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. In that way, the power and meaning of his struggles and the struggles of those that walked by his side are lessened.
MLK’s message has been distorted, no doubt. So today, instead of rehashing the clichés, I will try to recount how this man’s work and message has affected my life. Take the following quote and substitute “Democrat” for “moderate” and you get an idea of where MLK would stand today:
First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.”
Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
— Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., 16 April 1963, Letter from a Birmingham Jail
Living the Dream
Modern psychology has a word that is probably used more than any other word in modern psychology. It is the word “maladjusted.”… And certainly we all want to live well-adjusted lives in order to avoid neurotic and schizophrenic personalities. But I must say to you this evening, my friends, as I come to a close, that there are some things in my own nation, and there are some things in the world, to which I am proud to be maladjusted and to which I call upon all men of goodwill to be maladjusted until the good society is realized. I must honestly say to you that I never intend to become adjusted to segregation, discrimination, colonialism and these particular forces. I must honestly say to you that I never intend to adjust myself to religious bigotry. I must honestly say to you that I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. I must say to you tonight that I never intend to become adjusted to the madness of militarism and the self-defeating effects of physical violence.
Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., December 7, 1964
[Note: Names and certain details have been changed in order to respect confidentiality]
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 mioxed with the signs of encroaching gentrification, that surrounds 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 sex workers 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 years 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 at the time, I hadn’t been able to work for almost two years. The collateral consequences of my past were serving as an obstacle to gainful employment. I had to quit graduate school and a committed relationship was coming to an end. It seemed as if everything I had worked for all these years was imploding. So I took this job as an organizer and they put me in the Brooklyn neighborhood I was raised — Bushwick.
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.
One day as I walked by an empty lot 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 every door on that 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 former girlfriend I had when I was in high school, who had become a teacher. Ibis was her name and she would become my champion. She was the true organizer, fast on her feet, full of energy, and aggressive. Three were church women 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, and she 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 abandoned lot was really Doña Maria’s idea. She took me the front of the lot and told me that if I really wanted to do something, do something about that fuckin’ lot. And that’s how it started. Ibis 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. There were also the drug dealers who “owned” one of the corners who watched me closely.
In my experience organizing is recognizing that at first people — strangers really — are a crowd. They are simply people thrown together by economic or political forces. A 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 power and now were thirsty for more.
The next step was to get the city to clean the empty lot. This is where lives were changed. It was decided by the group that best course of action was that 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. In being subjected to an injustice personally, she became aware of the systemic justice that could be seen everywhere in her community. She became my militant.
Slowly, one step at a time, that group was successful in taking over that empty lot and creating a community garden. Today 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 on the corner and the sex trade. Shortly after that, 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 held a community meeting to tell them I could no longer work with them, they held a block party and collected funds, pooled all their money, and 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 hard-ass, told me that she always knew I would leave them, and then she smiled as she took me in her arms. 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 that garden change the world? Did Bushwick change? Did it make that much of a difference? I don’t know. I do know, the process changed lives. People saw themselves as agents with power. They were actors. They became the group that eventually took over an abandoned building and created affordable housing units. There weren’t the same people I first met.
One day I ran into Doña Maria, who had become an organizer herself and 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 we come from a people who fought. She said resistance is our legacy our heritage and she thanked me for reminding her of that. “I fight because the other choice is to let these motherfuckers fuck me. That’s why I fight, Eddie,” she told me.
I was reminded of her words as I sat in the community garden, the noise of children at play filling the air. 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 and 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
My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…
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