What Was Missing From Memphis on the 50th Anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s Assassination?Historians in the News
tags: MLK, Black lives matter
... In death, as in his life, Dr. King has loomed large in the American psyche. In 2018, he is perceived as universally claimable and has, by consequence, routinely been claimed. Sometimes this leads to deployments of King’s legacy that are controversial or just plain incorrect.
But progressive social movements of many various stripes have also long claimed King, and with good reason.So, outside AFSCME headquarters on Wednesday, it was impossible not to wonder where those other fights were. This was a program about economic justice and just one program out of many. And labor, of course, deserves its day. It was instrumental in creating an American middle class to begin with, and despite that fact, it’s been under assault for generations. Moreover, it’s true that Martin Luther King died as a martyr to the labor movement (among other things). Union activists are right to claim him.
But it was striking that, in a program that stretched for hours, almost no one said the words “Black Lives Matter,” or even talked about that movement — which, consciously or not, takes direct lessons from many of King’s most forceful arguments about and critiques of America. Almost all of the speakers were men, and they were remarkably vague, bordering on silent, about women’s and LGBTQ rights. Greisa Martínez Rosas, Deputy Executive Director of United We Dream, offered a rousing defense of undocumented immigrants, but issues facing Islamic-Americans were mostly absent.While it may seem unreasonable to ask any program to cover every base, the narrow focus of this event — one of the two most high-profile public events happening on the Day of Remembrance — does matter, and it matters quite a lot.
As King remembrance events were escalating on April 3, a number of prominent activists, including Black Lives Matter’s Keedran Franklin and Fight for $15’s Ashley Cathey, were arrested by Memphis Police Department as they protested outside an immigrant detention facility. In the middle of a moment of silence to remember King on Wednesday evening, officers with the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office rode motorcycles — casually enough to display no urgency, loudly enough to display little respect — down Main Street in Memphis, less than a hundred yards from the Lorraine Motel balcony. And it was only a week ago that 17-year-old Dorian Harris, after allegedly stealing a beer from a convenience store here, was shot and killed by a store clerk as he ran away. The clerk never called 911, and Harris’s body laid outside in a Memphis yard for two days before it was called in.
To be in Memphis right now is to be inspired by events unfolding here, and buoyed by the possibilities that they present. But it is also to be reminded of the fact that they will remain only possibilities without hard work spent building lasting coalitions across whatever lines might cleave us from others seeking to build a more beloved community. How and whether Americans successfully build those coalitions remain very urgent questions. And those questions were the ones that went largely unspoken on this day of commemoration. Many of King’s battles still need to be fought, and each deserves its moment in focus. But in order to truly represent his legacy, and move us forward, they must continue to appreciate the interconnected nature of these struggles. Indeed, as King himself remindedus, “No one…will be free until we all are free.”...
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