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.
But it turns out Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.‘s message won’t be misquoted, even carved as it is, in the foundational stone upon which his tall figure stands.
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.
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 Charron provides a powerful reason for people (like me) to reject Kings’ words being corrupted.
I’ve known Charron 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, Charron sat down next to me. Neither of us foresaw the profound connections our chat would produce. I’ll explain why later.
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 is no small symbol of how rhetoric, even if only slightly altered, can undermine their historical creators’ meanings.
But if this Stone of Hope, as the monument is called, can be re-chisled to realize the truest intentions words spoken by its inspiration, King. Well –
There is, indeed, hope.
That people, when they put energies together, can transform what often 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 Charron.
She has reasons to be pissed, to give up. But doesn’t. In part because there is a mini-movement of men and women who believe in Charron, and are humbled to witness her strength and try to help her carry the crosses she bears.
Nearly twenty years ago she 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 is was for us, for my little boys and girls,” she told me. “Minnesota was one of the safest places in the world.”
Charron wasn’t fighting, “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 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. And still is.
But what she feels is a sense of being rewarded for her hard work, not with money, but with acceptance by, as she puts it “a society that said we know you should be here.” Communities: urban and suburban, rich and poor, black and white, women and men that embraced her efforts, her work and her wisdom. And helped her care for her kids.
Which reminded me of an essay written by Harry C. Boyte.
Its called The Drum Major Instinct.
Boyte, who is white, worked with King and recognized how poor whites like those he grew up with, shared the same fate as blacks. When Boyte was accosted by Ku Klux Klansmen.
Terrified, Boyte scrambled to establish a connection. Noting that like them, he is Christian. Turns out the eldest Klansman practiced Hinduism. Something he likely hadn’t revealed to his “Grand Master.”
The insights led to more dialogue between Boyte and the group. Including about populism: the shared experience of all people, who regardless their color, are oppressed by corporate greed and government corruption.
Imagine Martin Luther King Jr’s surprise when a couple days later the Klansman waved at Boyte during a march. King approached Boyte, asking for an explanation and quickly caught onto the implications.
“I’m a populist, too,” noted King. The Civil Rights icon saw critical connections. To extend their work beyond it’s black boundaries, and invite equally marginalized whites, too, to join and, thus, also benefit from their efforts.
King’s “adversarial collaboration” is a strategy today’s polarized leaders could learn an awful lot from.
Like King, Boyte sees little public value in elevating any one leader to a holier than thou pedestal. As populists, both King and Boyte put far greater trust in the power of any-colored citizens to engage and change society. Well above closed institutions abilities to act with humane integrity without significant, sustained citizen engagement.
On Kings birthday two years ago, Boyte reflected on the tricky balance leaders of integrity must traverse, drawing from King’s Drum Major Instinctspeech.
Explaining how King framed the story of Christian disciples who expressed their desires to be by the Messiah’s side in heaven by giving them “a down-to-earth, realistic dimension” that acknowledged “the desire for recognition and success are part of the human condition.”
He quoted from King’s speech:
“Before we condemn [them] 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.
The problem, explained Boyte, comes 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:
“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.”
Boyte noted how King argued that the “drum major instinct” of success with narrow or selfish purpose shapes the world. But that Jesus, in challenging his disciples, didn’t condemn their desire for distinction.
As King put it:
“(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.
It was just months after other leaders and I started DynamicShift, then called Nonpartisan Productive Dialogue. I responded with this:
The vivid picture Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King provides 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, as Boyte points out. The impacts of our historical fathers’ and mothers’ selfish pursuits are disturbing.
In King’s time the finger could logically point to whites, the prevailing class of power. But today our fingers can only logically point to us — the people in middle- and upper class communities. Regardless of our race, gender, faith or political idealogy we are the class of power.
As we’ve kept up with the Joneses we’ve followed the Joneses 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 emails and blog posts written and distributed by otherwise good people, be they Christian or not.
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.
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 achieve our full potentials for true greatness. 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 Charron.
Who expresses little but the profound power of love. Though she has so much to hate.
Ten years after Charron 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 breed them must carry, was murdered in North Minneapolis.
His name, like Christianity’s King, was Emmanuel.
Andrea Morisette Grazzini, Founder of DynamicShift, is a leadership innovations consultant and participatory researcher. 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.