Ryan Wherley: On MLK's Legacy and the Wisconsin Resistance

Another stirring guest post from my friend and brother in dissent (and 6 time MoD guest poster), Ryan Wherley, written on the 45th anniversary of Dr. King's assassination in Memphis, where he was supporting striking sanitation workers. Crossposted with permission from Wisco Wherls' Daily Kos post. You can find the original here

Remembering Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 45 Years Later: 
Carrying on the Legacy
by Ryan Wherley

5 April 2013 

I originally wrote the portion of this piece below on Monday, January 21st after the annual Martin Luther King Day celebration in the Wisconsin State Capitol.  Why I didn't get around to publishing it at the time, I don't remember but I knew there was a reason I saved it as a draft.  45 years ago yesterday, Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee while actively supporting striking AFSCME sanitation workers.  His legacy of advocating, speaking out, sitting in, standing up and getting arrested for civil rights, voting rights, peace, labor rights and social justice wherever inequity and injustice existed, will assuredly live on forever.

Over Labor Day weekend this past fall, I had the unanticipated, yet much appreciated honor to visit the memorial dedicated to Dr. King and his wife, Coretta Scott King.  The two of them are entombed side by side on a mini-island in the middle of a stunning and beautifully laid out reflecting pond.  The pond is fed by the soothing trickle of water running down gradually descending steps at the far end of the memorial.  It was so quietly tucked into the middle of his former neighborhood, mere blocks from the Ebeneezer Baptist Church where MLK rose to prominence with his fiery sermons and tireless organizing, that I didn't even know we had arrived until his tomb was literally right in front of me.  I stood there in stunned silence, taking in the magnitude of how close I was to the final resting place of such an immensely important human being who was able to accomplish so much in only 39 years on this planet.

I fought back tears while thinking about how much good he could still be doing today and how influential his indomitable will and message have been for me and countless millions of others.  At the same time, I couldn't help but think about the role he might have played in the Wisconsin Uprising, the Wisconsin Movement and the fight back against regressive, right-wing extremism sweeping across our nation.   In the chilly, earliest days of the Uprising in February 2011, Reverend Jesse Jackson, a close friend of Dr. King who was with him in Memphis when he was gunned down, told a nighttime crowd of 50,000 in Madison,"This is a Martin Luther King moment...a Gandhi moment."

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would have been 84 years old if he were still alive today.  Such a horrifically tragic loss that can never be quantifiably measured but will always be felt and forever raises the question of what might have been in a life taken far too soon.  But wherever people stand up for human rights, for civil rights, for those less fortunate and for a society that is always progressing and refuses to stand idly by in the face of injustice, the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr. lives on.  Every time we sing "We Shall Overcome" at the Solidarity Sing Along, and every time my friend Callen Harty diligently heads into the Capitol Rotunda on a daily basis to sing those verses of protest in solitary solidarity, the memory and embodiment of what Dr. King lived and spoke about are never far away in mind and in soul. 

As Dr. King once said, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice."  Keep on fighting the good fight, brothers and sisters.  Forever Forward.

From Jan.  21, 2013:

Today, I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Margaret Rozga, the widow of Father James Groppi.  Father James Groppi was a priest and Civil Rights activist during the tumultuous 1960's in Wisconsin and was posthumously awarded the Martin Luther King Heritage award at today's Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day celebration in the Capitol.  Her speech was amazing throughout and she exhibited great power and eloquence while skewering Scott Walker.  Without ever mentioning Walker's name, she pointed out that anybody who attacks voting rights, union rights or seeks to destroy the environment is NOT acting in the name of Martin Luther King and "does NOT stand with us."  But when she ended her speech by thanking groups like the Overpass Light Brigade, and the Solidarity Sing Along for carrying on the legacies of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and her husband, Fr. James Groppi, essentially extending the blessing of an entire generation of civil rights and social justice activists, I don't think I've ever smiled any bigger.  

Of course, at the end of the speech, she received a rousing standing ovation.  As the ovation rang throughout the Capitol, Scott Walker cowardly chose to remain seated, until his was the only ass still in a seat.  14 seconds later, he begrudgingly rose and shook her hand as she extended it upon her departure from the podium.  The difference between these two individuals could not have been more stark.  Here was a woman, quite small in stature, yet with enough presence and heart to fill the entire Capitol...and a man as powerful as any in Wisconsin yet so lacking in character, empathy and humility as to be the smallest man I've ever seen.  She told me that she had wished to extend the torch from her husband, who led 200 consecutive days of protests, to the "Solidarity Singers," and autographed the sign I had brought with me while adding: "the longevity record is yours now."   What I witnessed today reminded me of why we continue to fight and as long as injustice exists in any form, we will not be silenced  along the way and we will not go away.

Here is a clip of Peggy Rozga's speech at the Martin Luther King Day ceremony at the Capitol, courtesy of my friend, Nick Nice:

 This picture was taken at the MLK Day celebration moments after Walker took the podium to address the crowd and I along with other citizens throughout the crowd engaged in the now-annual tradition of turning our backs to the GovernEr in protest. This is also the same sign Peggy Rozga was kind enough to sign after the event. Photo courtesy of Whitney "Thid" Steffen

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