There was no shortage of opportunists present as they broke ground the other day for the $100 million Martin Luther King memorial in Washington, DC. Charlatans from Oprah to Hilfiger lined up in the hope a little of Dr. King's integrity might rub off on them. But the most out of place speaker was, of course, President George W. Bush, who told the crowd, "our journey to justice is not complete. There are still people in our society who hurt, neighborhoods that are too poor ... there's still prejudice that holds citizens back." That whirring noise heard in the background...well, you know the rest.
As Dubya spoke about "the promise of America," I had to wonder what he'd think of the Dr. King who said: "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom ... Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men." Surely, today's America would have an orange jumpsuit all ready for the MLK that believed, "The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be" and "When you are right, you cannot be too radical."
Billionaire Oprah delivered the boilerplate speech about how she wouldn't be where she is today if it weren't for King. I guess no one told her or Hilfiger that their hero believed that to achieve "a real equality the U.S." we would have to "adopt a modified form of socialism." Oops. "When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people," King exclaimed, "the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered."
Bill Clinton ("the first black president") used the opportunity to align himself with our current Decider-in-Chief. "When the real battlefield is the human heart, civil disobedience works better than suicide bombing; fighting your opponents with respect and reason works better than aspersion and attack," said the man who bombed a Sudanese pharmaceutical plant to distract us from Monica's kneepads. Bubba then added: "If he were here, he would remind us that the time to do right remains."
Well, we don't know exactly what King would say about the U.S. invasion of Iraq, but his thoughts on another brutal intervention are on the record. The Vietnamese, he said, "must see Americans as strange liberators ... For it occurs to me that what we are submitting them to in Vietnam is not simply the brutalizing process that goes on in any war where armies face each other and seek to destroy. We are adding cynicism to the process of death, for they must know after a short period there that none of the things we claim to be fighting for are really involved ... What do they think as we test our latest weapons on them, just as the Germans tested out new medicine and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe?"
Jesse Jackson said the memorial was "a full circle for black people in this country." A full circle: from the jungles of Vietnam and streets of Watts to the deserts of Iraq and levees of New Orleans. Keep dreaming...