While Elaine Brown titled her speculative King
Week keynote speech, “What Would Martin Say?” some
of its most memorable moments were when she quoted King’s
words from more than 30 years ago and applied them to the world
“You can look at Vietnam in terms of Iraq,” Brown told a standingroom-only
crowd of more than 150 in the Woodruff Library’s Jones Room, Tuesday, Jan.
20. “We are a country ‘mad on war,’” Brown quoted King.
The words, for those who oppose war in Iraq—as many in the crowd did, judging
by their applause—were ones they could latch onto. “The Vietnamese
see us as a ‘strange liberator,’” she continued.
“‘Allegiances must be broader and deeper than nationalism,’” said
Brown, former leader of the Black Panther Party, who over several decades of
activism has learned a thing or two about firing up a crowd.
“‘We must face the fact that [blacks] still live in the basement
of the Great Society,’” Brown continued her quoting of King. In paraphrase,
she said that King recognized that America must be born again.
“How can America be born again now?” Brown asked. “We have
to talk about the persistence of revolt, the persistence of rising up and of
agitation.” Brown said she wants everyone to have guaranteed income, using
King’s phrase. “We can create the kind of society Martin Luther King,
in fact, dreamed of,” she said in conclusion.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of King Week at Emory. Beginning with the
Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, Jan. 19, the University devotes a week of academic,
artistic and worship activities to the memory of the civil rights leader. This
is the second year the week has featured a keynote speaker. Earlier years had
keynotes, but the highlight speech had gone away for several years before being
revived in 2003.
While the end of Brown’s 50-minute address was optimistic, much was critical. “We
don’t discuss the dream anymore because we don’t even remember the
dream, much less who slew the dreamer,” she said. “I think we have
forgotten who we are celebrating in a lot of ways.”
According to Brown, King would be pretty angry with the state of the United States. “I
think he would be demonizing the Bush agenda,” she said, going so far as
to equate it with fascism.
“I think he would be demonizing the war in Iraq. I think he would be demonizing
the economic disparity in America,” she said, recalling that when King
was assassinated in 1968 he was fighting to defend the rights of black sanitation
workers in Memphis, Tenn., in the midst of the Poor People’s Campaign.
Brown used the middle of her talk to present her overview of black history in
North America, spicing her descriptions with quotes from former presidents such
as Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln that were less than kind
to the idea of racial equality.
“When you look at the arc of history in the freedom struggle of blacks,” Brown
said, “We are still in the same place we were [in 1968.]” Brown
quoted statistics showing that African Americans have much higher rates of
infant mortality than whites and more commonly die of cancer. She also said
schools are becoming resegregated.
Brown also touched on the work of the National Alliance for Radical Prison
Reform (NARPR), a group for which she serves as political affairs director.
most recent book, New Age Racism and the Condemnation of “Little B,” tells
the story of Michael Lewis, who was sentenced to life in prison as a teenager
for a murder Brown said he did not commit. The sentencing of minors to such
prison terms is something NARPR is working to stop, she said.