Only in America can a hallowed day be turned into a holiday.
Only in America can a sober commemoration be turned into a commercial celebration.
I’m speaking, of course, about Wednesday’s march to Washington. Not, as it was fifty years ago, a march on Washington by a million citizens, but a gathering this year of a few hundred thousand people, most of whom were probably not born in 1963. And many of whom, today, are struggling with issues that were unimaginable in 1963.
We would need ten Martin Luther Kings today to address all the nation’s problems: Loss of jobs, loss of homes, a broken educational system, an ineffective medical system, a disappearing middle class, bloated banks and powerful corporations, unreasonable tax laws, unresolved immigration laws, over-populated prisons, and invasive government surveillance.
Alongside these overwhelming problems, some of Wednesday’s speeches about ”exclusion” seemed extraneous. For example, there are bigger problems in America today than whom you can marry. Let’s get real.
It was truly poignant and beautiful to hear King’s sisters and children talk about him. It was lovely to have Caroline Kennedy and Lynda Johnson pay quiet homage to their fathers. And Representative John Lewis from Georgia, who was a young man at the march fifty years ago, was thoroughly stirring.
But what was the point of a long performance by the native Jamaican dancers, in full regalia? And even more absurd — the dozen tatooed Maori warriors, fiercely brandishing weapons as they shouted what seemed to be war-cries. What was the relevance? New Zealand is not Africa. They might as well have brought in seven Samurai.
How would King have felt about this bellicose spectacle, he who preached peaceful resistance? And would he be dismayed to see the commercialization of the event — the vendors of tawdry souvenirs, the excusive VIP reception?
That march in 1963 was a clarion call for justice. And in many ways, in many places, America has become a more just nation. But there are still deep pockets of injustice, and unjust laws, and unfulfilled dreams. Most distressing of all, America has — both knowingly and unwittingly — evolved into a nation of delusion and distrust. Reality is distorted by sleazy entertainment and bad news reporting; trust is dashed by political quackery and government incompetence. That leaves us in a far more perilous position than fifty years ago, when the memory of a world war made Americans feel victorious and grateful and hopeful and secure.
We are a long way from feeling that way today.
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