Decades later, King's work is not yet done

January 16, 2007|By JEAN MARBELLA

The big-headed puppets confused some who lined the route of yesterday's Martin Luther King Jr. Parade in Baltimore. The oversized, papier-mache heads - more common at anti-globalization and environmental rallies - seemed to have wandered accidentally into a parade known more for its sassy steppers and funky high school bands.

But it was no accident. The puppets were carried aloft by members of Women in Black, a peace group that says its mission is exactly in step with the man whose birthday was celebrated yesterday.

"Martin Luther King was a peacemaker," said Betsy Cunningham, a member of the group that literally stands for peace. You have probably seen them around town, dressed as advertised, standing silent vigils to call for alternatives to war.

While King is known more as a leader in the struggle for racial equality, increasingly these days, his name is being invoked by the anti-war movement.

Toward the end of his life, King had begun speaking out against the Vietnam War - a controversial stand that cost him supporters, black and white. There were blacks who believed he should have focused his efforts on civil rights issues; there were whites who wondered what a black man thought he was doing, meddling in the foreign affairs of the U.S.

For King, though, it was all one fight. As he said in his famous "Beyond Vietnam" speech of 1967, "We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them 8,000 miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in Southwest Georgia and East Harlem. So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools."

It's a statement that, with a few tweaks, could be made now as it was then. But is there anyone today who can take on the King mantle, anyone who can speak with equal fervor and equal moral authority on issues domestic and foreign, urban and global, home front and the war front, black and white, as he did during his short life?

I thought about that as I watched the mostly black paraders marching past mostly black spectators yesterday. The laws may no longer segregate us, and yet here we are, 39 years after King's death - on a street named for him - still in some ways a divided society.

"When I first saw the parade, I thought, you know, this parade needs to be on Charles Street," says Cunningham, who, like most of yesterday's Women in Black marchers, is white. "And the St. Patrick's Day parade should be on Martin Luther King Boulevard. These parades divide us."

Some spectators weren't quite sure what the group, with its giant puppet heads, was all about. One woman wondered aloud if the heads, many with brown faces, were making fun of blacks. (No - the group says Women in Black is an international organization and notes that its puppets represent all races and bear the word "peace" in multiple languages to signal their global sweep.)

Some of the marchers started flashing the universal peace sign, and spectators flashed them back. "I know [King] wouldn't have wanted our guys fighting in that war all this time," said Tanya Nichols, whose daughter, Tuwanda, 4, shyly accepted peace stickers from one of the Women in Black.

Other spectators said that while they opposed the war, they realize that many from their communities are out there fighting it. "They got the black ones in the uniform," said another spectator, Kim L. Miller.

That's true, according to scholars like Brian Gifford, a sociologist with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Since the end of the draft and the beginning of the all-volunteer military, they have found that African-Americans have become overrepresented in the armed forces - perhaps seeing the service as a path to greater economic advancement than they have in their own neighborhoods.

"We've got too many other issues. You know, everyday issues," added another parade watcher, Tondra Briggs, tilting her head to indicate the city at large.

And yet even here, where the year began with homicides in the city initially outpacing the number of days since New Year's, the war in Iraq managed to make its presence felt. Last week, the Pentagon made public the death in Iraq of another soldier from Maryland - this time, from Salisbury - raising the state's specific toll in the war to about 60, just as President Bush was announcing a "surge" of 21,500 additional troops.

I did some driving around the city last week, visiting several of the neighborhoods where there had been murders already in this still-new year. Some of the blocks were as you'd expect, sad stretches of boarded-up houses and littered alleys, where people buy their beer in 40-ounce bottles and cigarettes one at a time.

In one East Baltimore neighborhood, though, deaths around the corner and on the other side of the globe weighed on a resident's mind. "If they like killing so much," said Conswilla Johnson of Baltimore's murderers, "send them to Iraq. And bring our soldiers home."

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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