By Alice Bernstein
Tribune New York Correspondent
Soon I will be in Memphis to report on the MLK50 observance. On April 4th, the thoughts of people all over the world will turn to Memphis where, 50 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered while fighting racism and economic injustice, fighting for the rights and dignity of poor people and striking sanitation workers.
As we honor his legacy, I want everyone to know this great, kind poem by Eli Siegel, founder of the education Aesthetic Realism. It was written after news broke of Dr. King’s death in 1968, and was published that year in Mr. Siegel’s second volume of poetry, Hail, American Development:
Something Else Should Die:
A Poem with Rhymes
In April 1865
Abraham Lincoln died.
In April 1968
Martin Luther King died.
Their purpose was to have us say,
This poem has affected people deeply during these 50 years, as it appeared in print and online thousands of times; and has been recited by children and adults in schools, churches, theaters, community centers; and it was introduced by Elijah E. Cummings, Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, whose July 2002 Tribute honoring Eli Siegel’s centenary also appeared in the U.S. Congressional Record.
As we reflect on Dr. King’s life, we also honor the great Civil Rights struggle against racism, poverty, and inequality, led by hundreds of thousands of courageous women and men who risked their lives in behalf of “equal justice under the law.” Their achievements include passage of federal rulings outlawing segregation in public education, housing, employment, and travel.—And, the Voting Rights Act, guaranteed ALL people the right to vote—leading to the election of the largest number of black officials since Reconstruction after the Civil War. Yet, now, early in the 21st century, we are witnessing increasingly vicious attacks and attempts to destroy these ethical victories.
The meaning of “Something Else Should Die” is as urgent now as it was in 1968. The present-day viciousness, I learned from Aesthetic Realism, arises from contempt, the feeling that we will be more by making less of what is not ourselves. It was contempt—the cause of all injustice, including racism—which had people feel they had the right to own other human beings. Later, contempt is what made some people hate desegregation, feel stupidly and cruelly that equal rights for all people made them less.
In Mr. Siegel’s note to his poem, he wrote: “Injustice will die only when an individual no longer can feel that individuality is more served by injustice than by justice; by ugliness rather than non-ugliness.” Aesthetic Realism is the knowledge that can have people see that our individuality is strengthened, enhanced through respect for the world and people, wanting to be fair to them. It is respect, not contempt that truly makes us more.
It is important to see that with all the ferocious attempts to destroy hard-won progress, ethics is alive in America. What Eli Siegel identified as “the force of ethics” working throughout history, can be seen in movements, currents of people–passionate, reasoned, sincere, and diverse—on the side of justice and progress, and they are gaining momentum. There are, for example, the new Poor People’s Campaign, led by Rev. William J. Barber II and Rev. Liz Theoharis: A National Call for Moral Revival against what Dr. King called the “triple evils”: racism, poverty, and militarism; the Fight for $15 & a Union; Black Lives Matter; and the galvanizing March for Our Lives, led by young people — against assault weapons in our schools and on our streets, which have caused more deaths in the U.S. than in any other country in the world.
I believe injustice will die as people learn from Aesthetic Realism how to criticize contempt in ourselves and everywhere, enabling us to make choices we can respect ourselves for. The mission of the Alliance of Ethics & Art is to have this education known by a world that desperately needs it.
In Memphis on April 4th, I look forward to greeting civil rights activists, many of whom I was honored to interview for the Alliance of Ethics & Art’s “Force of Ethics in Civil Rights” oral history project; and to meet young activists who, like Erica Nanton in Chicago and Zishun Ning in New York City, are working with others in behalf of greater justice. Soon I will tell you what I see and learn there.
Alice Bernstein is a civil rights historian and Aesthetic Realism Associate.