Friday, August 26th 2011, 4:00 AM
But his story is not really over. Down at the end of the National Mall, something else is underway this week that reminds all of us how much we owe to King. Protesters from around the country are in the first week of large-scale civil disobedience outside the White House, designed to persuade President Obama to block construction of a giant pipeline from the tar sands of Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico.
The reasons for the nonviolent action – above all, that the greatest climatologists on the planet say that burning the huge quantities of tar sands oil would mean it was “essentially game over for the climate” – would have been a surprise to King; he was killed before the first Earth Day. But he would have recognized the diverse crowd, filled with senior citizens, clergy and college students. And he would have appreciated the tactics, which so far have sent hundreds to jail – perhaps the largest use of such protest in the history of the environmental movement.
We tend now to recall King’s towering oratory. But he was also America‘s greatest exponent of creative nonviolence, figuring out how to morally move the souls of a nation. In Montgomery, Ala., he helped inspire a grinding year of walking to work during the bus boycott. In Birmingham, he dared to set loose the courage of school-age protesters in the face of Bull Connor‘s dogs and fire hoses.
Too few have followed in his footsteps in the years since. We’ve let the richest among us use their wealth to warp the political process; many of the rest of us have just grown cynical. King recognized early on that most Americans would never have the money of the Koch Brothers or the oil companies, that we’d need to find new currencies. Bodies, creativity, spirit – that’s what we have to offer.
And so, each morning just outside the White House fence, a new wave of protesters representing every state in the Union risks arrest. It’s very civil disobedience – solemn and respectful. Many of the protesters, in fact, are wearing their Obama ’08 campaign pins – hoping for the reemergence of the bold campaigner who said this would be “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.”
In trying to make good on his promises, he’s been oft-hampered by a recalcitrant Congress, of course. That’s why this decision about the Keystone pipeline is so important: He gets to make it all by himself.
The organizers didn’t reckon on the King celebration when scheduling these demonstrations; they are being held now because the President has said he’ll make his decision soon. But the occasion does give an added weight to the weekend. It reminds us how much we owe the brave people who came before us, the foot soldiers of the civil rights movement.
We believe King, who as his life progressed embraced the anti-war cause and showed his solidarity with poor people all over the world, would have joined in the fight against climate change, which is already wreaking havoc on those living closest to the margin. And he would have looked to the future of clean energy as one way to rebuild American lives wrecked by a sagging economy.
But above all, he would have understood the witness people are making with their bodies this week. “One must not only preach a sermon with his voice,” he told a Chicago conference on race and religion 50 years ago. “He must preach it with his life.”