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50th anniversary nostalgia of the March on Washington helps disguise our lack of progress

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This is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.

The 50th anniversary of the March on Washington was an exercise in nostalgia.  Lots of fanfare. Little action.

Did you notice the separation of the speakers from the crowd?  What made the March on Washington special was that it was part of a movement where people gathered together to struggle for freedom.  When he spoke, King was surrounded by organizers and supporters.  That’s the power of the moving filmed representations of the event.  Energy for justice abounded.  You could feel it.

Concerns for security are signs of our time.  Nonetheless, it raises doubt as to whether movements for social change outside of the official political process and the courts are possible any longer.  The separation is also part of our increasingly individualized and isolated (though ostensibly connected) Facebook culture.

The commentaries surrounding the anniversary that compared Martin Luther King, Jr. and Barack Obama were misplaced.  President Obama’s own erroneous distinction between King and himself as preacher and politician, as if King and the Civil Rights movement were more religious than political, was calculated to release him from his own responsibility as the first African-American president. It doesn’t.

If anything in American history was political, the Civil Rights movement was.  King was a political leader that had to be – and was – reckoned with.  President Obama cannot explain that away, nor should we.

King is properly enshrined in American history in a way that no other American has or will be.  Nonetheless, he is now romanticized and contoured for purposes other than his own.  The celebration yesterday proved that its time stop looking back to those glory years. Listening to the speeches yesterday King and the Civil Rights struggle seemed remote, as if it had occurred in another century.

Sure, there’s the dissonance of the unworthy powerful saluting the fallen resistance hero.  However, we can’t fault the less worthy or salute the hero by making him more than he was.  Even Amy Goodman in her coverage on Democracy Now fell into this trap.  On King and the Civil Rights movement, Goodman has been overly dramatic. She mixes time periods and causes without missing a beat.   Whatever the rhetoric, the March on Washington is past.  It won’t spur a new mass movement for justice.

King isn’t coming back to life again either.  And we don’t know what would have become of King had he lived.  Like other figures cut down in their prime, King’s prophetic image looms large.  Living longer would have placed King’s limitations in an evolving and more complex relationship with his image as the doomed prophet.  Inevitably, he would have come up against another set of American realities within and beyond the color line as did his Civil Rights cohorts Jesse Jackson and Andrew Young.  Who knows, if King had lived he might have morphed into an older version of Barack Obama.

The broadening of the Civil Rights movement to include a panoply of worthy issues is a problematic reading of the March on Washington.  True the march was about poverty and jobs for the poor and working class.  Nonetheless, its primary thrust was the struggle to liberate Blacks in the context of American history.

For other issues to claim center stage is to confuse and – in my view – to diminish and even expropriate the struggle for African-American freedom.  This is in line with the universalization of issues which has its place.  Nonetheless, the danger is that who suffer and struggle within a particular community may also lose their privileged place in that universalization.

Obviously the domestic American scene can be critically evaluated with regard to the anniversary celebration but the immediate backdrop – in real time – is the deepening crisis in the Middle East.  As the anniversary was celebrated, more Muslim Brotherhood officials and family connections were rounded up by the Egyptian government and the threat of missile strikes against Syria intensified.  Gas masks were being distributed to the Israeli public while the Palestinians continued to be pushed to the edge – minus the gas masks.  After all these years are we back in the Scud Missile (Saddam Hussein, Iraq) era?

Sometimes it is easier to look backward as we remain running in place.  The main issues of our day haven’t changed much nor have our responses.  Nostalgia helps disguise our lack of progress.

As the missiles are ready to strike, we should call an end to commemorations and change the world we live in.  Or has the world changed us?

Marc H. Ellis

Marc H. Ellis is Professor of History and Jewish Studies and Director of the Center for the Study of the Global Prophetic. His latest book is Finding Our Voice: Embodying the Prophetic and Other Misadventures.

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2 Responses

  1. seafoid on August 29, 2013, 10:20 am

    The US has gone backwards since the Republican reactionary fightback in 1980.
    Plutocracy is worse than cancer for the body politic. And there’s all the Obama stuff around the NSA and the security state.

    “Can a militarized and militarist America, turning itself from democracy toward plutocracy and oligarchy, hostile to aspects of international law and a code of human rights that it did much to create, yet still convinced of its natural superiority and of the inferiority of rival Europe, successfully claim the leadership of a new democratic order—if that arrives? ”

    Anytime I look at a film or listen to a song from the 70s I think things were better then. It wasn’t shangri la but the institutions were more solid and dependable.

  2. dbroncos on August 29, 2013, 10:31 am

    Obama lacks prophetic vision and conviction – something MLK and many other Civil Rights leaders had in abundance. On a PBS News hour interview last night Obama demurred that he is just a humble public servant and that he would never presume to stand in the same shoes as MLK, one of the greatest leaders in American history and, indeed, world history in our modern era. Obama made clear his conception of his place in the world: a “make me do it” bureaucrat without the courage to dream big, take risks and lead a nation towards a vision for the public good.

    He failed to harness the energy and enthusiasm that brought him to the WH and while that energy lacked the organized focus of the Civil Rights movement, it was still energy that could have been used to accomplish more than what Obama did with it. That energy and enthusiasm is long gone and with it any chance that Obama will be remembered as anything but a mediocrity.

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