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An American Hero

Bridgit Brown
An American Hero
A 17-year-old black civil rights demonstrator, defying a Birmingham, Ala., anti-parade ordinance, is held by a police officer and attacked by a police dog outside the Jockey Boy Restaurant on May 3, 1963. On the afternoon of May 4, 1963, during a meeting at the White House with members of a political group, President John F. Kennedy discussed this photo, which had appeared on the front page of that day’s edition of The New York Times. (Photo: AP /Bill Hudson)

Author: AP /Bill HudsonA 17-year-old black civil rights demonstrator, defying a Birmingham, Ala., anti-parade ordinance, is held by a police officer and attacked by a police dog outside the Jockey Boy Restaurant on May 3, 1963. On the afternoon of May 4, 1963, during a meeting at the White House with members of a political group, President John F. Kennedy discussed this photo, which had appeared on the front page of that day’s edition of The New York Times.

Princeton African American studies professor Melissa Harris-Perry keynotes annual MLK Breakfast

To honor the birthday of Civil Rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., two churches — Union United Methodist and St. Cyprian’s Episcopal — will present the Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Breakfast, beginning at 8 a.m. on Monday, Jan. 17, 2011 at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center.

The event was founded 41 years ago and is the country’s oldest celebration of the birth of the slain civil rights leader.   

Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry, an associate professor of politics and African American studies at Princeton University, and regular contributor to MSNBC, gave the Banner a preview of what she intends to discuss at the breakfast, which will also include remarks by Gov. Deval Patrick, U.S. Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA), Mayor Thomas Menino, and various city and state-elected officials.

Harris-Perry is also author of the book, “Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought.” Her forthcoming book, “Sister Citizen: A Text For Colored Girls Who’ve Considered Politics When Being Strong Wasn’t Enough,” discusses what it means to be an African American woman trying to enter the political arena.

 What is the significance of celebrating MLK Day?

I was a young person when the battle for this holiday began. I remember Stevie Wonder singing that particular rendition of “Happy Birthday,” and it wasn’t just about adding soul to the birthday, but it was specifically part of a cultural effort to include Dr. King in our canon of American Heroes.

 I think it’s important to have Dr. King in this part of our memory of American heroes in part because he challenged America to be her best. So frequently, when we think about American heroes we tell the story as though America has always been great and that there’s one story of American history. But Dr. King’s contribution is in part that he recognized the faults in the American story. The other part it is just as Dr. King recognized the faults of the country, and loved her nonetheless, I think that an important part of remembering Dr. King is remembering his faults. I don’t mean his personal faults, but I mean his political faults. The way that he failed to include women; the way that he turned his back on one of his gay associates because he was gay; the way that he sometimes gave into scare tactics.

I think it’s important not to make fun of but to look at our own contemporary leaders and see their political failings and understand that all of our leaders have been both great and problematic.

How far have we come from actualizing Dr. King’s dream? Are we there yet? Or have we fallen short of it?

That’s precisely what I plan to talk about at the breakfast. My topic is to ask how King’s strategies were made relevant for us in the current political moment. I am particularly interested in this idea of direct non-violent resistance. I’m tying it in part to our criticism of the president. What have we learned about how to move ourselves toward greater equalities while respecting certain tools of engagement? And what does it mean to recognize that no matter how noble the efforts are that there has to be morality and ethics as a means of achieving those ends as well. I think that in a political discourse — where it seems like there are no rules — we have to remember that they literally came at us with everything: fire hoses, dogs, everything, and that there was still proof  [that] Dr. King was able to encourage us to engage our opponents.

What do you think Dr. King would say about civil rights today if he were alive?

I don’t know what King would say if he were alive today in an elderly body, but I think that if a young King were alive today he would be both impressed and distressed. There is no question in my mind that he smiled on Jan. 20, 2009; that he was excited about the reality of Barack Obama becoming the U.S. president. I also think that he would have warned us that the struggle wasn’t over and this is not the Promised Land.

I think that we have to think about it in a couple of ways. Whatever the black community thinks about homosexuality, the fact of the matter is that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is a modern day civil rights win. Another big win that occurred during that same two-week period that did not get much attention was the win of the black farmers in the Pickford settlement. That type of direct nonviolent resistance looks different from “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and I want to talk about the legislative and judicial strategies that were used for it. I also want to talk about some of the on-the-ground strategies that were used.

What do you perceive to be the biggest racial issue today?

It is tough for me to decide between criminal justice and education, but it does seem as though it’s one of those two. On the criminal justice side, it is the issue of the criminalization of acts that were once considered relatively petty transgressions. I want to talk about the explosion of African American men and women who are in the prison system. It is not because all of a sudden black people’s behavior changed; the bar changed. Behaviors that were considered relatively petty have suddenly become magnified and have longer sentences and far more mental affects. So what sort of happened in our current criminal justice system is that it is taking away black citizenship. When these people return back into society, they are not allowed to be citizens. A felony conviction, for many, can mean never being able to vote again; never again having affordable public housing; not having access to student loans for education; not having access to a variety of jobs. So it strips them of the ability to be American for relatively petty crimes. Intertwined with that, because you don’t end up with all of these people in prison without a serious failure of the education system, is public education; and the fact that this country has given up on the idea that all children have a right to learn.

Tickets to the 41st Annual MLK Breakfast can be purchased online at www.mlkbreakfastboston.org.