Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Martin Luther King and "The Other America"

Last night the Art Theater in Champaign did something unusual. As part of Martin Luther King Day festivities they showed a 45 minute black and white film of an MLK speech from 1967 – “The Other America”. Speaking without notes, King addressed with urgency the tremendous turmoil in the country that stemmed from racism, the country’s deep economic inequality and the waste and brutality of the war in Vietnam. There is still so much that is fresh, radical, thought-provoking and profoundly relevant in King’s words.

There’s a tendency to idolize King, rather than to really grapple with his humanity and the revolutionary ideas he proposed. A few excellent books do indeed take on this challenge. Taylor Branch’s Trilogy, America in the King Years – though daunting in length – is compellingly readable. Branch gives an unforgettable profile of King, but also offers insight into Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson, Fannie Lou Hamer and others; he revives the forgotten history of the Civil Rights Movement – especially the stories of courage in the face of daily hatred and violence that spring to life in his telling. David Garrow’s book Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leacership Conference humanizes King and shows the struggles and tremendous challenges he faced. Garrow’s research (especially the numerous interviews with King’s inner circle) won him a Pulitzer Prize. And there are many others books to recommend as well, by Stephen B. Oates, Michael Eric Dyson, and - of course there are King’s own books and recordings of King's speeches.

I’m looking forward to another MLK event this week – A film on Bayard Rustin, a tireless organizer and activist who had a tremendous impact on the Civil Rights Movement (and whose contributions are minimized in part in part because he was openly gay). There’s also another showing of the the MLK Speech “The Other America” on campus next Tuesday, January 24. See this link for details on these and other events (all organized by the University of Illinois' many co-sponsors).

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