Tag: MLK

Important Comics

Today's the anniversary of a couple of things.

It would have been Jack Kirby's 96th birthday.

And, more importantly -- as the King himself would surely have acknowledged --, it's the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington.

I was at a loss for precisely how I was going to tie these two events together in the same post -- and then I remembered Congressman John Lewis has a comic book out.

Stephen Colbert interviewed him a couple of weeks back:

Lewis discusses not only his new comic trilogy, March, but a comic that inspired him in 1957: Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story. An excellent summary by Andrew Aydin at Creative Loafing Atlanta says:

Richard Deats, [the Fellowship of Reconciliation]'s Director of Communications in the 1990s, laid out FOR's motivation and purpose behind the comic in a 1997 letter, saying, "The comic book was originally intended to convey to semiliterate persons the story of nonviolence and its effectiveness as seen in the Montgomery movement. The medium of the highly popular comic book was believed to be the best way to reach masses of exploited African-Americans."

And that's what comic books were: they were a way of reaching the masses. They were literature for the illiterate.

And as with all mass-media means of distributing information to the poor, this upset the elites.

When comics first appeared in American newspapers around the turn of the twentieth century, they were seen as gutter trash. In the decades that followed, they were scapegoated for society's ills, culminating in Senate hearings, the Comics Code Authority, and the devastation of an entire American art form.

In a way, Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story was exactly what the elites feared: it upset the social structure. It gave teenagers like John Lewis ideas.

It's ironic that the comics medium's greatest foe, Fredric Wertham, was also an ardent progressive in the Civil Rights Movement -- if he had never written Seduction of the Innocent, he would instead be best remembered for the doll study used in Brown v Board. Wertham was right, in a way, about comics' potential as a disruptive force, as a powerful tool for influencing young people -- but he chose to fear the imagined impact of fictional crime and horror stories, rather than see the true potential of comics as a force for good, for education, for organization, for social justice.

Kirby, of course, saw boundless potential in comics, in a way few people ever have. He used comics to advocate for social change, too, though he preferred fiction and metaphor, and is best remembered as a superhero artist (though his work crossed all genres and invented some). He saw superheroes as modern mythological figures -- as New Gods -- as aspirational avatars.

In the 1940's, Kirby co-created Captain America, advocating for US intervention in WWII when that was still a controversial position. In the 1970's, his Forever People were technologically-advanced, alien hippies. In the 1960's, The Fantastic Four gave us The Hate-Monger, a supervillain in a Klan hood who turned out to be Adolf Hitler himself. It also gave us this guy:

The Black Panther

That image is courtesy of Brian Cronin's Comic Book Legends Revealed, which notes that the Black Panther didn't look like that in the final published comic -- his half-mask was replaced with a full mask, making it less immediately obvious that the Black Panther was, in fact, a black man -- indeed, possibly the first black superhero. (Inevitably when you refer to a comic book character as "the first" of anything, that's going to lead to debate -- sometimes that debate can miss the point entirely and turn into mere nitpicking over comic book trivia, though other times, as in Who Was the First Black Superhero? by JV Halliburton II, it can explore the richness of comic history and highlight all the important characters who have helped to build and shape it and make it more diverse.)

Today Mark Evanier wrote a lovely remembrance of his friend and mentor, and among many other things he had this to say:

Jack was all about something new, something exciting and something that took whatever he was doing to the next level. [...] Jack was first and foremost interested in producing something that would take comics to some new plateau, creating new opportunities and new possibilities.

Kirby believed in comics. So did Martin Luther King and Alfred Hassler. So does John Lewis.

And so does Jillian Kirby. I've written before about her Kirby4Heroes fundraiser for the Hero Initiative, a charity that helps struggling comic creators. As we celebrate her grandfather's birthday, don't forget about the less fortunate who have helped shape the comics medium over the years and decades.

Fair Use

Happy Martin Luther King Day. Here's a video of the I Have a Dream speech, posted by Fight for the Future.

The I Have a Dream speech is copyrighted. If SOPA had passed last year, this site could have been subject to takedown simply for embedding the above video.

I do not begrudge King's right to own the words he spoke. Nor do I begrudge his family's right to inherit them following his tragic death. But I question the right, not to mention the wisdom, of any entity -- individual, governmental, or corporate -- to restrict the dissemination of these words, this speech, this seminal moment in American history.

The I Have a Dream speech is copyright 1963, Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr. Pass it on.

The Arc of History

As Tom Tomorrow notes, there seems little left to say about the first black President's inauguration the day after Martin Luther King Day, but it seems like a moment that requires some comment.

So, my two cents: an expression I've heard from many of my elders following Obama's election is "I never thought I'd see the day." Me, I'm twenty-six years old. I always thought I'd see the day.

In closing, a video of Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen singing This Land on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial (HT: Some Guy with a Website).

Shocking Exposé

So it seems that today's top election news is that a recent Barack Obama speech lifted lines from a 2006 speech by Massachusetts Governor Devall Patrick. Judge for yourself:


Don't tell me words don't matter. "I have a dream" -- just words? "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal" -- just words? "We have nothing to fear but fear itself" -- just words? Just speeches?


"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal" -- just words? Just words? "We have nothing to fear but fear itself" -- just words? "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." Just words? "I have a dream" -- just words?

Truly the most shocking thing any Presidential candidate has done in the past week. (Well, if you don't count, say, McCain deciding he's pretty okay with the whole torture thing after all. Did I mention how proud I am to have voted for him in '04?)

But my friends, I have unearthed something strikingly similar that predates both quotes. Again, judge for yourself:

Just a statue? Is the Statue of Liberty just a statue? Is the Leaning Tower of Pizza just a statue?

That was Homer Simpson in The Telltale Head, which first aired February 25, 1990, significantly predating both speeches.

So there you have it -- both men plagiarized their speeches, from an 18-year-old episode of The Simpsons.

Stunning, I know. I expect a book deal out of this. We may even be talking Pulitzer material.

I Want to Believe

This evening, as I was driving home from Phoenix, NPR was playing Dr. King's Why I Oppose the War In Vietnam speech. I got distracted and missed my exit. That may not have been causal -- I don't usually come that way and have missed that exit before -- but it was the first time I'd heard the audio and it certainly had my attention.

Kudos to NPR for acknowledging King's more controversial later years -- every year at this time, we see the usual round of King retrospectives, and too often they skip from I Have a Dream to the assassination, glossing over his outspoken opposition to the war and his focus on economic inequality.

I also just read Barack Obama's speech from the Ebenezer Baptist Church, and it reminded me why he struck such a chord in '04. The man gives a damn fine speech, and today he delivered one worthy of being spoken from Dr. King's own pulpit.

But I am a cynic.

Obama says, "The Scripture tells us that we are judged not just by word, but by deed." Very well. "We have scorned our gay brothers and sisters instead of embracing them" are some very pretty words. But touring with the vehemently anti-gay Donnie McClurkin was a not-so-pretty deed. And his backpedaling explanation that McClurkin isn't anti-gay but only wants to cure "unhappy gays" is not only political weaselry, it's also the plot of X-Men 3.

"It is not enough to decry the disparities of health care and yet allow the insurance companies and the drug companies to block much-needed reforms" -- those are pretty words too. Words which lead me to wonder why Obama wants the insurance companies and the drug companies to help him write his healthcare plan.

Obama says a lot of pretty -- hell, downright inspiring -- things. But in 2006 he voted for a non-binding withdrawal plan for the Iraq War over Kerry and Feingold's bill to set a date. In 2005 he voted to renew the PATRIOT Act. Judged not just by word but by deed indeed, Senator.

Two years ago The Boondocks produced one of the finest half-hours of television I have ever seen, an episode titled "Return of the King" which explored the premise of Dr. King waking up from a 30-year coma in the modern era. At one point, King asks, "What happened, Huey? What happened to our people?" Huey responds, hesitantly, "I think...everyone was waiting for Martin Luther King to come back."

And that's the tragedy of the modern civil rights movement: for forty years, America has been waiting for Martin Luther King to come back. (It's also the tragedy of the current season of Boondocks, which has descended from this Peabody-winning meditation on our culture to jokes about movie ticket prices, and whose Katrina episode centered around Granddad trying to get rid of his mooching relatives, but that's a tangent.)

And for a nation and a movement so desperate to see Martin Luther King come back, it can be very tempting to mistake Barack Obama for him. He is an inspiring orator, and if he becomes President it will be the most significant step for racial equality since the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

But Obama is not Martin Luther King. I seldom find myself in the position of defending Hillary Clinton, but she was right when she said, "Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led a movement. He was gassed. He was beaten. He was jailed. And he gave a speech that was one of the most beautifully, profoundly important speeches ever written in America, the I Have a Dream speech." Obama, meanwhile, has sat quietly on the Senate floor and taken safe positions on controversial issues rather than risk his reputation for what he believes is right. (Clinton has too, of course -- even moreso, I would argue -- but that doesn't make the King/Obama contrast false.)

I also think Clinton has been attacked unfairly for her remark that it took LBJ to sign the Civil Rights Act. She wasn't impugning Dr. King's legacy, she was merely recognizing President Johnson's role -- and I don't think any rational person could argue that, had Richard Nixon been President in 1964, the act still would have passed.

All this to say...I hate politics. There are moments when Barack Obama's words inspire me, when I think of how he could be a great leader, how he could restore America's position in the world and, more, how he could bring us closer than ever to recognizing those self-evident truths that Jefferson mentioned back in 1776. I hear him speak of the continuing struggles for equality, not just racial but also sexual and economic, and I want to see a leader who can speak to the nation's conscience and make those dreams a reality.

But in the end, all available data show that he is just another politician. I may well mark his name on my ballot two weeks from now, but I fear that too will be an exercise in cynicism -- if I vote for him, it will not be because I trust him, but because I mistrust him less than I do Clinton.

I think it's hard to be an optimist in America in this day and age. Perhaps incremental improvement is all we can hope for. I can't say I think that's enough...but I guess I'll take it.