Today is the 25th anniversary of the federal government establishing a nationally recognized holiday in honor of the legendary icon, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. While many people see this day as one of volunteerism, certain organizations have also taken it upon themselves to create events where powerful dialogue and deep analysis of some of Dr. King’s most powerful ideas and solutions to still-present hurdles can be examined. In fact, the dictate of “don’t take the day off, take the day on,” by WNYC Radio’s Director of Community Engagement and Audience Development, Brenda Williams-Butts set the tone for what may be one of the most-provocative and inspirational events in New York for the 2011 King holiday: WNYC’s “Made in America” King’s Dream in Today’s Economy.”
Co-hosted on January 16th by WNYC Host Brian Lehrer, WQXR Host Terrance McKnight and Princeton Professor Melissa Harris-Perry, the event was a unique exploration of Dr. King’s influence on social relations and labor justice. And as America faces its most challenging economic times since the depression, this particular topic selection by the station demonstrated its astute understanding of relevance to community concerns as America’s most listened-to AM/FM news and talk public radio station.
Held in conjunction with the Brooklyn Museum, “Made In America” celebrated the 5th annual MLK celebration by WNYC radio. Prior to one of three panels, which took place at one of the Brooklyn Museum’s state-of-the-art auditoriums, the event featured a montage of still images including those of a Coretta Scott-King at the Democratic National Convention in 1976 to Dr. King and Rosa Parks at dinner in her honor in 1968. The panel discussions then offered a probing look at Dr. King’s vision far beyond that kind of social inclusion, what one speaker, Dr. Obery Hendricks of New York Theological Seminary referred to as a “user-friendly” version of the legend. In fact, Dr. King spoke out fervently regarding economic injustice, and it is this fact that we cannot forget today. Dr. King spoke of poverty as one of the most urgent items on the socio-political agenda, and it should be remembered that he was assassinated while in Memphis attempting to obtain union recognition and fair wages for Black sanitation workers. Thus, his mission was not solely regarding civil rights but overall human rights, the right to dignity; that being inescapably tied to earning a fair income, the right to participate fully on the economic playing field. This, unfortunately, is something we still see lacking in the Black community today whether looking at the tech industry, garment industry, health industry and more. Why?
Panelists recalled that King’s constant challenge to power figures such as President Lyndon B. Johnson at that time was instrumental in that he called for greater self-critique by the president in order to best serve a nation. Dr. Peniel E. Joseph, a professor of history at Tufts University noted that King recognized that it was the blatant segregation permitted in America, which allowed for the persistence of such economic disparity. “When white people suffer economically, it’s called a depression or recession,” Dr. Joseph exclaimed. “When Black people suffer from the same thing, it’s a social problem. This in incorrect…and in fact we have to realize that today we are in a Neo-Colonialsm not a Post-Colonialsm.” Sadly, with African-American unemployment, not coincidentally, still double that of the nation’s average, King’s message is still just as urgent today thus there is still the need to remain vigilant and demanding.
The unique viewpoints combined at the event also lend to analysis of Dr. King’s vision in terms of economic rights for current day undocumented immigrants by Make the Road New York Youth Power Program’s Natalia Aristizabal-Betancur as well as those of the domestic workers by Ms. Christine Yvette Lewis, an organizer of Domestic Workers United, thereby providing great breadth and education for the audience. Dr. Hendricks also included the spiritual reminder that King well-believed that economic rights for all was not just important for the strength of a democracy but an obligation of the soul in that God calls us to show economic justice to all, as a mandate of the Bible. A staggering thought as the world holds more billionaires than it ever has.
Panel discussion at the event was complimented by seamless integration of musical performances by celebrated bassist and composer Christian McBride with vocalist Melissa Walker as well as vocalist Maya Azucena. The talent provided a vital emotional supplement to that of the intellectual discourse, thereby offering attendees a deeply rich experience appropriately inserted given that Mr. McKnight pointed out King’s recognition of the power of music to galvanize people and did so.
Ms. Williams-Butts said that the event was reflective of the station’s ever-deepening service to the community and that WNYC hopes to create a ripple effect through Dr. King’s message of service. “Made in America was a team effort to create a much-needed dialogue in honor of the Martin Luther King celebration,” she added.
Upon reflection of this event and given the buying power of Black Americans, those of us in hiring positions and/or positions of any influence in any manner must encourage and demand diversity and fairness in all its forms in whatever manner of workplace to which we have access, if we have any hope of social peace in this country. For information on broadcast excerpts of the event, visit www.nyc.org/shows/bl <http://www.nyc.org/shows/bl>.
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