Maya Angelou is a living monument. So, it was fitting that, when the Martin Luther King Memorial was dedicated in August 2011, she wrote a poem in his honor. With the 50th anniversary of that historic March on Washington coming up, let’s revisit that poem. Of course, with Angelou, it’s always better if you can find a video of her performing the poem, but there doesn’t seem to be one with clear audio. Consider, though, these lines:
Martin Luther King
Faced the racial
Mountain of segregation and
And bade it move.
The giant mound of human ignorance
And rigid in its determination
Did move, however slightly, however infinitesimally,
It did move.
I will go, I shall go
I’ll see what the end will be.
. . .
Lord, don’t move your mountain,
Just give me strength to climb it.
. . .
You don’t have to move
That stumbling block,
Lord, just lead me around it.
~ Maya Angelou, ‘Abundant Hope’ from ‘The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou‘
So, despite the ongoing and long drawn-out controversy around the quotation on Memorial, this beautiful poem reminds us why we build memorials and monuments for people long gone and what we owe them. And that we may never give up on our dreams even if we cannot move mountains and have to just get around them to get where we need to.
About that famous Dr King declaration of “I have a dream“: Recently, Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey were on Charlie Rose, discussing their new movie, The Butler. Towards the end of the interview, Whitaker talked about this Dr King dream, at the 35.59ish minute mark, and how it is being realized even now, how it is still sitting on that Constitutional promissory note about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that Dr King said was promised to all Americans as human rights. And, that the Civil Rights Movement history, which is an all-American history, is a living history because we’re still moving in circles in this journey to get to The Promised Land as Dr King had described it. It hasn’t ended and races of many other hues have joined in too.
We cannot forget what it took for all those earlier generations to accomplish what they did so that our generation can live as we do.
Here’s the bit from the transcript, but do watch the entire interview:
Charlie Rose: As we watched history go forward where do you think we are in terms of somehow making sure that the battles that are being fought have come to where the end point ought to be in terms of black and white and racism as a country?
Forest Whitaker: We were talking about had we achieved it yet and it’s still sitting on that promissory note that Martin Luther King talked about, the promissory note of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that this is the note that was promised to all American for human rights. And so the civil rights movement which isn’t really a history, it’s a living history.
Charlie Rose: Right.
Forest Whitaker: Because we’re still moving in the same shape towards accomplishing what was the initial promise. He talks about that vault. He refuses to believe that it’s empty and that all of us can have the things that we deserved. So we move through this line of living civil rights history which is American history. You know what I mean? Because, in order to reach that final goal that’s when we truly will be Americans because that was the promise of the constitution and the declaration of independence; that was a promise to all of us. And we haven’t accomplished it so we see these cycles moving like the Emmitt Till side of the film, we see what happened. We see his mother and her response and then we move out to our world and we see this circle which is going on then is still going on right now and all over the country with many different other youths — you know what I mean — and with different other people. We’re saying how can we break this cycle to be able to move to the next place so we can finally get to the end, which is the Promised Land that he talked about —
Charlie Rose: Right.
Forest Whitaker: Because he talked about — he said, “I just want to live a few years into the second half of the 20th century.” So now we’re living in the 21st century. Those were Martin’s words. And now we’re living in the 21st century. We haven’t done it. I’m so disappointed that we haven’t be able to achieve his promise yet. But that’s what we’re trying to get to. And that’s where we’re going and this film is a part of the dialogue to make us all keep talking.
Charlie Rose: And as Oprah pointed out earlier and I think the President said this when he went to Selma during the campaign. He’s part of a new generation, and we — my generations stand on the shoulders of those who came before.
Oprah Winfrey: Yes, yes, absolutely.
Charlie Rose: And other generations will come forward to stand on the shoulders of those like you who are there today.
Oprah Winfrey: Yes. But what is so important is to know what those shoulders meant and to know that you are standing on the shoulders. I mean that’s what I think this film offers.
Charlie Rose: And to know what it meant for them to have broad shoulders you could stand on.