Looking past the MLK hashtags | Opinion | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Looking past the MLK hashtags

We are stuck on the chorus, but it looks like we can sing the whole song.

Two days ago, you may have had the day off from work. In the past week, your child or a child you know probably recited Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech. Over the past few days, you couldn’t avoid the black and white images of Dr. King on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. 

Key words and phrases are committed to memory:

“Content of their character”

“Hold hands”

“Not judged by the color of the skin”


What the heavily used words and images from the speech do not show is when, arguably the best gospel singer of the all time, Mahalia Jackson, shouted off center-stage, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” Reportedly they had an early conversation about a dream Dr. King had about what racial unity in the United States would look like. 

And in the African oral tradition that extends over many miles and millennia — from the verbal free-styling of the griots of West Africa, to the bluesmen and women of the Americas, the jazz phenoms to the MCs and DJs of hip hop — Martin spit bars of fire. 

But it was good, so good, like the hook of a great song, almost too good:

“Mmmmpmmmhh ... all the stars are closer. All the stars are closer. All the stars are closer.” 

Let’s be honest, we do not know all the words, we only know the chorus, “I have a dream ...”

In terms of the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and the people surrounding him working on civil rights, we are often stuck humming until we hit that note we’ve heard before. 

We fail to remember or never knew enough to forget. People like Bayard Rustin, who worked intersectionally as a Black gay man on economic justice and LGBTQIA2+ issues—who was a key architect of the movement. Ella Baker, who was a colleague and critic of Dr. King, who worked on voting rights, economic justice, and human rights issues. 

We are stuck on the chorus, but it looks like we can sing the whole song. As long as we move with the big crowd, clap our hands, sway and move our mouths in time, we play the part.  “All the stars ... I have a dream ...” 

Many of us go 364 days a year never working to fight about racial injustice and anti-Black racism. But if we post or repost an image or quote of Dr. Martin Luther King, one day a year, we can check the box. We joined the chorus and sang that line we know. 

If we dig deeper and look past the MLK hashtags, we can see a roadmap that includes not only holding hands occasionally as allies but getting our hands dirty as accomplices. An ally can give and take support when it’s comfortable for them. Accomplices put skin in the game; we are not going to be on every team, every game, every play. But as we approach 2020, we all need to decide at least one reason for being, beyond ourselves and our own self-interest.  Someone we can call upon and call for support, so we can wake up, stop dreaming, and start doing. 

Hands off Rafah protest in East Liberty
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Hands off Rafah protest in East Liberty

By Mars Johnson