Martin Luther King 2015: A Different Kind of Eulogy

[by Maryemma Graham]

When Sojourner Truth took the podium at the Women’s Rights convention in Akron, Ohio, 1851, she became in an instant the quintessential symbol of triple jeopardy: she was a former slave, she was black and she was a woman. She made women and the anti-slavery community uncomfortable because she refused to keep the issues of slavery and women’s rights separate. Exposing her breasts to punctuate her womanhood, she left an indelible imprint on history. The words “Ain’t I a woman?” remain that continuous reminder that building a more equitable society is our ongoing work.  Truth was relentless and fearless, traits that are hard to come by.

A century after Truth’s bold act, I found myself growing up in a world undergoing enormous changes in the social and cultural landscape. Since I was not allowed much television time, the library became my second home, a place I could learn how the old world differed from the new one I had come to know. It turned me into an avid reader, even a romantic. At first, I was drawn to specific books, like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and especially Little Women, as my girlhood sought shadows of itself inside the South of the 1960s. Somewhere along the way, I discovered my father’s tattered copy of Negro Caravan, one of the earliest anthologies of African American Literature, and became hooked.  He was a lay organizer, and while his day job was teaching English at a local Negro college (HBCUs), he refused to keep the issues of social justice, religion, and education separate. The book became my teacher, his life a model of socially engaged practice.

The Civil Rights and Black Power Movements (CRBPM, I like to call it), a particular component of which Martin Luther King represents, was another critical moment that turned our practice toward social engagement and our minds toward social justice once again. Those were the days of national activism strong enough to shift us away from the preoccupations of partisan politics that routinely and annoyingly occupy our time and the media today. We did not so easily separate issues then; we were our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. 

But here we are, 150 years since Sojourner Truth, not that many decades away from the most active years of the CRBPM, and celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr., an international symbol of social justice and world peace. Social justice has yet to be achieved, and we are farther away from world peace than we’ve ever been. Yet many of us inhabit relatively safe spaces that gesture towards a certain kind of equality; we believe that we have earned the right to do so, that we have paid our dues. 

It has taken heinous acts of violence to wake us up from our lethargy. When we evoke the chant of “Black Lives Matters,” we feel the weight of the anti-humanness that surrounds us. From Ferguson, Missouri, Staten Island, Brooklyn, and Cleveland, Ohio, to Paris, France, we have witnessed both the markings of injustice and the mockery of justice that refuse to separate our work from the struggles that go on in people’s everyday lives. 

There is unfinished business that connects us together, that tells us that the importance of what we do pales in comparison to the acceleration of injustices around us, injustices that become more pronounced when we look at people-to-people relations, not unlike Sojourner Truth did on that infamous day in 1861. Not unlike King did a century later in that Birmingham jail in 1963.

Our business is not done; the work to achieve human, civil and equal rights remains unfinished. True, we did what was necessary, and it was important.  But it was not sufficient. 

Observances of the 2015 King holiday necessarily take us in several directions. We will remember a fearless fighter for social justice, yet a man like any other. Some, like me, perhaps, must be mindful today of the words of novelist John A. Williams, the first to tell something about the real meaning of King, the man and the movement. When we study King, Williams wrote in The King God Didn’t Save (1970), “[W]e study the awesome exercise of white power in the United States . . . power that finally cut King down in conspiracy and then conspired to plug the memory of the man with putty” (17).

Ultimately, I hope all of us move toward a greater understanding of the struggle for civil and human rights, one that is bigger than any one person. We have many cautionary tales before us that can keep us in check. On this holiday, we must make our memory of his life and work a new call to return to the unfinished business that we all must complete together.

An earlier version of this post was published by mistake, with some minor alternate wording. The HBW Blog apologizes for the error.