“The memory of our warmest heart is

Celebrated in bitter winter’s time”

—from Robert Earl Price, “Baltimore: Aftermath of a Dream Deferred (MLK Birthday 2018)”
(full poem at end)

Ninety-two years after the birth of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr, fifty-two years after his assassination, we celebrate his legacy just days after violent insurgents broke into the nation’s capitol, some of them brandishing confederate and Nazi symbols of white supremacy.

The MLK holiday is always a time to reflect on racial and economic justice and ask how Dr. King’s philosophy and activism might offer a perspective on current events. To do this requires understanding that King was much more controversial and radical than he is often remembered.

King enjoys in polls a 94% positive rating today. In his lifetime, the same polls recorded a 32% positive rating. He was often labeled an “outside agitator” and a “communist”; he was investigated and harassed by the FBI. Too often, the holiday treatment of his life focuses just on his battle against segregation and the stirring rhetoric of “I Have a Dream.” The evil of Southern segregation is easy for contemporary whites to denounce and distance themselves from; the accomplishments of the Civil Rights act are easy to celebrate.

King addressed powerfully many of the issues that confront us today. In the wake of a federal flurry of executions (including five in the last two weeks of the president’s term), it is worth recalling that King forcefully denounced capital punishment. “Capital punishment is against the better judgment of modern criminology, and, above all, against the highest expression of love in the nature of God.”

Some of our freshman core sections at Russell Sage are reading Bryan Stevenson’s brilliant book, Just Mercy, about his courageous fight against the death penalty, and The Women’s Institute at Russell Sage will host programming and a book club in tandem with them. Stevenson’s clear-eyed recognition that the American death penalty is grounded in racial oppression and income disparity builds on King’s earlier insights. Stevenson describes how he came to realize that the opposite of poverty was not wealth: “the opposite of poverty is justice.”

King memorably tells us that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” He spoke often of the dangers of “the gulf between the haves and have nots.” In the light of contemporary debates about poverty and the minimum wage, it is easy to forget that King’s famous speech was delivered at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom that included a call for a minimum wage of $2.00/hr, the equivalent of $15.95/hr today. King asked: “Why are there forty million poor people in America? And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth.”

And, of course, Martin Luther King was a tireless advocate for Voting Rights, from his “Give Us the Ballot” speech in 1957 to the successful passage of the Voting Rights Bill in 1965—a campaign that was beset with the shootings, beatings, and arrests of voting rights workers–and the burning of dozens of Black churches. Yet much of that 1965 Voting Rights Act has been recently voided by the Supreme Court and requires Congressional action to restore it (proposed in a bill named for John Lewis). And the latest campaign about supposed election fraud focused on the allegedly “corrupt” cities of Detroit, Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Atlanta, all majority Black cities.

When we watch the footage of white supremacy from King’s lifetime—a governor blocking a Black man from entering a college, people spitting on a Black girl walking to integrate a school, whites recoiling from sharing a restaurant or swimming pool with Blacks—it is all too easy to condemn those people and file away their prejudice as unthinkable and in the past. My wish for MLK day is that we grasp what King called the “fierce urgency of now” and try to see the lingering prejudice and white supremacy of our present moment as clearly as we can see the repulsive past. King told us at one point: “I fear I am integrating my people into a burning house.”

And let us contemplate the enduring relevance of the causes dear to King’s heart: racial justice, equity in educational opportunity, the abolition of the death penalty and poverty, the removal of obstacles to voting, and an end to “the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.” 

With the mob attacking the Capitol last week, it is fitting to end with King’s own words:

“Let us march on poverty until no American parent has to skip a meal so that their children may eat. March on poverty until no starved man walks the streets of our cities and towns in search of jobs that do not exist. Let us march on ballot boxes, march on ballot boxes until race-baiters disappear from the political arena. Let us march on ballot boxes until the salient misdeeds of bloodthirsty mobs will be transformed into the calculated good deeds of orderly citizens.”

Photo by The New York Public Library

Baltimore: Aftermath of a Dream Deferred (MLK Birthday 2018)

By Robert Earl Price, recipient of the William Meredith Foundation Poetry Award 2021

“I’ve come upon something that disturbs me deeply. We have fought hard and long for integration, as I believe we should have, and I know we will win. But I have come to believe that we are integrating into a burning house. I’m afraid that America has lost the moral vision she may have had. And I’m afraid that even as we integrate, we are walking into a place that does not understand that this nation needs to be deeply concerned with the plight of the poor and disenfranchised. Until we commit ourselves to ensuring that the underclass is given justice and opportunity, we will continue to perpetuate the anger and violence that tears the soul of this nation. I fear I am integrating my people into a burning house.” MLK

Oh Baltimore
Ain’t it hard just to live?
Oh Baltimore
Ain’t it hard just to live?
Just to live—

That Memphis balcony scene
Worthy of an annual replay
The holiday
A staged dream
Theater produced by those who would
Allow us to slip further into darkness
This is a cynical reminder that
The memory of our warmest heart is
Celebrated in bitter winter’s time

Really, they took you from us
As we stood among tendrils
Of April’s budding spring
When the mule drawn caisson
Carried our prince of peace
To be sealed in a marble crypt
Where few of your visions have been realized
And even fewer have followed
Your graceful example

Most have settled for greedy snobbery
Trading perilous won freedom
For street naming rights
Along our meanest boulevards
Where the poor and suffering live
Amid squalor emblazoned with your name
You are 50 years dead and your prized
Dream is on life support experiencing
A fevered, greedy selfishness
While trying to escape the burning house
Fanning the flames with your dreams
Beguiling ministers dispensing absolution
For murderous perversions
Preaching crack pipe logic
We are blind avatars
In a perverse video game
A digital mass suicide
An Igbo Landing retreat
This time we kill each other
Until we remember
We are the zombies
Victims of a much easier death

Oh, Baltimore
Ain’t it hard just to live?
Oh, Baltimore
Ain’t it hard just to live?
Just to live

“A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” MLK

Brother Martin it is with great shame
That I confess this
We have traded your wisdom for trinkets
And rushed headlong into the flames
Our stars are now embers
Flaring on the altar of wanton cravenness
The black mayors replacing the white
Our leaders grow fat and heartless
And still the people are homeless
Their votes cast for gluttons
As they starve salivating
For a pair of Air Jordan 13s
The teachers bleed us of hope
Training selfish performers
For scripted roles as honorary white people

The glib general
The mute Supreme Court justice
The frigid diplomat
The bribed congressperson
And the sadistic black cop
We are gagged by bitter oppression
Fashioned by Ivy League houseboys
And Hip Hop millionaires

“True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar…it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” MLK

In a land of smoldering morality
Hatred hovers over the helpless
Neither power-protected brutality
Nor pleading passivity provides
A path to paradise

Oh, Baltimore
Ain’t it hard just to live?
Oh, Baltimore
Ain’t it hard just to live?
Just to live

(Refrain from the song “Baltimore” by Nina Simone)

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