Inside the numbers: 40 years after MLK

Posted: Aug 26, 2003 12:00 AM

A recent national survey of over 1,000 adults asked Americans how they felt various groups in society were treated. Respondents were asked how satisfied they were with the treatment of, among other groups, African Americans. About 66 percent said they were very or somewhat satisfied with the treatment of blacks.

And while black respondents themselves did not concur with those findings, an overwhelming percentage of respondents said civil rights for blacks in America had improved in their lifetime (82 percent).

Perhaps that may account for the extremely light attendance at this past weekend's 40th anniversary gathering to commemorate Martin Luther King's great "I have a dream speech" and the March in Washington, which brought hundreds of thousands to the nation's capital in 1963.

Certainly it can be argued that more needs to be done to deal with racism in America. But most people observing this weekend's commemoration were shocked by the pitifully small and disorganized event, and by the overtly political nature of the rally.

With the exception of a few speakers, such as Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, a veteran of the '63 march, who gave an eloquent address to the crowd about what true grass-roots efforts are all about, most who spoke spent their time either bashing George W. Bush or implying that America owed reparations to African Americans.

All of this was mixed with a potpourri of other issues, ranging from sexual orientation to anti-war efforts. Many of the messages were delivered in painfully poor imitations of the styles of great African-American speakers such as Dr. King, Jesse Jackson and Barbara Jordan. There were more rhymes, repetitions, alliterations and other gimmicks than any speechwriter could possibly have imagined.

To put it bluntly, watching the 40th anniversary event, particularly for those of us who grew up hearing Dr. King and knowing the true passion of the men and women who joined him in that noble effort, was just plain embarrassing. If empty seats, chaotic organization, poor attendance, and an endless appeal supporting one political party and trashing the president of the United States is what this modern civil rights effort has boiled down to, then the movement is in trouble.

And that would be a shame. Being anti-racist, wanting to promote racial harmony, and demanding that the law treat all citizens equally and fairly are not issues that belong to one party or political ideology. Dr. King's famed speech of 1963 aroused passions without being partisan. He argued for change without malice or a sense of exclusivity of ownership of his cause. That's why he and those working with him were successful in changing our society.

Saturday's circus clearly lacked the discipline, focus and sophistication of Martin Luther King and the leaders who suffered with him in 1963. Even Rep. Lewis noted that, in bringing hundreds of thousands to D.C. in that year, the organizers had no faxes, Internet or cell phones with which to communicate to potential supporters. Grass-roots efforts at that time started deep in the soul, and were carried out by endless hours of meetings, phone calls and shoe leather hitting the pavement.

So is this to say that all is well in America and those who gathered in Washington this past week gathered in vain? Certainly not. It might shock those who attended to know that many conservatives feel just as strongly about racial equality. But surely the organizers of that event recognize that their message was so disparate with regard to issues, while at the same time so unified in its partisanship, as to have denigrated the very memory of Dr. King's great achievement of 1963.

My best guess is that the degree of thought, effort and devotion to purpose put into this so-called 40th anniversary gathering lacked the grass-roots work and intense hours of true organizing that Lewis himself attributed to those heroes he recalled from days gone by. Although most would deny it, it must have been mighty disappointing to look out from the speaker's rostrum, over the mall, which 40 years earlier was a sea of humanity, and instead see mostly green grass.

And here's the kicker -- for all of the many vicious comments about President Bush and his administration uttered at the event, the organizers obviously don't recognize how the African-American public feels about black leaders. The same poll shows that African-American respondents felt that the most important leader of "the black community" today is none other than Secretary of State Colin Powell. But of course Powell wasn't a part of the 40-year celebration. His presence wouldn't have fit the agenda.