Wednesday, January 17, 2007

A Clash of Memories

MLK, or more reverently, Dr. Marin Luther King. The late civil rights leader even supersedes Gandhi (Ghandi for some) down here in the Deep South. There are only two occasions capable enough to bring crowds into the streets of otherwise desolate-looking Statesboro: MLK day (Jan 15), and St. Patrick's Day (March 17). The later celebration traces its origin to Ireland and is fast becoming popular in south east Georgia.

I have never taken part in a St. P. parade, but this one is the second MLK rally I attended. This year, my friends Dan Rea and Nancy Hutcheon commented, the rally was more diverse; i.e., there were more "white-looking” people who took part in the event. There is also no disagreement on this: Rarely, if ever, non-whites (or blacks) participate in the St. P Day. It is true; both events carry with them enormous spiritual and humane connotations, implying the need to bridge any racial or religious barriers. But the process and pace of social change can be frustrating sometimes.

I took part in the rally Monday, walking for about 30 minutes along the Jones Lane Memorial Highway in downtown Statesboro, past S. College St. Astitwa, my 9-year-old son, led our small group on foot, wedged between a long snake of colorful cars and limousines. He, along with another kid of Hispanic heritage, pulled a wagon. The banner proclaimed the theme: United We Stand: One Nation Under God.

People clapped and cheered as we passed them. "Let's keep Dr. King's dream alive!' someone said aloud.

"Uh…hum, uh…hum, ya!' the onlookers agreed.

Aaditi, my 4-year-old daughter, holding on to my hand, and excited by the sights and the sounds, bounced happily forward.

"Papa, look at me," she pulled her strength and took a deep breath. "I can run."

Yes, princess. But not for long. Soon, I had to carry her half the way. I should have taken a stroller, I told myself. It was a good workout, though, as Astitwa would insist.

Last year she was on a stroller. She does not even remember that. This was her first in her memory.

But collective memory can be different. We may like to forget things even if we remember them, especially if they are painful or bitter. Sometimes the act of remembering is more than a mental exercise. On Monday, walking the Statesboro highway for many became remembering the struggle for civil rights in America.

The struggle continues. There is an ongoing clash of old as well as fresh memories in America, memories shaped by contemporary issues surrounding race, wealth and power. The significance of public memory in the post-9/11 world has become enormous.

Last evening, I heard Bernice Albertine King speak at the Performing Arts Center in Statesboro. The youngest of four King children, and an ordained minister, she earned wide applause from her audience for her inspiring words. Invoking (and revealing) the initials of her name (BAK), she urged the audience to “Be A King”: Be people-centered, not thing-centered, work for non-violence, not war; be part of the solution, not the problem, etc.

The memories about her father stirred the audience, mostly young students. The triple evils identified by her late father-- racism, poverty and war-- are still alive in America, she said. So the young must "engage in the conversation of the day" as did many young of the earlier generations to bring about social change.

We have made strides, we are materially rich, but poverty also means the “poverty mentality” that continues to prevail in America, she said. As an example, billions of dollars are being spent on war, when far more people are dying from cancer than from terrorism.

Quite a contrast to what I got to hear from George W. Bush, who visited Statesboro about 3 months ago. On October 30, I had spent almost 3 hours waiting in a long line of several thousand people before I could get into Hanner Field House. People were composed, patient and happy-looking all the while, despite such a long wait to see the “imperial” president. In fact, about a thousand ticket-holding people could not even get into HFH, because the place was already full.

"I am glad I was lucky to get in. I don't always agree with him, but this is a lifetime experience to see the president up-close," a young student remarked.

"I like him; he is a gentleman, a Christian," an elderly lady said.

I did not have to say how I felt about GWB, or about BAK. I was there to witness both as news events. In fact, I had offered at least one of those events as an extra-credit assignment to my journalism students for the day.

In his speech, Bush said war (part of his triple axis of evils) was necessary to stop terrorism, and that Republicans must stay in power to keep the economy growing and to ensure continued tax relief. He warned that Democrat's victory in elections meant that they would reverse the republican tax cuts. And America would not achieve any victory in Iraq if it were for the “top democrat leader” [Nancy Pelosi], who, he said, advocated an early retreat from Iraq.

Bush was campaigning for Max Burns, a Congressional candidate. Burns lost the race. Democrats prevailed. Nancy Pelosi is now the House Speaker.

No memory is perfect, and no memory is permanent. A memory is sometimes discarded and at other times embraced. A memory may be born in mind, but it lives in deeds.


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