January 26, 2004

King's quotes give keynote immediacy

By Eric Rangus

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 today.

“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. Brown’s 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.