Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. may be remembered as a crusader for civil rights, but he was fighting a different battle when he was assassinated more than 40 years ago.
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As the country continues to struggle through the worst recession in U.S. history, Kings struggle for economic equality seems far from over. King spent his final years fighting for the rights of the working poor, asking hard questions of those in power as his rhetoric, often seen as moderate when stacked against contemporary Malcolm X, became more radical, a wide-ranging panel of speakers said during the lively, two-hour discussion.
Panelists included Obery Hendricks, professor of Biblical Interpretation at the New York Theological Seminary, Natalia Aristizabal-Betancur, of Make The Road New York, Peniel Joseph, a history professor at Tufts University, Christine Yvette Lewis, of Domestic Workers United, Jeanne Theoharis, a political science professor at Brooklyn College and Roy Innis, national chairman of the Congress of Racial Equality.
In addition to Lehrer, Melissa Harris-Perry, a professor of political science and African American studies at Princeton University, and Terrance McKnight, of All Ears with Terrance McKnight, moderated.
Let us not forget, the day he (King) drew his last breath, he was in Memphis only because some of those on the lowest rung of a social economic totem pole in Memphis, sanitation workers who were black and garbage men, asked him to come support their fight for a living wage, said Hendricks in front of an audience of about 700. Standing before the packed room, Hendricks illustrated a man often left out of historys one-dimensional renderings that begin with Rosa Parks and end with Kings I Have a Dream speech.
That is who we should remember him as and honor him as, a force, Hendricks said. Not the domesticated, watered-down, user-friendly, cant we just get along, Rodney King figure that we see today.
We teach our kids about the soft and fuzzy, a warm and fuzzy Dr. King, agreed Joseph. When we think about the heroic period of the Civil Rights movement, between Brown and Selma voting rights act, we usually think of this as a sepia-toned era filled with a happy ending you know, now we can just tell our kids this great big bedtime story.
After the voting rights act of August 6, 1965, King becomes a pillar of fire because he realizes that democracy has to be reimagined. It has to be expansively rethought, not just for black people, but for everyone, he added.
More than four decades later, many of the economic struggles that blighted Kings America still exist, Joseph continued. The gap between the rich and the poor has only grown. Low-wage workers still struggle to make ends meet, often working a second job to provide for their families. And, even with a black president, racism continues to plague the nation. The anti-colonial, anti-imperialist vision that King talked about so eloquently 42 years ago, he did not solve the problem, Joseph said. The facts are on the ground, things are getting worse for the people Dr. King advocated for the most.
And until Americans look past the holiday and start seeing what of Kings work still has to be done, Joseph said, the problem will remain.
This is the fifth year WNYC has organized MLK Day panel discussions, said Brenda Williams-Butts, director of community engagement and audience development at WNYC.
We want to be able to bring a celebration forth with a rich dialogue, she said. The vision is to be able to get historians and people who can speak about King, but also the relevancy to our lifestyle today.
She added that this years topic seemed to particularly well embraced by attendees. Every year we find a hook thats relevant as to whats going on in the news, she said. And this year, again, we found a theme that really resonated with people.
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