Our nation’s political divisions, economic struggles, and violent communities should remind us that symbolism without substance is a dead-end street.
We focus too much on symbolism. For example, the debate over whether a mosque should be built near Ground Zero is largely about what the 9/11 tragedy symbolizes. What about focusing on the substance that led up to it and where do we go from here? The dueling rallies (the Rev. Al Sharpton vs. Glenn Beck) in Washington, on the day commemorating the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, was mostly about what the civil rights movement symbolizes and who should proclaim the dream the Rev. Martin Luther King articulated. Meanwhile, unemployment is nearly 10 percent (double for blacks) and black incarceration rates are double and triple their percentage of the population in many states.
This past Sept. 11, I attendedfor yet another Martin Luther King Jr. memorial, this one in Newport News, Virginia. As I watched King’s daughter, the Rev. Bernice King, at the podium, I thought of how our emphasis on MLK symbolism often overshadows the substance of his message; a message of peace and justice that is as relevant today as it was on Sept. 11, 2001, and Aug. 28, 1963.
Oddly, I thought of comedian Chris Rock.
Rock, in his 1996 HBO special, Bring the Pain, said:
Martin Luther King stood for nonviolence. Now what’s Martin Luther King? A street. And I don’t give a (bleep) where you live in America, if you’re on Martin Luther King Boulevard, there’s some violence going down.
There are more than 800 streets, drives and boulevards, often with large monuments on them, across the country and world that honor King. Many of them are in neighborhoods that are plagued by high unemployment, disenfranchisement, poverty, and crime. It’s ills in neighborhoods like this section of Newport News’ East End that King died trying to eradicate.
As Newport News Mayor McKinley Price remarked that the memorial would be more than a plaza but “embody a man who was about a movement,” I doubted that King, a man of God, would want to be honored with a structure made of stone. Didn’t he say in his “Drum Major Instinct” sermon, two months before his assassination on April 4, 1968, not to idolize him?
“Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice,” he said. “Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter …”
The people who have the power to erect monuments could best honor King by focusing those resources on substance — eradicating the ills he died for. For example, empower poor people with good-paying jobs, set and enforce policies that close the education gap, eliminate out-in-the-open illegal drug sales that make streets unsafe, and fix the root causes of why blacks are incarcerated at rates that are double and triple their percentage of the population. Surely the people most likely to sit in a King memorial plaza in the ‘hood would have a better chance of fulfilling his dream in their lives.
Bernice King, who was only 5 in 1968 when her father was assassinated, honored his legacy in a way I believe he would’ve loved. She barely mentioned his name.
She began with a poem that mentioned him and her mother, Coretta Scott King.
“I was born a King,” she recited. “I might as well be a king…”
She assigned the family name to the crowd, and urged them to live as royalty.
“To be strong communities, we must have the mentality of kings,” she said. “Kings raise the standard and lead the way. Kings don’t follow the crowd. Kings don’t hang out with subjects — folks who are ‘subject to negativity.’ Kings don’t wait for others to do something; they take responsibility.”
She challenged them to focus on healing their families, which leads to healthy communities.
“Get back to the dining table … Sit around the table with your family and dialogue about how to make communities better.”
She used the symbolic occasion to deliver substance.
As she was escorted to a car to catch her return flight to Atlanta, I walked with Bernice King and asked whether she felt, as Chris Rock implied, that monuments to her father might actually detract from focusing on fixing the problems he died for.
“As you know, monuments are about status and can become idols,” she said. “But I don’t think it’s an either/or situation. We have to do both. Like the D.C. memorial [planned on the National Mall between the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials], people — especially those who were not alive then — will come from all over and be inspired. But we have to inspire people to action, to make a difference. That’s what Daddy wanted and died for.”
Symbolism has its value, but substance is more important.