When most of us think of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we imagine the renowned “I Have a Dream” speech and go back to our high school history classes, feeling as if we already know what Dr. King is all about. Coming into MLK week, I didn’t expect to hear anything new or mind-boggling regarding the civil rights leader. This attitude was quickly dispelled upon attending the keynote speech by Van Jones, the founding president of Rebuild the Dream, an organization that attempts to distribute wealth in the United States. Jones speedily and effectively debunked a variety of misconceptions plaguing the minds of our generation regarding Dr. King, under which most of us are conditioned to consider Dr. King a combination of “Mickey Mouse and Jesus,” said Jones. Jones reminded students that in spite of the reverence attached to Dr. King today, the civil rights leader was neither “revered” nor “successful” throughout his efforts. Rather, he was a young leader facing continuous setbacks, and certainly not the “elder statesman” pictured today,
Jones later linked the work of Dr. King to racial and political conditions of today, noting that the current administration – led by an African-American president – has inspired fear in a certain segment of society over the repression of whites equaling that of African-Americans under past administrations. He explained that this dynamic created a “fatigue” in the politics of today in terms of interaction and coalition-building among various groups, both in the political majorities and minorities. Worse, however, would be the risk that this “fatigue could curdle into contempt,” warned Jones. The notion of coalition-building permeated much of the keynote speech, and during the question and answer session, in which Jones was questioned regarding whether or not white Republicans could fit into the diverse coalitions mentioned, Jones laid down some strong insight into the future of the politics. Referring to the student questioning him as “factual, respectful and persistent,” Jones parsed out the exact traits needed in those involved in the politics of our time for any hope of unity or constructive change to emerge.
While some Republicans may have felt untouched by the speech, Jones would not hesitate to cite the hypocritical nature of some rich liberals claiming that Republicans “vote against their own economic interests,” while the liberals themselves vote to raise their taxes, harming their own economic interests. The important element of policies economic, social or environmental would be the “people,” such as coal miners left unconsidered in a proposal aiming to shut down a coal plant presented to Jones. With so many people today trying to use Dr. King as an absentee supporter of whatever cause they are trying to promote, it is refreshing to learn of his true nature, untouched by modern hype.
Dr. King’s humanity, struggles and hopes have shined through, and I know I certainly picture a starkly different man when I think of Dr. King now. Jones’ accurate portrait of the current political climate is also striking, pointing out that what we see as simple division and gridlock could easily escalate into tensions far stronger. However, his recipe for active, healing dialogue in the face of this leaves a glimmering ray of hope, as unifying traits live on in certain individuals along with the courage to lodge themselves into the tough discussions. MLK week transcended past, present and future with relevant and inspiring material, clearly unforgettable to all in attendance.
The week both opened and closed with a controlling theme of harmony in difference, with so many diverse people and organizations involved under the guidance of ALANA. I think the recitation of the “I have a dream” speech at commencement set the tone of the week best; members of of different races and genders chanted the famous phrase in unison and shared the recitation of the famous words, but most importantly, all present most definitely shared the timeless dream. This issue marks the beginning of February, National African-American History Month. Dr. King’s legacy permeates African-American history, and we were fortunate enough to devote an entire week to learning about him and honoring his true nature. With this marvelous start, we now follow up with the opportunity to spend an entire month exploring and honoring the groups, individuals and events that shape the entire continuum of African-American history.