle. Doña Maria could browbeat anyone into submission. She was the Universal Mother, who knew everybody’s business, joined my group because she was watching me walk up and down the block, and demanded to know what the fuck I was up to.
The lot was really Doña Maria’s idea. She took me the front of the lot and told me that if I wanted to do something, do something about that fuckin’ lot. Ands that’s how it started. Enid printed up flyers, started a database of members, and was in charge of recruiting. Doña Maria and her daughters made sure people on the block joined, and the church people convinced their pastors/ ministers/ priests to let me address their respective congregations. My personal story is pretty much a variation on a redemption song and I would use that as part of my orientation. Soon, my ragtag group of women had managed to create a stir on the block, people were getting interested, but the majority was still laying back, checking out to see if this was the real thing.
At first people – strangers really – are a crowd. Just a group of people thrown together by economic or political forces. That crowd can eventually become a group – an informal network of people somehow connected through these same circumstances. Eventually, that group can become a force once they get to know one another and learn of each other’s strengths and weaknesses. My crowd had become a group very quickly and was now evolving into a force to be reckoned with and I needed to help them realize their power. I noticed a street lamp wasn’t working, so I made that our first campaign. My group did the research, learned who to petition and they got the streetlamp fixed. Now, maybe to you it doesn’t sound like a lot, but for my people, it was a big thing! They had effected change. They had tasted their power and now were thirsty for more.
The next step was to get the city to clean the lot. This is where lives were changed. It was decided we hold a protest and during the protest, a police officer pushed one of the church ladies. Now this particular individual was as far removed from me, politically speaking, as could be. She probably was very conservative, socially speaking. But that officer unwittingly created my fiercest, most radical member by his action. She was outraged that she was treated that way.
One step at a time, that group was successful in taking over that empty lot and creating a community garden. That garden has the seal of the New York /City Parks Department and it can never be taken away. That community garden transformed that block, driving away the drug dealers and the sex trade. I was fired from my job for not collecting membership dues and by that time, the group had grown into over a 100 members – and growing. Neighboring blocks saw what was happening on our block and had become interested. When I told them I could no longer work with them, they pooled all their money, they held a block party and collected money, and they offered it to me.
Of course, I refused the money. I told them to use it for the community garden to plant something for me. Doña Maria, always the hardass, told me that she always knew I would leave them, and then she smiled. When I left, the group was strong and in reality, I wasn’t leading jack. They were leading and teaching me. It was time for me to move on anyway.
A year later, they created the most beautiful garden. I love that garden.
Did it change the world? Did Bushwick change? Did it make that much of a difference? I don’t know. One day I asked Doña Maria, who has now become an organizer herself – I asked her, “Why do all this if it isn’t going to make a difference?” Her answer is what drives me; it’s what gives my life meaning. She told me that it didn’t matter if you effected change. She told me she would fight even if she knew her struggle would be useless. When I asked her why, she told me that we had ancestors that fought even though they would never see freedom from slavery in their or their children’s, lifetimes. They fought even though they knew we would never see the fruits of their struggles. “That’s why I fight, Eddie,” she told me.
As she told me this, we were marching in Washington, DC, the Capitol building within our sights. And I knew she was right.
MLK was a controversial figure, especially so during the last year of his life. By then his house had been firebombed, he had been stabbed and assaulted with a brick, and younger people in the civil rights movement ridiculed his nonviolent stance. The right wing, who always hated MLK, and had by then bugged his home and hotel rooms, and the established Democratic Party had even asked him to hold a moratorium on civil rights ands to stop the marches because he was doing a disservice to his country.
These words, spoken toward the end of his life, still hold power for me:
“There is nothing wrong with power if power is used correctly. You see, what happened is that some of our philosophers got off base. And one of the great problems of history is that the concepts of love and power have usually been contrasted as opposites, polar opposites, so that love is identified with a resignation of power, and power with a denial of love.”
— Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, 1968