Honoring Martin Luther King Jr.: A Culture Compass

by Sarah Harper

If you’re looking to get out and about, you can easily survey today’s events landscape with the help of this handy guide from the Star Tribune.

And here are a few things you can appreciate at home:



“A Dream” by Common featuring Will.I.Am.

“Freedom Writers” Soundtrack


There’s an inherent musicality in Martin Luther King Jr.’s rhythmic, vibrado-filled speeches. This 2006 song, which samples King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, is bursting with the optimism of the Civil Rights Movement. “A Dream” doesn’t dodge reality – while Will.I.Am croons about the dream of freedom, Common raps about the reality of the “dark clouds that seem to follow me.”



“A Ballad of Birmingham” by Dudley Randall


Dudley Randall’s straight-forward, emotionally wrenching poem takes us back to 1963 Birmingham. A little girl wants to join the Freedom March but her worried, cautious mother tells her she can’t. Instead, she tells her she can go sing at church. The based-on-all-too-real-events poem concludes with a church bombing and results in reflective, teary readers.



“4 Little Girls” by Spike Lee


This movie is based on the same 1963 Birmingham church bombing as Dudley Randall’s poem. Spike Lee examines the horror and unfairness of one of the worst hate crimes in our nation’s history by recounting the events that resulted in the deaths of four little girls.

The Wall Street Journal’s Speakeasy blog asked NAACP president Benjamin Todd Jealous to choose three movies people should watch today. “4 Little Girls” was on the list, along with “Blood Done Sign My Name” and “Akeelah and the Bee.”



“How It Feels to be Colored Me,” by Zora Neale Hurston

First published in May 1928 in a magazine called The Way Tomorrow

A year before Martin Luther King Jr. was born, thinker Zora Neale Hurston penned a self-assured essay on her skin color. The full version contains personal confidances and powerfully vivid metaphors. Here’s a paragraph:

At certain times I have no race, I am me. When I set my hat at a certain angle and saunter down Seventh Avenue, Harlem City, feeling as snooty as the lions in front of the Forty-Second Street Library, for instance. So far as my feelings are concerned, Peggy Hopkins Joyce on the Boule Mich with her gorgeous raiment, stately carriage, knees knocking together in a most aristocratic manner, has nothing on me. The cosmic Zora emerges. I belong to no race nor time. I am the eternal feminine with its string of beads.”



Stone of Hope by Lei Yixen

National Mall, Washington D.C.

Dedicated October 2011

It’s a giant stone affair of a sculpture honoring Martin Luther King Jr. Out of one end of the imposing rectangular prism, King’s arms-folded form emerges from the stone. The tribute’s size and substantial appearance is an apt representation of King’s strength as a civil rights leader.

A paraphrased quote on one of the sides of the rectangle caused quite a stir, according to an NPR news blog entry published in August.

Maya Angelou was totally not having it, saying that the paraphrase makes King look like “an arrogant twit.”

The side of the statue says, ““I was a drum major for peace, justice and righteousness.”

What King actually said in a 1968 sermon was far less self-congratulatory:

“Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. I won’t have any money to leave behind. I won’t have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind. (Amen) And that’s all I want to say.”