Saturday, January 19, 2019

MLK's persistence of vision

NOW, 90 YEARS AFTER he was born and more than 50 years after he was taken from us, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr’s vision continues — persists — in a time that’s more antagonistic to that vision than ever before.

Even in our siloed, compartmentalized, deeply tribal era, with no one overarching voice to speak for black America (which is neither possible nor necessary in the first place), his belief system — a balance of spirituality and activism, the homiletic and the street, faith in the word and in the law — still animates our nation. The ethical pillars of his life and career inform our lives today, in what may be its darkest hour.

Witness the power of redemption and forgiveness: During the Jan. 4 WHEC weather forecast, which included a live shot of Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Park, in Rochester, N.Y., weatherman Jeremy Kappell appeared to call it “Martin Luther Coon King Jr. Park.”

All hell, of course, broke loose. “As a result of that broadcast, meteorologist Jeremy Kappell is no longer with News10NBC,” said Richard Reingold, WHEC general manager, said in a statement. “We believe strongly in holding our reporters and anchors to the highest standard.”

Kappell, who had been WHEC's chief meteorologist since October 2017, said Monday evening that the incident had been "a simple misunderstanding" that arose because he “jumbled a couple of words.”

“I had no idea what some people could have interpreted that as and I know some people did interpret that the wrong way. That was not a word I said, I promise you that. If you did feel that it hurt you in any way, I sincerely apologize,” he said via Facebook.

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RISING ABOVE the howl for a scalp, the ritual din of condemnation ... a voice from the King family. “I believe that when these racial slurs occur, unless there’s a situation where it’s continual, that people need an opportunity to be rehabilitated,” said Dr. Bernice King, daughter of MLK, speaking Jan. 10 to TMZ. “We don’t focus a lot on rehabilitation in our society today. ...

“Yes there has to be some repercussions. I don’t think it should go as far in this particular instance, firing an individual. I think demoting, giving them another assignment off-air, do some training, some implicit bias training, re-evaluating to see where they are in a better solution in this particular instance,” she said.

Proposing justice and mercy be applied in more or less equal measure, a daughter of the preacher who changed the arc of American society embodies the ethics of her father. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, of course. But the better, more pertinent metaphor obtains: That stone you drop in the water yields ripples that move far and far, and it does it for a long time. Redemption and forgiveness needn’t be strangers to us, even in the ethical gray murk of Trumptime.

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And then there’s the power of collective strength, reliance on the institutions of American government, and the pursuit of justice.

Rep. Steve King of Iowa, the reliably obstreperous Iowa congressman whose racist language and ethically-denigrating perspectives have come to define him and his worldview in ways great and small since at least 2002, finally jumped his own shark earlier this month. In an interview with The New York Times on Jan. 10, the congressman, apparently with a straight face, posed to the reporter some rhetorical questions: “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive? Why did I sit in classes teaching me about the merits of our history and our civilization?”

He was soundly rebuked by members of the House where he now serves in the minority, to the point of suffering a resolution condemning his remarks. “The House Republicans denounce his language. We do not believe in his language, and we’ve decided that he will not serve on any” committees, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said on Jan. 15.

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KING, IN HIS ninth term in Congress, also faced the ire of African American members of Congress, lawmakers who weren’t there in such numbers and influence in 1968, when Martin Luther King was slain in Memphis — and sure as hell not in 1929, when MLK was born, and when such representation in Congress was a distant fever dream.

Illinois Democratic Rep. Bobby Rush, a top member of the Congressional Black Caucus, called for a full censure for Rep. King — a formal punishment. “As with any animal that is rabid, Steve King should be set aside and isolated,” Rush said in a statement. Tim Scott, a black Republican senator, showed that the Iowa firebrand actually managed to offend sensibilities across the aisle.

“When people with opinions similar to King’s open their mouths, they damage not only the Republican Party and the conservative brand but also our nation as a whole,” Scott wrote in a Jan. 11 op-ed in The Washington Post. MLK, the drum major for justice, wouldn't have said it any less plain.

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Today, the notion of a single figurehead symbolizing the hopes and aspirations of millions of African Americans seems quaint today; the idea has less credence now than it did before. Black America has too many flavors and styles, personalities and internal divisions to stand under one lightning rod. In truth, it always has.

But that doesn’t diminish the power of that once-figurehead’s ideas and values, his enduring momentum into our culture, and his equally enduring impact on our national self-image. Martin Luther King still commands our attention not necessarily because of what he was, but more because of what he insisted on.

We live in the time of that unique union of his singular attributes, not just now but into the future — starting with the days of the coming holiday weekend that bears his name.

Image credits: MLK top: unknown. Bernice King: via TMZ. King: Al Drago for The New York Times. King hoodie: © 2013 Nikkolais Smith.

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