This year, Americans will celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as researchers report that up to one in four black and Hispanic workers is under-employed and that approximately 90 percent of black children will use food stamps at least once before turning twenty. In this context, it is particularly worthwhile to ask what it means to "commemorate" a legacy like King's and how we might reclaim its transformative power. Although it is the images of King speaking to crowds in Washington that remain most tenaciously fixed in our national imagination, the inclusion in this picture of Detroit in past and present can serve to bring many aspects of King's legacy into sharper relief.
On January 18th, Detroit will hold its seventh annual Martin Luther King Day celebration at the Central United Methodist Church, where between 3,000 and 4,000 people will attend a ceremony followed by a march to Cobo Hall along the same route that King and more than 100,000 others took in June 1963. This tribute to the "Detroit Freedom Walk," a march that preceded the better-known March on Washington by two months, expands the commemorative focus of the holiday and brings to the forefront vital but overshadowed aspects of the civil rights movement: its broad geographic base, its historic connections to the labor movement, its concern with racialized poverty and economic injustice as well as legal discrimination. These concerns have always intersected dramatically in Detroit, and the Freedom Walk reminds that beyond the powerful but abstract language of King's "dream" most often appropriated and deployed for national rituals of remembrance, events in the civil rights movement had and have a direct relevance to specific communities.
This relevance is particularly evident in the issues that Detroiters have chosen to emphasize in their celebration this year, the theme of which is: "Join the Struggle for Jobs, Peace and Economic Justice." Maureen Taylor, an organizer and speaker at the event, is also the state chairperson of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization and the co-coordinator of the upcoming United States Social Forum (USSF). To be held in June 2010, the USSF will bring together activists from across the United States and globally to share experience, analysis, and alternatives to current practices under the assertion, "Another World is Possible. Another US is Necessary." Taylor notes that as a result of the dire economic situation in Detroit and the involvement of USSF organizers in the planning of the event, this year's celebration will highlight King's later work and the connections between his struggles for racial and economic justice.
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King's final campaign took place in Memphis, Tennessee, where he launched a program of support for striking sanitation workers in preparation for a Poor Peoples' March on Washington. In his last speech before his murder, King proclaimed that there was a hopefulness to be found in the desolate conditions of the day because there was a greater imperative to act on pervasive social problems when survival demanded it. "I know, somehow," he spoke to the crowd, "that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars."
These words are particularly apt this year in Detroit, a city that Taylor describes as "ground zero in the national economy," as it prepares to host an expected 20,000 activists in June 2010. Taylor describes the US Social Forum as "a national event with local implications," emphasizing the importance of giving the forum a grounding in the experience of Detroiters. "Every kind of mountainous collapse is going on here, yet the people are holding on. It's important that the folks come to Detroit, learn, understand what's happening, because this is a rolling storm. It's coming to a neighborhood near you."
Following the establishment of MLK Day as a national holiday and criticisms of the vague, mainstream meaning for which King's memory was being appropriated, poet Carl Wendell Hines concluded, "It is easier to build monuments/ than to make a better world." In Detroit, however, many of the same individuals and organizations already on the front lines of poverty and discrimination are working to organize both the January 18th MLK Day celebration and the June US Social Forum. In this way, we see how Martin Luther King, Jr. Day can be celebrated in a way that honors a specific aspect of civil rights movement history and illuminates its continued significance to the challenges that a community faces and the responses that it can formulate. There is, then, much to learn from Detroit about collapse and survival as it prepares for June 2010; in the darkness there, those who bother to look can perhaps see the stars.