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MLK National Monument Inspires Calls to Continue Civil Rights Leader’s Work to End Poverty and War

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This week, the public got its first look at a newly unveiled memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., that honors the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It is the first memorial on the National Mall not dedicated to a war, president or white man. The threat of Hurricane Irene has forced organizers to postpone the planned dedication of memorial on Sunday, which was to have been attended by 250,000 people, including President Barack Obama. The dedication ceremony was to have taken place on the 48th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, when Dr. King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Despite the storm, a related Rally for Jobs and Justice will proceed tomorrow, ending with a march to the King Memorial. We speak with longtime civil rights activist Rev. Jesse Jackson, president and founder of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, and with Dr. Vincent Harding, a longtime friend and a former speechwriter for Dr. King. He co-wrote his famous “Beyond Vietnam” address. Harding reads from a Carl Wendell Hines poem written shortly after Dr. King’s assassination and notes that “Dead men make such convenient heroes… It is easier to build monuments than to build a better world.” [includes rush transcript]

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StoryAug 26, 201350 Years After March on Washington, Tens of Thousands Say Struggle for MLK’s “Dream” Continues
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: This week the public got its first look at a newly unveiled memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., that honors the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s the first memorial on the National Mall not dedicated to a war, a president or a white man. The memorial features a 30-foot-tall sculpture in which the civil rights leader appears to emerge from a chunk of granite that is carved to resemble the sides of a mountain. It was sculpted by Chinese artist Lei Yixin.

Well, the threat of Hurricane Irene has forced organizers to postpone the planned dedication of the memorial, which had been set to take place Sunday at 11:00 a.m. Some 250,000 people were expected to attend, including President Barack Obama. The dedication ceremony was to have taken place on the 48th anniversary of Dr. King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered less than a mile away on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

REV. DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Dr. Martin Luther King, speaking in Washington, D.C., on August 28th, 1963. Well, the event at which Dr. King made his famous speech was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. And even as the King Memorial dedication has been postponed, a related Rally for Jobs and Justice will proceed on Saturday, ending with a march to the King Memorial. It’s expected to attract thousands of labor, education and civil rights activists across the country. In the year before he was assassinated, Dr. King organized a Poor People’s Campaign for economic opportunity for all Americans.

To talk about the memorial and the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, we go to Washington, D.C., where we’re joined by longtime civil rights leader Reverend Jesse Jackson. Reverend Jackson is also president and founder of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition. And we’re joined in Denver, Colorado, by Dr. Vincent Harding, who was a longtime friend and former speechwriter for Dr. King, who wrote his famous “Beyond Vietnam” address. He’s also chair of the Veterans of Hope project. Dr. Harding is author of several books, including Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! The sculpture in Washington, the statue, Reverend Jesse Jackson, can you talk about its origins, how there finally is in Washington, D.C., this statue on the Mall that is not for a president or a war, the first time a black man is being honored?

REV. JESSE JACKSON: I suppose the gravitas is this journey, this 164-mile journey from Jamestown, Virginia, where slaves landed in 1619, of 246 years of legal slavery, then a hundred years of Jim Crow. That’s the context of that struggle to make this a more perfect union. And Dr. King’s role in it, at that stage, took us all to another level of hope and ambition. And so, his Alpha Phi Alpha brothers, in a very ingenious way, came with the idea of having a statue on the Mall and commenced to build a foundation, began to raise the money. The idea got traction, and now see the result of it in this huge statue on the monument. And so, not far from three presidents—Lincoln—Presidents Lincoln and Washington and Jefferson—stands a Nobel laureate, the man of peace, who was the world’s transformative figure on that Mall for, in one sense, Presidents Lincoln and Washington and Jefferson are huge national figures, but none on that Mall stands as tall as Dr. King as a world transformative figure, the idea of human rights and freedom around the world.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Reverend Jackson, Cornel West had a piece in today’s—an op-ed piece in today’s New York Times titled “Reverend King Would Be Weeping” [“Dr. King Weeps from His Grave”]. And the thrust of his column was that this symbol and memorial to Dr. King comes at the same time that so many of the substance of the issues that Dr. King raised, especially in his final days, are being ignored or even—the country is turning its back on those issues that Dr. King raised. Your reaction to this irony that Cornel West raises?

REV. JESSE JACKSON: I think we would do well to use the statue as an occasion to deal with his unfinished business. He was shot down, assassinated at age 39. His last agenda items included a Poor People’s Campaign, the quest to end the war in Vietnam, and stop the radical installation of capital in the hands of the very wealthy. And today, here we are with too few people with too much wealth, subsidized by the government, too many unnecessary wars and too many people in poverty. So, in substance, this memorial gives us a rallying point to keep going with his unfinished business. We bail out the banks, without link to lending and reinvestment, for example. The Bush tax cut extension is more money than all of the state budget deficits combined. So, clearly, Wall Street has made out big time, but the poor are expanding, and we’re losing jobs en masse, and we must, in fact, turn it around.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Vince Harding, the name of your book about Dr. King is Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero. You’re quoting from a poem by Carl Wendell Hines. Can you share that with us?

DR. VINCENT HARDING: I’d be very glad to, Amy. And I’m so glad to be on the program with you again. As I’ve thought about the monument, what came immediately to my mind was this poem that I quote in the King book by Carl Wendell Hines. And here is the section that I’m especially interested in sharing this morning:

Now that he is safely dead,
Let us Praise him,
Build monuments to his glory,
Sing Hosannas to his name.

Dead men make such convenient Heroes.
They cannot rise to challenge the images
We would fashion from their Lives.
And besides, it is easier to build monuments
Than to build a better world.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Vince Harding, talk about why you think that—

DR. VINCENT HARDING: That was on my mind.

AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead. Talk about why that is on your mind today, as this statute, well, is about to be formally unveiled, but because of the hurricane will be postponed.

DR. VINCENT HARDING: I think that the whole issue that Martin represented of the role of all of us as citizens in this nation to work to create a more just, compassionate and concerned nation is something that is so easy for us to forget as we build the monument. I believe very strongly that monuments, works of art, are of great importance. But what comes to my mind, Amy, is that when we take our children to see the monument, I hope that when they ask about who that is and why the monument is there, that we’ll say to those children, not that this is Martin Luther King who was a great speech maker, but that this is King who helped to inspire me to work for you to have a better school, my son, to work for you, my daughter, to be able to be a great creative agent in this world, to work for community to be a place where all of us can live and love in strength and unity. If we could tell our children from that monument what work it is that we are doing now to carry on the work that King was involved in and that King died for, then your monument will have its rightful place. But we must always keep in mind that that work has to go on if the monument is to have any real meaning for us all.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Reverend Jackson, about that work, the march that you’re having on Saturday, obviously in the midst right now of a presidency where many expected much more in terms of a dedication to alleviating some of the problems of the poor and of those who are less fortunate in this society, that hasn’t happened, your sense of what the message of the march will be?

REV. JESSE JACKSON: Let me say to you, I want to build upon—and first, good morning, Dr. Harding, one of Dr. King’s closest friends.

DR. VINCENT HARDING: Good morning, Jesse.

REV. JESSE JACKSON: We have a way of embracing martyrs—embracing martyrs and not marchers, trying to neuter him. He died a very unpopular man, attacked by our government, attacked by the media, shunned by many blacks themselves, for example, civil rights activists, because he dared to deal with the issue of unjust, unnecessary wars.

Today we’re spending a trillion dollars in Iraq on the wrong target. Overthrowing the government in Libya, well, a billion there, and billions more to restore it. Two billion a week in Afghanistan. And yet, we’re laying off teachers, firemen, policemen. He would be distressed by that. He would be weeping about that. The bailout for these banks, who drove us in the hole, and then they get bailed out without links to kind of reinvest. We refortified them, not restructured them.

These issues that Dr. King would have raised would be troubling, but it is his sense of outrage and conscience that make us better today. And I would hope, as Vince said, that the interpretation must lead us to his unfinished business. The dream only makes sense if it’s connected to the broken promise that had been unfulfilled for a hundred years. And today, the dream has to put every American back to work. That means reinvesting in the common people bottom-up. We’re cutting public transportation, denying access to jobs, resegregating. Our schools are more segregated. The biggest growth industry in most states is the jail-industrial complex. So he would see me raising troubling questions of conscience, so I will see this monument as an opportunity to raise issues of jobs and peace and justice.

AMY GOODMAN: Reverend Jackson, can you talk about the corporate contributors to this statue and the event, the mass corporate donations that funded the memorial—FedEx, General Motors, GE, PepsiCo, ExxonMobil?

REV. JESSE JACKSON: Well, I do not know, you know, who all did the contributions, but I do know that that will pale by comparison to how long the statue will be here. And you go to Lincoln, it’s a conversation about the Emancipation Proclamation. Or you go to Jefferson, there’s a statement about his being a founder of the country, democracy and slavery co-existing. You go to Washington, father of the country. You go to Dr. King’s statue, you’ll be talking about civil rights and social justice. It will outlast who contributed to making it happen. I would think that that would be the last—a man of peace on that statue, unlike these presidents. He’s the tallest figure there, because people coming here from South Africa and from Australia and from Asia, people all around the world, who embrace peace and justice and self-determination found in Dr. King’s statue, that one will be the most appealing statue on the entire Mall.

AMY GOODMAN: Vince Harding, you helped Dr. King write that speech, “Beyond Vietnam.” You sat there for days preparing this, the famous speech he gave April 4th, 1967, a year to the day before he was assassinated. He gave that speech at Riverside Church. It became known as “Beyond Vietnam.” Let me play a short clip for you now.

REV. DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: If we do not stop our war against the people of Vietnam immediately, the world will be left with no other alternative than to see this as some horrible, clumsy and deadly game we have decided to play. The world now demands a maturity of America that we may not be able to achieve. It demands that we admit that we have been wrong from the beginning of our adventure in Vietnam, that we have been detrimental to the life of the Vietnamese people. The situation is one in which we must be ready to turn sharply from our present ways.

AMY GOODMAN: That famous address, Time magazine later called the speech “demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi.” The Washington Post declared that King had “diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, and his people.” Vince Harding, your reflections on that speech, in which he said the country he loved, America, the United States, was the greatest purveyor of violence on earth, as he spoke against the war in Vietnam, where we are today with the wars that President Obama is presiding over in Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan?

DR. VINCENT HARDING: Well, I think, Amy, that that speech, which was not simply mine, but which definitely spoke to Martin’s own deepest convictions, that speech and the segment that you just read, for instance, is now very clearly the truth of Vietnam, regardless of what Time or the New York Times or the Washington Post was saying in 1967. By this time, we realize that King was the one who saw most clearly and most adequately what it was that was going on in Vietnam. And he called us away from that kind of adventure. He called us to become a mature democratic country and not a country of cowboy teenagers. And this, I think, is still the need for us right now, to find a way to become a mature people, so that we can recreate the country that is so badly in need of that vision of a more perfect union.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to ask Reverend Jackson. The wars—you’ve mentioned the wars—

REV. JESSE JACKSON: May I say, Juan—

JUAN GONZALEZ: I’m sorry, go ahead.

REV. JESSE JACKSON: What I wanted to say was that one of the fears about—in tributing Dr. King as one with a dove in one ear and a flower in the other is to miss the fact he was a man of courage and conscience and confrontation and then conciliation.

DR. VINCENT HARDING: Yes, yes, yes.

REV. JESSE JACKSON: He won the battle of Montgomery—confrontation—the battle of Birmingham, the battle of Selma, the battle of Chicago, the battle to end the war in Vietnam. He must be seen as a fighter who chose tough negotiations and confrontation, and then reconciliation. And that was the point that made him distinctly different, that he took the risk of fighting the battle to bring about the victory for reconciliation.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Reverend Jackson, I’d also like to ask you, because you mentioned all of the money being spent on the current wars. The United States is involved probably in more wars right now in different parts of—or military adventures in different parts of the world than in any time in its history. You’ve—Libya has been in the news a lot. You once met with Gaddafi. You’re familiar with the situation in Libya. What is your sense of the United States’s involvement in efforts at regime change in Libya?

REV. JESSE JACKSON: Twofold, it seems. Number one, the idea of a humanitarian mission there was well founded and probably could have been negotiated to a conclusion, because, after all, the forces—the rebels in Libya did not come to Gaddafi as the peaceful demonstrators did in Egypt. They came firing. He was firing. So it was a kind of civil war, which we maybe could have negotiated to some conclusion. And we chose to go from humanitarian relief to a full-scale war, and now we’ve paid over a billion dollars for that war, and we’ll pay billions more to reconstruct what we’ve torn up. And while the chaos abounds and destabilization abounds, now, of course, the same contractors who are rebuilding and getting the oil out of Iraq will be going next to Libya, which makes it kind of cynical. I hope that, early on, that this madness can be stopped and that we can, A, find a coherent foreign policy. And I find that right now, from Egypt to Libya to Yemen to Syria to Libya, our foreign policy is not very coherent.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to end with Vincent Harding. I’m looking at a piece by—from the Black Agenda Report by Jared Ball, who said, referring to corporate sponsors, “Of course, there are others like JP Morgan, Murdoch’s Direct TV, Exxon, Target [and] Wal Mart—other bastions of workers’ rights and liberty. All have come together to ensure that King be forever separated from [himself, from] his anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist and anti-patient work for a genuine revolution.” Can you comment on that, Vince Harding?

DR. VINCENT HARDING: Oh, I would like to comment on it, my dear, especially to remind us that this country, this democracy that we’re trying to create, was sponsored by slaveholders, slave owners and slave traders. But that does not mean that that was the end of the story. As our great African-American teacher, who was one of our major Supreme Court justices, reminded us, that though the country began in that way, we could go on to create something new. I’m not worried right now about who paid for the memorial. What I want to do, and what I want to know, is how the memorial and the spirit of King can be remade, can be taken over into our hands and carried on to the point where we can get past the concerns that King had for racism, for materialism, for militarism. Those were his three major concerns as his life ended. If we can take that on at this point in history, then whoever paid for the monument does not matter. We are the ones who will have to create the meaning of King for the future of this country.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you both for being with us. Vincent Harding, chair of Veterans of Hope project, longtime friend of Dr. Martin Luther King, author of a few books, including Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero. And Reverend Jesse Jackson, joining us from Washington, D.C. The unveiling, the formal unveiling of the statue will be postponed because of Hurricane Irene, expected to slam into Washington on Sunday. The dedication will be postponed, that President Obama was going to be at. But the March for Jobs and Justice is going to happen on Saturday, that will end at the King Memorial.

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