The University Record, January 22, 2001

Social justice called ‘moral assignment’ of new millennium

Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2001: Commitment and Renewal

By Theresa Maddix

Manning Marable, professor of history and political science and the founding director of the Institute for Research in African American Studies at Columbia University, opened Martin Luther King Jr. Day events on Jan. 11 with a sense of longing for “Martin” and asking what King would identify “as the challenges of race and class and politics in the year 2001.”

“There was a brief and shining moment when America seemed to be moving toward the ideal of a multicultural democracy,” Marable said, speaking of the August 1963 March on Washington and King’s “I have a dream” speech. After King’s speech, Marable said, “Martin became one of the three or four most influential political figures on Earth.”

“A great leader sees farther than others,” Marable said. “She or he desires more strongly than others.” However, Marable emphasized that leaders must be remembered in context, saying that King did not create the second Reconstruction, initiate the Montgomery bus boycott or spearhead the student sit-ins in Greensboro, N.C.

First and foremost, Marable said, King’s identity was that of an African American minister. “Martin’s secret lies in his intimate knowledge of the people he is addressing. Martin suffered with them and helped them to suffer and to overcome.”

By 1966, King openly opposed U.S. involvement in Vietnam, saying, (as Marable quoted), “As a Christian, I have no choice except to declare that all war is wrong. The Negro must not allow himself to become a victim of the self-serving philosophy of those who manufacture war, that the survival of the world is the white man’s business alone.”

During this period, King moved from a focus on reforming society to the articulation of a vision of a new America, “a radical democratic vision for U.S. society—universal health care and universal jobs, jobs with fundamental human rights, investments to revive America’s cities, guaranteed incomes for every adult American.”

“Which Martin Luther Martin King Jr. do you honor?” Marable asked. “The Martin Luther King who stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial making his ‘I have a dream’ speech, or the Martin Luther King Jr. who denounced the nation’s ‘illegal and immoral war on Vietnam,’ or the Martin Luther King Jr. who died organizing sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee; the Martin Luther King Jr. who demanded the end of all unemployment, who demanded universal health care, who demanded the end of ghettoization and exploitation of working people, who organized the poor people’s march on Washington, D.C.?”

Marable tied these issues to current issues of social justice, such as affirmative action and discriminatory voting practices in the 2000 presidential election. “If affirmative action is to be criticized,” Marable said, “it might be on the grounds that it didn’t go far enough.”

“Growing up Black in white America has always been a challenge, but in many ways in the 21st century, never more than today,” Marable said, citing a 2000 study by the Children’s Defense Fund. The study found that compared with white Americans, Black children are one-and-a-half times more likely to grow up in families whose household heads didn’t graduate from high school and three times more likely to be corporally punished in school. Black children are twice as likely to be arrested for property crimes, twice as likely to be unemployed teenagers (twice as likely to be unemployed adults, too), five times more likely to be arrested and nine times more likely to become victims of homicide. Black infants are two-and-a-half times more likely to die in the first year of life and four times more likely to be born of mothers dying of HIV.

Closing, Marable cited the need for “a new moral assignment.” He recounted a discussion he had with actor Ossie Davis in which Davis said, “Every generation needs a moral assignment. We have yet to define our moral assignment.”

In the mid-1800s, the moral assignment was overturning slavery. A generation ago, the assignment was abolishing Jim Crow laws. Marable suggested that King would say today’s moral assignment is “social justice.”

Marable founded Colgate University’s Africana and Hispanic Studies Department and has written 13 books—most recently Let Nobody Turn Us Around: Voices of Resistance, Reform and Renewal: An African American Anthology with Leith Mullings in 2000. Marable initiated Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture and Society and has been a guest on NBC’s “Today Show,” ABC’s “Weekend News” and NPR’s “Charlie Rose Show.”