My favorite line from my favorite poem about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is the opening of the Carl Wendell Hines’ poem “A Dead Man’s Dream” – “Now that he is safely dead, let us praise him.”
King’s meddlesome humanism has proven more palatable in the inertia of his death than in the activism of his life.
In life, King urged, “We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”
In death, those giant triplets have only grown, and we continue to feed them larger-than-deserved portions.
In life, King exhorted African-Americans to prepare for citizenship’s responsibilities as well as for its hard-earned rights.
In death, the African-American voting rights he fought for so courageously and so selflessly largely go unused.
In life, King influenced the Kerner Commission Report, convened not only to ascertain why racial riots erupted during the summer of 1967, but to figure out how best to keep them from happening again. They looked for root causes.
The conclusion of one particularly provocative report dealt with what the panel called white society’s role in creating the so-called black ghetto: “White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”
In death, 50 years later, over-policing, mass incarceration and wealth inequality ignited urban riots in Ferguson, Mo., in Baltimore, in Baton Rouge, La., and beyond. The aged Kerner report reads as though written only last year.
In life, King emphasized hope: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
He said, “Truth crushed to earth will rise again.”
He said, “I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight, that we as a people will get to the Promised Land.”
In death, hope for racial reconciliation remains elusive.
After an ice storm forced the postponement of our January MLK event, the Kansas African American Museum chose April 1 for its King memorial to better fuse his tragic death (April 4, 1968) to the inspirational life he led.
I try each year to share Hines’ poem with someone or with some group. I’m eagerly awaiting the last stanza’s obsolescence:
“So we with eased consciences will tell our children that he was a great man, knowing that the cause for which he lived is still a cause and the dream for which he died is still a dream. A dead man’s dream.”
Mark McCormick is the executive director of the Kansas African American Museum.