Rampant social, economic injustices show society chooses to idolize King rather than take his message seriously
On Monday, while waiting to cross the street in a city I was visiting, there was a garbage truck at the stop light where I stood. A handsome young African-American man was hanging on the side of the truck whistling.
I said to him, "That looks like a tough job."
"Yeah," he said, "It gets tougher in the summer. But aren’t you glad somebody is willing to do it?"
I felt my face turn red because I knew that, as a middle-class white man, collecting trash is a job that I would never even consider doing. I am glad someone is willing to collect my trash, but it wasn’t until recently that I have bothered to notice who’s doing that work.
The reason that I started to pay attention is that this weekend marks the 40th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. These days, almost everyone in America reveres him as a hero, but I remember when I was a boy that some people applauded when they announced that he had been killed.
Every year in January around the time of his birthday, the media seems filled with people quoting his "I Have a Dream" speech. For good liberals like me and you, he is an icon of equality. By idolizing him, we have managed to make him less than human and thus diminish our responsibility to take his life and teachings seriously.
For example, do you know how much your garbage collector is paid? No?
Remember that Dr. King was martyred because he went to Memphis to march with the garbage collectors who were seeking to earn a living wage.
All of these years later, our culture idolizes Dr. King and makes him a cult hero, but we pay almost no heed to the values for which he lived and died.
He was a man of peace who fell out of favor with the White House because he opposed the war in Vietnam. He came from a relatively prosperous middle-class family, but he didn’t preach a gospel of prosperity. Instead, he organized a "Poor Persons" march.
At any point in his life he could have settled, but he kept pushing for full equality for all people.
Oh, everyone loves to quote his dream, but few are willing to stand with smelly garbage collectors who, 40 years later, still are not paid a living wage.
In the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, we are proud to be let onto the bus, so we don’t raise a fuss about having to sit in the back. If a church will smile at us and treat us nicely, we will gladly sing in their choir and fill their offering plates, even though they won’t marry us, or ordain us, or treat us like real children of God.
We gladly accept a concession like domestic partnership, which is similar to but still substantially less than marriage. We are willing to throw members of our own community under the bus, so we support hate crimes legislation that does not include protections for our transgender brothers and sisters.
He died 40 years ago this weekend, and we have turned Martin Luther King into a hero to be idolized and ignored. It isn’t racism, because, in June, we will do the same to those who were beaten and arrested at Stonewall. We have been accommodated by the powerbrokers, so we have grown comfortable with discrimination’s lies.
Those like the Rev. Jeremiah Wright who are rude enough to raise their voices and challenge the system are demonized by the media and marginalized in such a way that we can ignore them. Injustice thus survives, and the death of a true hero is usurped by the oppressors who have found ways to market, and even profit from, the life and work of a prophet … and the garbage collectors still can’t send their children to college.
The Rev. Michael Piazza is president of Hope for Peace & Justice and dean of the Cathedral of Hope. H4PJ aims to equip progressive people of faith to be champions for peace and Justice.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 4, 2008