MLK Day celebrations highlight Civil Rights leader's radical side

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. has often been framed as a leader who saw the struggle for Civil Rights best realized through incremental gains. But King’s ideas were often more insistent, a fact highlighted by this year's celebrations in remembrance of him.

click to enlarge Marchers gather on Fountain Square in remembrance of Martin Luther King, Jr. - Nick Swartsell
Nick Swartsell
Marchers gather on Fountain Square in remembrance of Martin Luther King, Jr.

As the country, and Cincinnati, continue to wrestle with deep divides around race, law enforcement and economics, and just days before the inauguration of president-elect Donald Trump, this year’s celebration of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King felt more urgent, centering around King’s radical beliefs and the calls to action around racial and economic justice he made before his 1968 assassination.

Cincinnati’s MLK Coalition organized the official series of events here, which included breakfast and speeches at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, a march to an inter-faith prayer on Fountain Square and performances and a keynote speech, titled “Unfair, Unequal and Unacceptable,” by Xavier University’s Dr. Adam Clark at the Taft Theatre.

Following that event, Black Lives Matter Cincinnati held a teach-in at the downtown branch of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County underscoring King’s sometimes-ignored ties with radical activists, his commitments to economic justice and his push to build a pro-black liberation movement. Again and again throughout the day, speakers tied King’s ideas in to the contemporary American political landscape.

“Beyond the dream that Dr. King had, he had a very good grasp of reality,” MLK Coalition President Jay Payne said before the march began. “And present-day reality means that we have to take action.”

King has often been framed as a leader who saw the struggle for Civil Rights best realized through incremental gains and admonitions to “just get along” that many have read into his “I Have a Dream” speech. But King’s ideas were often more insistent, and his final, unfinished work — speaking out against the Vietnam War and organizing what he called the “Poor Peoples’ Movement” — showed he was concerned with staunch organized opposition to economic, racial and other forms of oppression.

During the prayer on Fountain Square, Rev. Troy Jackson of the Amos Project read a sermon from King called “When Peace Becomes Obnoxious,” seeking to complicate King’s legacy as a leader concerned first and foremost with getting along.

“Peace is not nearly the absence of tension, but the presence of justice,” Jackson read. “Even if we didn’t have this tension, we wouldn’t have positive peace. If peace means accepting second-class citizenship, I don’t want it. If peace means keeping my mouth shut in the midst of injustice and evil, I don’t want it. If peace means a willingness to be exploited economically, dominated politically, humiliated and segregated, I don’t want peace. So in a passive and non-violent manner, we must revolt against this peace.”

After the prayer, marchers made a short trek to the Taft Theatre for events built around this idea of a more radical, activist King. There, speakers drew a straight line to today’s political realities.

Before Dr. Clark’s speech, Mayor John Cranley spoke briefly, lighting into president-elect Donald Trump’s statements about Civil Rights leader and U.S. Congressman John Lewis.

“Over the weekend, as we all know, sadly, the president-elect attacked Congressman John Lewis, one of the greatest Civil Rights legends in our country, literally saying he was all talk and no action,” Cranley said as he invoked the memory of Dr. King. “Outrageous. That’s an outrageous statement from the president-elect. We’re not going to stand for it. We’ll use our voice, our walk, and we’ll stand up as a city and as Americans to for what is best.”

Cranley brought up Lewis’ history marching along with King and compared that to what Trump was doing around the same time — overseeing an apartment building belonging to his father in Bond Hill that refused to rent to African Americans.

In their event later at the library, Black Lives Matter Cincinnati continued the conversation around King’s more urgent messages in a teach-in called “Dream but Stay Woke,” connecting King’s teachings to today’s issues and using them to illustrate the importance of mass action.

“In terms of Dr. King, a lot of times his legacy is heavily whitewashed, and a lot of his more radical thinking and radical writing are glossed over,” said BLMC organizer Ashley Harrington

The teach-in, which drew more than 100 people, encouraged attendees to think critically about both the popular representation of King and his more radical writings and teachings.

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