Archive for Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A monument to the ‘least of these’

August 24, 2011


This Sunday on the National Mall, the nation dedicates a monument to, arguably, the greatest American of the 20th century. It is, as Lincoln said at another dedication, altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

When heroes die, it is human nature to wrap their lives in metal, marble and granite. We do this that we might remember them, but there is in the remembering also a kind of reduction. The rough and jagged lines of a life lived at the forefront, lived in controversy, conflict and trial, become something smooth and safe enough for children. Thus were the cunning, melancholy, white supremacy, courage and genius of Lincoln flattened in popular memory to a single thing: he saved the Union and freed the slaves.

And thus does King’s 13-year struggle for the redemption of America shrink to a single brilliant speech and a fight to overturn laws that never should have been laws in the first place. The rough and jagged lines have become smooth. His life has become a bedtime story.

Which is why it feels appropriate, necessary, maybe a little seditious, to remember and remind that when he died, Martin Luther King was fighting for the right of workers to form a union and for the dignity of the poor.

That is not a bedtime story from way back when. It is a headline from right now. Unions, after all, are controversial again. Worse, poor people find themselves denigrated and demeaned in ways that shock conscience.

Former South Carolina Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer once likened them to stray animals one feeds at the back door. Fox “News” pundit John Stossel sees them as the enemy in a battle between “the makers and the takers.” Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning compares them to scavenging “raccoons.” Ann Coulter says welfare creates “irresponsible animals.”

There are people in this country — working people — who must routinely choose between rent and groceries, prescription drugs and electric lights. But we are encouraged by some on the political right to regard them with contempt and save our empathy for the fabulously wealthy.

You’ll have to go some to find a starker example of how morally blinkered this country has become.

Even if you put morality aside, there is still the question of enlightened self interest. If you are white, you may scorn black people and be reasonably certain you will never become one. If you are straight, you may scorn gay people and be reasonably certain you will never become one.

But any of us can become poor. Ann Coulter could become poor. How do you scorn what you might someday be?

The man we honor Sunday could have died wealthy from speaking fees alone. But he gave that money away and instead died poor, struggling on the side of the poor — garbage workers who came home with maggots in their hair, reeking of other people’s waste, having earned maybe $10, gross, for a 14-hour day.

King died asking America to show a little human compassion for people like those, people the Bible calls “the least of these.” The monument to him seems, in photographs, a handsome and imposing thing.

But one suspects that, given his druthers, he would prefer the compassion. One suspects he could consider that the greatest monument of all.

Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Pitts will be chatting with readers every Wednesday from noon to 1 p.m. CDT on


ok 2 years, 7 months ago

Cato~ I rarely engage in arguments on this message board although I read them daily. I sometimes agree with you, but in this case, how rude can you be? Millions of Americans are diagnosed with dementia and the ongoing struggles are going to get even worse as the baby boomer generation ages. To imply that Pitts suffers from dementia AND further more to make light of a woman like Pat Summitt (who has worked her butt off building up an athletic program and guiding and influencing the lives of thousands) SUFFERING from this disease is both callous and low. I urge you to show more compassion towards all people, even if you don't agree with them. As someone who's life has been touched by Alzheimers, I speak from experience. Dementia is a HORRIBLE disease that affects all members of the family and brings about nothing but sadness and despair. Please don't make light of that. Thank you.


Paul R Getto 2 years, 7 months ago

A fine monument to a monumental man. Like all of us, he was flawed, but his courage was remarkable in the nation's time of need.


Liberty_One 2 years, 7 months ago

"But any of us can become poor."

Not really. If you 1. graduate high school 2. don't have children before marriage 3. don't commit any crimes 4. don't do drugs and 5. show up to work statistically your chances of being poor are virtually zero.

I'm sure people will think of many "what if" scenarios, but your hair might suddenly catch on fire while reading this, so you should probably worry about that.


Flap Doodle 2 years, 7 months ago

The feds had to pony up over $700,000 to MLK's family for the use of his image.


concerned_citizen1961 2 years, 7 months ago

Fox “News”<

Every bit as much as The Miami Herald claims to be "news".


cato_the_elder 2 years, 7 months ago

"The greatest American of the 20th century?"

Good grief. Pitts needs to make an appointment with Pat Summitt's doctor at the Mayo Clinic.


Ron Holzwarth 2 years, 7 months ago

It's nice that it was made in China.

Just like almost everything else that we buy.

But I do have to wonder, isn't it somewhat illogical for a sculpture of someone known for civil rights to be made in a country that is well known for not having any?


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