Is MLK’s ‘Other America’ Still Relevant Today?

January 17, 2011  |  

by Anthony Jerrod

Almost three weeks prior to his assassination, the late Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered one of his most riveting and poignant speeches in Grosse Pointe Farms, Michigan.  Though not as well known as some of his other great speeches (e.g., “I Have a Dream,   Beyond Vietnam), this undaunted oration was equivocally important.   In the midst of an affluent, conservative and predominantly white crowd of over 2,700 people, Dr. King brilliantly discussed the problem of race and economics in the face of significant hostility and angry protesters.

With an almost perfect backdrop of the relatively wealthy and suburban Grosse Pointes brushed against the struggling urban landscapes of Detroit, Dr. King discussed a metaphorical yet literal dualism that was fairly ubiquitous throughout this nation during that current time and space.  Specifically, Dr. King discussed that there was “One America” that consisted of citizens who enjoyed material abundance and prosperity, decent education, cultural stimulation, spiritual freedom, respect and dignity.

Then, there was the “Other America.”  Conversely, this America embodied despair, hopelessness, discouragement, poverty, dilapidated housing, inadequate education and a lack of basic necessities.  Is this “Other America” that Dr. King discussed still present and relevant today?  Or, was this American “apartheid” just a divisive and extreme figment of Dr. King’s imagination that was unimportant and invalid both in 1968 and in these current times?

Upon examination, one of the primary components of the “Other America” speech was the problem of racism.  Dr. King was unabashed in stating that the country had to come to terms with and recognize that racist thoughts and practices were antithetical to the American democratic experiment.   In our current time and space, there are certain commentators who believe that we now live in a post-racial and colorblind America, where racism and bigotry have come to an end and divisive and artificial categorizations (i.e., races) cease to remain.

To be sure, race relations have improved when benchmarked to March of 1968 when Dr. King gave this speech.  But, it is relatively safe to state that our nation is still reluctant to have candid recognition and discourse about the problem of racism.  To a large degree, I agree with Attorney General Holder’s relatively controversial assessment that we are a “nation of cowards” when it comes to the topic of race relations.

And, when we analyze a snapshot of recent inflammatory statements and actions such as the Governor of Maine telling the NAACP to kiss his butt; a prominent evangelical Christian exclaiming that the Haitian earthquake was a blessing in disguise for a cursed people; a New York gubernatorial candidate stating that welfare recipients from the inner city should volunteer to go to prison; African-American Congressional lawmakers being spit on by Tea Party demonstrators; and, a Louisiana justice of peace denying a marriage license to an interracial couple, one can see that genuine repentance, on the whole, is still needed and at least this portion of Dr. King’s speech is still relevant for today.

In the “Other America” discussion, Dr. King also debunked several myths about the African-American community- namely, time, legislation and the bootstrap philosophy.  Dr. King made it crystal clear that the aloof thoughts that “only time can solve the problem of racial injustice” and “legislation can’t solve problems” are significantly erroneous in nature.  For the most part, this indifference and negative form of thinking is not only seen in havens of right-wing extremists and plutocratic nihilists but also in the halls of Capitol Hill.

When Congressional lawmakers propose to take billions away from the food stamp program to offset costs of another piece of legislation, threaten to let the Bush tax cuts expire for everyone unless the wealthiest constituents of our country are included, impede progress on necessary education reform because of political posturing and seek to repeal health care reform that will help over 30 million Americans, one realizes that the abovementioned thoughts that Dr. King noted are still relevant today.

And, of the course, the age-old conservative argument that myriad African-Americans find themselves in an unfortunate predicament, because they are simply not willing to lift themselves up by the bootstraps.  To be sure, personal accountability is absolutely necessary in living an abundant life.  But, it is extremely arrogant and disrespectful for one to think that they accomplished everything without any help from anyone and from especially God.  I would opine that many African-Americans try their best to raise themselves from an impoverished state but there is only so much lifting that can be done when their bootstraps are broken by despair, discouragement and oppressive forces.  Listening to Speaker of the House Boehner, “Mrs. Refudiate” Palin and other unfeeling individuals still targeting this message at African-Americans is very disheartening.

On the whole, is Dr. King’s “Other America” still vibrant and relevant in our current time and space?  Unfortunately, this metaphorical yet literal dualism still exists and will continue to persist until we move beyond partisan rancor, indifference and vitriolic words and move toward genuine recognition, repentance, love and unity, as President Obama eloquently discussed during the recent memorial service in Tuscon.

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