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How Shall We Celebrate Martin Luther King's Birthday?

A favorite piece on MLK, from the YES! archive. A conversation between Grace Boggs and Vincent Harding

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Vincent Harding
Historian Vincent Harding

Over the holidays my old friend Vincent Harding, the African-American historian who worked closely with Martin Luther King during the 1960s (Harding drafted King's 1967 anti-Vietnam war speech) spent several days with me. When he couldn't make it to my 90th birthday party in June, Vincent explained, he resolved to visit me during my 90th year and before I might be leaving this life.

A lot of our discussion centered around how in the last three years of his life, King called for a revolution in values against the triple threats of racism, materialism, and militarism. Why do most King celebrations back away from or ignore this message? Is it because he was going where most Americans don't want to go — so that there was almost a sigh of relief when he was assassinated?

King's challenge was not only directed to white people. As Vincent put it ten years ago: "All we need to do is look around us and see how much over the past 15-20 years we black folks have decided (consciously or not) to fight racism by seeking equal opportunity or a fair share in the nation's militarism and materialism. In other words, we have chosen to fight against one of the triple threats by joining the other two." 1

King was deeply affected by the rioting, burning, pain, anguish, fears of youth in the cities of the north. He felt these children were his. In 1966, the year after Watts exploded, he lived on and off in the Chicago ghetto where he knew "the grapes of wrath are stored."

"The most profound thing I learned from Martin Luther King was that change does not come automatically. Things do not change. People who are committed to change, who are change-makers, have to decide what kind of change they want to commit to."

Listening to young people, he concluded that the education we need "in our dying cities" is education that empowers youth to participate in creating change in themselves and in their surroundings. That is why we founded Detroit Summer.

One night we invited a few people, mostly in their late teens and early 20s, to dialogue with Vincent. In response to their questions, he shared these thoughts:

"The most profound thing I learned from Martin Luther King was that change does not come automatically. Things do not change. People who are committed to change, who are change-makers, have to decide what kind of change they want to commit to."

Jimmy Boggs was always teaching around the question, How do you become the human being that you have the potential to become? You are not born a human being. It is a journey that you have to make.

During the mid-60s, we were wrestling with the contradiction that the Vietnam War was LBJ's war and at the same time LBJ was the best friend blacks had ever had as president. But as the war continued, Martin recognized that there was no way he could remain silent and be human. The invitation from Clergy and Laity Concerned to speak at Riverside Church gave him the opportunity to take a stand in a setting that made clear what was involved was not just politics but the need for a revolution in values.

During his last few years MLK knew he was a marked man. When I told this to a group of middle school students, a 13-year-old asked, "If King knew this, why didn't he just chill out?"

While I was thinking through how to respond, a 12-year-old girl came up and said, "What do you mean chill out? He had work to do."

What people believe in their hearts is what I call faith. Martin believed that we are all one; that there is a fundamental commonness. "Because I am a Christian I am called to speak not only for the poor of this country but also for the poor of Vietnam."

Only after Malcolm X was assassinated and his autobiography — published only after King was assassinated — did we have the materials to recognize that there was a falsehood in setting up Martin Luther King vs. Malcolm. Malcolm decided that he couldn't continue Mr. Muhammed's non-involvement in the struggle. That is why he was killed.

Anger can get you out there, but as time goes on, it plays less of a role and we need to be clear about the vision, the spirit, the goal. Anger can add power to commitment to change, but there is also a danger in it.

Emma asked "How do you encourage students like those at my high school who are only interested in the latest gadget to truly honor King's birthday rather than just sleep in?"

Vincent replied, "You will probably have to push yourself by taking on more responsibility because you have had access to a new way of thinking... Maybe you could bring together a few of the people you hang out with and plan an event to commemorate King's assassination in April. You don't have to wait until next year."

A few days later Emma sent me an email saying:

"I loved going to the discussion. I was amazed at his level of enthusiasm about each question and it reminded me of what I love in teachers (particularly the good ones).

"Their amazing ability to make each person feel unique and that they are the only ones in the world who had ever thought of such a question; that you are a genius to think that way. I look forward to skipping homework on a regular basis and going to more discussions. Thanks."

 1Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero. Orbis 1996.


Grace Lee Boggs was born to Chinese immigrant parents in 1915. After receiving her Ph.D. in philosophy, in 1953 she came to Detroit, where she married Jimmy Boggs, an African-American labor activist. The two became deeply involved in Black Power organizing and left-wing politics. With race- and gender-based discrimination precluding an academic career, she dedicated herself to a lifetime of activism.

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