Related essay by Harry Boyte at DemocracyU.
One might well wonder if modern-day meanings of things writ wrong in public can ever be undone. Particularly when Washington meaning-mongers from both sides seem as immovable as the great monuments lining its Mall. It turns out Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s message won’t be misquoted, even carved as it is in the foundation stone upon which his towering figure stands not far from where he most memorably gave his I Have a Dream speech.
Neither an earthquake like the one that cracked the Washington Monument (which stands directly across King’s on the Mall) into indefinite closure in 2011, nor scaled-to-DC-size-egos can corrupt the mountainous integrity of Kings humility. (A coincidental connection is that the earthquake occurred on August 23, the same day that, in 1963, an FBI report indicated attempts at finding evidence of communist infiltration into the organizers of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom came up empty.)
It helps that King still gets props from people unwilling to let the messenger or his honorable message get lost to history by expedient edits. What amounts to a near- civic engagement miracle to remove haughty-sounding rhetoric with the much humbler phrase they were parsed from. All because alert citizens who read the “Drum Major Instinct” quote on King’s Memorial sensed the true content of his words and character had been lost in expedient, erroneous translation. And demanded it be re-etched.
Meanwhile far north of DC, a woman named Sharron provides a powerful reason for people (like me) to reject Kings’ words being corrupted. I’ve known Sharron for two years. She’s black and was raised in the inner city, I’m white and was raised in a suburb. Beyond these details, we have a lot in common. We’re about the same age, share interests in business and passions for education. We are both single mothers. We chat when we can, usually only in passing, since we’re both pretty busy. But shortly after I sat down to write this piece at the coffee shop where we met, Sharron sat down next to me. Neither of us foresaw the profound connections our chat would produce. I’ll explain why later.
Recarving meaning in stone
For now though, back to King. One can imagine how powerfully his words must remain imprinted on people’s minds. That they would feel compelled to approach the mountain it takes to catalyze the re-carving of a national monument, erected less than one year ago. The cross-sector citizens from arts, academia, public and private perspectives put on their walking shoes (so to speak) and convinced whatever powers-that-be to fix the flaw, and quick.
“Consider it no small victory for the power of public opinion over the sometimes ponderous inertia of bureaucracy,” wrote Washington Post’s Rachel Manteuffel.”And also for the power of words — King’s words — to be heard.” I’d add it’s no small symbol of how rhetoric even if only slightly altered, can undermine their original meanings that the historical figure who spoke them intended. But if this Stone of Hope as the monument is called, can be re-chisled to realize the truest intentions of the words spoken by its inspiration, Dr. King. Well — there is indeed, hope.
Transformative power of collaboration
When diverse people put energies together they can transform what seems like a civic disaster. Our country brought to it’s knees and straddling a hold-on-for-dear life chasm that keeps power-drunk leaders ever more divided from their one part apathetic, one part pissed to the point of throwing arms up and throwing back a beer citizens.
Which brings me back to Sharron. She has reasons to be pissed. To give up. But she doesn’t. In part because there is a mini-movement of men and women who are impressed by Sharron. They believe in her exceptional intellectual capacities and emotional strength. And are humbled as they walk with her helping her where they can carry the very heavy crosses she bears.
Liberation to Minnesota
Nearly twenty years ago Sharron fled an abusive husband and the hard streets of Chicago with five young children in tow, arriving in Minnesota on Martin Luther King’s birthday. Starting over from scratch. “What a day of liberation it was for us, for my little boys and girls,” she told me. “Minnesota was one of the safest places in the world.”
When I observed that her efforts were akin to the ‘good fight,’ Sharron corrected me. She wasn’t fighting, she said. “My self-identity was established because of the work of Martin Luther King.” All she was really doing was putting on her walking shoes — and preparing for a very big climb. Out of poverty and paralyzing fear to get an education, put her potentials to work and protect her kids. To say her task was mountainous would be an understatement. It was hard, very. Still is.
Even so, she feels a sense of being rewarded for her hard work. Not so much with money, but with the acceptance of what she refers to as “a society that said we know you should be here.” Meaning the communities–urban and suburban, rich and poor, black and white; and the many women and men who have embraced her efforts, her work and her wisdom. And have helped in ways that I know from my own experience that are most important to any single mother: by helping her care for her kids.
Which reminded me of an essay written by Harry C. Boyte called The Drum Major Instinct. Boyte, who is white, worked with King. After being accosted by Ku Klux Klansmen, Boyte began to realize an overlooked reality–that poor whites shared a fate similar to poor blacks.
Hidden reality behind Klan man
The Klansmen had approached Boyte as he was leaving a Florida prison where he’d been visiting a friend arrested for protesting. Terrified, Boyte scrambled to establish a connection, blurting out that like them he is Christian, too. Only it turned out the eldest Klansman practiced Hinduism, a detail he likely hadn’t revealed to his Grand Master. The unexpected candor led to more dialogue between Boyte and the group. Including about populism, the shared experience of all people who are oppressed by corporate greed and government corruption, regardless the color of their skin.
Imagine King’s surprise when a couple days later the Klansman waved at Boyte during a march! When King asked for an explanation he quickly caught onto the implications, noting: “I’m a populist, too.” The Civil Rights icon saw critical connections. He engaged Boyte to extend their work beyond it’s black boundaries by inviting equally marginalized whites to join their efforts, too.
King’s “adversarial collaboration” is a strategy today’s polarized citizens and leaders could learn an awful lot from. King never saw the value in elevating any one leader to a holier than thou pedestal, an ethic Boyte shares. As populists they both put far greater trust in the power of common and any-colored citizens to engage and change society. That the collective power of engaged citizens then, and still now, is a far more authentic and effective solution to problems than closed institutions are. Siloed institutions put competition above common ground — and lack real-person abilities to breakdown barriers and act, together, with humane integrity. Sustainable social change can’t succeed without the active and continuous involvement of many citizens from all walks of life, working in relationships that recognize shared problems and work to resolve them, together.
On Martin Luther King Day, 2010, Boyte reflected on the tricky balance citizens and leaders of integrity must traverse. He drew from from Dr. King’s Drum Major Instinct speech. He outlined how King framed a Biblical story of Christian disciples who had desires to be by Jesus’s side. King’s didn’t eshew their striving. He rather connected it to the same urges all people have, and called for “a down-to-earth, realistic dimension” that acknowledges that “the desire for recognition and success are part of the human condition.”
Beneath his words King was speaking of all people’s desires to have power. And calling citizens, specifically, to see in the desires of other citizens their own. To engage their power in ways that all the polarizing racial tensions, partisan politics and immovable institutions undermine. To put their dreams of glory to work for the common good.
“Before we condemn [others] too quickly, let us look calmly and honestly at ourselves, and we will discover that we too have those same basic desires for recognition, for importance,” King said.
Problems arise, explained Boyte in his piece, when larger purposes are lost in the pursuit of materialistic success. Again, from King: “You see people over and over again,” he said, “[who] just live their lives trying to outdo the Joneses. If this instinct is not harnessed, it becomes a very dangerous, pernicious instinct.”
Boyte outlined how King moved from the individual level to race relations, in the words of the leader:
False comfort of White privilege
“The poor white has been put into this position, where the only thing he has going for him is the false feeling that he’s superior because his skin is white—and can’t hardly eat and make his ends meet week in and week out.” King argued that this was how a selfish version of the “drum major instinct” too often shapes race relationships, but that it could be redirected.
“(Jesus) did something altogether different. He said in substance, ‘Oh, I see, you want to be first. You want to be great. Well, you ought to be. If you’re going to be my disciple, you must be.’ But [Jesus] reordered priorities. And he said, ‘Yes, don’t give up this instinct. It’s a good instinct if you use it right. Don’t give it up. Keep feeling the need for being important.
But I want you to be first in love. I want you to be first in moral excellence. I want you to be first in generosity. That is what I want you to do.”
Boyte’s post struck me. The vivid picture King provided of the “poor white’s” false feeling of superiority — and the trajectory of destruction King predicted the worship of individual success would lead to is being realized. The impacts of our historical fathers’ and mothers’ selfish pursuits are disturbing. As we’ve kept up with the Joneses we’ve followed them right into foreclosure. Even more troubling, we’ve cultivated a pandemic poverty of thought that justifies the brutal defense of self-interests and defensively fingers those who don’t explicitly share them for destroying our world. This is being propagated by such things as the increasingly (and astonishingly) aggressive social media comments written and distributed by otherwise good people, be they Christian or not.
Looking honestly at ourselves
While we attack what we view as the evil or idiocy of our ideological foes, we fail to see that power lies not in perpetuating polarized positions, but in pursuing understanding of our shared desires. This takes self-reflection — in King’s words: “looking honestly at our selves.” I would add it also takes seeing and listening deeply to those with whom we deeply differ with, even when it seems utterly impossible and ill-informed to.
Our materialistic culture tries to convince us that achieving attention and success doesn’t happen by calmly embracing quaint notions of seeking shared humanity. And even if it could there simply is no time to indulge in hope that can’t be quantified by experts. But as we are painfully experiencing, our culture of blinding immediacy and greed is not to be trusted. Indeed, it often spreads lies. A fact few experts disagree with.
If we can set aside our reactive “wants” for attention for a moment and recognize our common “needs” for a sense of shared purpose that does not deplete but rather fulfills our desire for individual importance we can disrupt this disturbing trend. And by doing so with the morally excellent behaviors our mothers, fathers and dieties expect of us, we can begin to redraw King’s dire picture and design our children’s future as something all together different.
Stop the childish rhetoric
To begin, we must stop communicating with childish rhetoric and instead start demonstrating the content of our character. That is, to act as our parents — both the holy and the human — would expect us to. Not with regressive tantrums but instead with maturity. When we do we will gain a different kind of power. One that achieves our fullest potentials for true greatness–regardless what color our skin is. The most important expression of which will be modeling for our children what Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King modeled for us — the greater power of love, not hate, to transform our world.”
Which brings me back to Sharron. I’ve figured out why so many people are drawn to her. Why this single black mother impresses so many. She expresses little but the profound power of love. Though she has so much to hate.
Death by social division
Ten years after Sharron sought safe refuge for her family in Minnesota, her teenage son, having stumbled under the weight of the crosses all sons of brutal fathers and the societies that create them must carry, was murdered in North Minneapolis, Minnesota.
His name, like Christianity’s King, was Emmanuel.
Andrea Morisette Grazzini, is founder of DynamicShift and organizer of Me to We Racial Healing, a social media group of nearly 1000 people, nationwide. She also leads the online civic engagement company WetheP, Inc. Her work has influenced numerous regional, national and global conversations on co-productive change. Including We the People, the national civic movement led by Center for Democracy and Citizenship, American Commonwealth Partnership, American Democracy Project and The White House Office for Public Engagement.
© 2016, Dynamic Shiftby