Martin Luther King: A Creative Rebel

The significance of this Martin Martin Luther King Jr. day takes on a new meaning with the awareness that tomorrow an historic milestone in American history will occur. The first African-American president is as potent a validation of King’s dream as anything I can imagine.

But there are still battles ahead. Contrary to the declarations by some (at Fox News) that the election of Barack Obama is evidence that the struggles for equality are over, last year’s campaign actually brought out some of the darkest expressions of prejudice ever made publicly. We must not forget that many of the opponents of Obama’s candidacy were overtly racist. Obama’s electoral victory was not unanimous, and although it obviously cannot be said that every John McCain voter was voting against Obama because of his race, there were certainly some of those millions who did just that.

Still, Obama’s election goes a long way toward a realization of King’s dream. It is an epic event that is both a frightful burden and an unparalleled opportunity. It’s too bad King couldn’t be here to celebrate along with us, but our reflections on him help to keep the dream alive. Following are excerpts from the article I wrote last year that still convey a personal expression of the impact King had on me, as a young artist.

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Today as we celebrate the memory and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., millions of Americans will reflect on the impact his life had. That impact, for many, is very personal. There is much for which to be grateful in the gifts of hope and justice that he left behind. For me there was a speech that was particularly transforming. It was his public entry into the anti-war movement, Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence. As a twelve year old peace activist and an aspiring artist, one sentence stood out and helped to shape the next 40 years of my life:

“We must be prepared to match actions with words by seeking out every creative means of protest possible.”

That’s one of the first recollections I have of perceiving art as an act of conscience and rebellion. Prior to that I drew a lot of superheroes and hot rods (I was twelve, after all). I had become radicalized, and I knew that at least part of my work had to be devoted to making a better world.

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The value of art in movement building stems from the uniquely personal relationship that binds us to works of insight and honesty. Speeches and op/eds will never evoke the intimacy of artistic expression. That’s why, despite protestations of the Cultural Imperialists, artists remain relevant and influential. At its best, art inspires, motivates and unites. It’s even better when it incites and provokes.

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[W]e must persist in producing thoughtful, provocative work that leads us to a world with more liberty, more peace, more justice, and fuller hearts and bellies. We must confront the censors and the bullies who fear our voices and would silence them. And we must seek new and aggressive forms of distribution that spreads our messages from the Internet to the Interstate and beyond. As the activist/artist Vladimir Mayakovsky said:

“Art must not be concentrated in dead shrines called museums. It must be spread everywhere…on the streets, in the trams, factories, workshops, and in the workers homes.”

And as Dr. King declared, we, as artists, must be prepared to match actions with words and use our talents to manifest a world that reflects our dreams.

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The extraordinary juxtaposition of the King holiday and the Obama inauguration present a profound opportunity to look both backward and forward at the same time. Backward to the contributions and sacrifices of King and an entire generation of freedom seekers. And forward to a new era of hope for justice and harmony.

Celebrate today. Get back to work tomorrow.