MLK’s spirit lives in Occupy Wall Street protests

If Martin Luther King Jr. were somehow able to attend Lexington’s annual celebration of his birth Monday, where would he spend his time?

He probably would get up early for the unity breakfast, then walk in the symbolic march around downtown, which attracts several thousand people. He probably would return to Heritage Hall at 11 a.m. for the inspirational program and guest speaker.

This year’s event includes music from Mahalia, a musical honoring the late gospel singer Mahalia Jackson that was first performed in Lexington in 1983. The guest speaker is Marc Lamont Hill, a Columbia University professor, host of the syndicated TV show Our World With Black Enterprise, and political commentator on CNN, MSNBC and Fox News.

After that, King could choose among many other activities, including a program at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning and a screening of the documentary film Freedom Riders at the Kentucky Theatre.

But I suspect that King would be most interested in spending some time at the corner of Main Street and Esplanade, where local participants in the Occupy Wall Street protest have kept a steady vigil for 107 days, as of Friday, and counting.

Hill, this year’s guest speaker, thinks so, too. That is because the Occupy protesters in Lexington and cities across America echo many of the concerns about economic justice that King expressed, especially during the final year before an assassin’s bullet silenced him in 1968.

“We’ve always needed to talk about the have-nots and the have-gots,” Hill said in a telephone interview last week. “The Occupy movement kind of revives that conversation.”

Hill, who is best known to many TV viewers as a liberal foil to Fox talk-show host Bill O’Reilly, plans to discuss some of those issues during his Lexington speech.

“We live in a really, really dangerous moment, for a variety of reasons — politically, socially, culturally,” Hill said. “There has never been a moment where we more needed to draw on the insights of Dr. King’s legacy, not only to bring the nation together but to move the nation forward.”

Hill thinks America’s core problem is poverty, because it is a major cause of the crises in health care, education, crime, violence and high rates of incarceration.

“What we see is a gap between what we have and what’s possible,” he said. “And the gap isn’t an intelligence gap, an effort gap, it’s an opportunity gap.”

One reason for rising economic inequality, Hill said, has been a lack of effective regulation of big business since the 1980s.

“The point is not to demonize business, it’s not to demonize success, but to certainly challenge and critique excess,” he said. “There’s a way to have responsible corporations. There’s a way to have responsible markets.”

Hill said Americans can best honor King’s legacy by continuing to work toward the goals he pursued.

“I want to challenge us to go deeper,” he said. “To not just think about the man who wanted people holding hands and singing We Shall Overcome, but someone who really forced us to reimagine the relationship between the government and its citizens, between the rich and the vulnerable.”

That thought and work will be especially important during this election year, Hill said.

“Beyond the everyday political banter we hear on cable television and read in the newspapers, we have to pay attention to what’s going on in our communities,” he said. “One of the things Dr. King represented was mass action on a national level, but locally rooted. He said that when dogs bit us in Birmingham, we bled everywhere. That kind of mentality is what’s necessary.

“I want to challenge people to do something — to join organizations, to volunteer, to start organizations,” Hill said. “What can we do in our communities? What can we do in our schools? What can we do in our respective religious institutions? What can we do in our homes to bring about the world that is not yet?”