Commentary

Veteran journalist: Why we should heed MLK’s message to “be an agitator”

In case you missed it, there was an on-the-money commentary posted over the weekend by longtime NC Policy Watch friend and all-around great American journalist, Hedrick Smith about Martin Luther King, Jr. Smith, who covered King during his lifetime and who later went on to serve as the Washington bureau chief for the New York Times, reminded readers that it’s simply wrong to remember King in the warm and fuzzy way he is now so frequently portrayed. King, Smith reminds us, was a man dedicated to raising heck.

MLK’s message: “Be an agitator!”

Washington – Back in the 1960s, when I was covering Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis and other civil rights activists for The New York Times, I heard die-hard segregationists try to bait him as an “outside agitator” stirring up trouble.

“You’re comin’ into our town,” they would bellow, meaning Birmingham or Albany, Georgia or St. Augustine, Florida. “Things were quiet and peaceful. Our people were happy. But you come in here and stir up trouble. You’re agitating our people.”

They made it sound criminal – and in fact, several cities arrested Dr. King for “Agitating.”

Wondering how he would respond,, I would go to the mass meetings organized by his Southern Christian Leadership Conference in black churches all across the Deep South. And inevitably, Dr. King would get around to the racist name-calling.

“Do You Know What an Agitator Is?”

“They call me an agitator,” he would cry out from the pulpit, voice rising to suggest the force and menace intended by his detractors. “Well, they’re right,” he shot back defiantly. “I am an agitator.”

Then he’d ask puckishly: “Do you know what an agitator is?” He let the question hang in the air for a moment or two. People looked at each other, puzzled and uncertain.

“Well, look inside your washing machine,” he went on. “There’s an agitator in there.” And he would hold out his right arm, crooked at the elbow like a muscle man showing off his might with his fist thrust upward. And then Martin – that’s what his close friends called him – would twist his right fist sharply left-right, left-right, imitating the jerky circular motion of the shaft inside a clothes washer. “That agitator is in there, stirring up the water, knocking the dirt out of your clothes.”

“Well, that’s what I’m doing, too” Dr. King declared, still jerking his fist left-right. And the audience, catching his drift, would start to laugh. “I’m agitating to knock the dirt out of our society – racism, segregation, Jim Crow. So they’re right. I am agitating – agitating to clean up our democracy. That’s what all of us need to do. Be agitators. Agitate for a better America, a freer America, a fairer America.”

From the audience came a roar of laughter and engagement, an easy understanding that MLK was flinging the weapon of bigots back at them by turning their intended insult into his own battle cry.

A New Generation of Agitators

That wake-up call – “Be Agitators” – would be Martin Luther King’s sermon for today’s America. For if Dr King were among us today, he would be issuing fresh calls for new generations of agitators, from millennials to seniors, launching new movements for social justice and to fix our broken democracy.

In an echo of his own march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, he would be mobilizing new armies of protest against the diehard politicians in a dozen states working to repress the vote of blacks, Latinos and Native Americans with photo ID laws that fall hardest on minorities.

He would be calling for marches against murderous violence of police toward blacks; for protests against dark money, against the damaging and corrosive effect of billionaire and corporate riches dominating elections and capturing control of Washington; for mass movements to stop politicians from rigging elections to keep themselves in office by shaping election district maps into power monopolies that deny the opposition any chance and deny voters real choice in elections.

People Power on the Move

Well, the word is out. People Power is already on the move. New generations have discovered the electricity of grass roots civic action, from the women’s marches to the student March for Our Lives to teacher strikes to citizen demands for political reform. Americans are fed up with a broken political system, fed up with waiting for Washington to fix things and they have finally realized that if WeThePeople want reform, it’s Up to Us to do it.

Last year, 2018, was a boom year for reform and 2019 is off to a fast start.
In 2018, the most earth-shaking citizen revolts were mounted against partisan gerrymandering in Colorado, Michigan, Missouri and Utah. To stop politicians from rigging elections, voters in those states passed laws to set up independent, trans-partisan commissions or neutral experts, to make elections fairer. In Ohio, voters adopted a measure that blocks partisan gerrymandering by requiring a bipartisan vote in the legislature.

In a dozen other states, grassroots reform movements won victories on a score of reform measures, ranging from Maine’s adoption of rank-order voting, to anti-corruption ballot initiatives in North Dakota and New Mexico, and Connecticut’s joining the national compact to insure the popular vote victor wins the Presidency despite the Electoral College.

Landslide majorities in Phoenix and Portland, Oregon endorsed sunlight laws to expose campaign dark money, especially on political TV ads. In Portland, a whopping 87% approved a ban on corporate contributions in city elections plus a 6-1 public funding match for small donors. Baltimore and Denver voters also embraced public funding.

On voters’ rights, Florida generated the most stunning breakthrough – a 64.5% super majority in favor of restoring the voting rights of 1.4 million former felons who have served their time, except for those convicted of murder or sex crimes. In 2018, seven other states moved to make voting and registration easier. Massachusetts, Nevada, New Jersey, Ohio and Washington all adopted automatic “motor voter” registration when residents obtain or renew their drivers’ licenses. Maryland and Michigan voted for Election Day registration.

In all, more than 700 towns and cities and 19 states  have reacted against the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010 that has allowed unlimited corporate spending in campaigns. These states and cities have passed resolutions calling for an amendment to the US Constitution to overturn Citizens United and to restore the power of Congress and the states to regulate campaign funding.

More reform drives are already under way this year in states as varied as New Hampshire, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Arizona. So the country is alive with the “agitators” that Martin Luther King spawned and the model of grass roots civic action that he embodied. His legacy endures today, not just in memory, but in citizen action.

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