Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Wynton Marsalis's MLK Address

A lot of people are spending way too much time talking about the "Chocolate City" speech Nagin made on Monday; most people I know in New Orleans are talking about this address given on the same day by Wynton Marsalis. You can click on the headline for the full text, but here are the highlights:

It's good to be home. It's especially good to be home in a time of crisis because tough times force us to return to fundamentals. And there is nothing more fundamental than home.

I also feel a special honor in speaking on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. Though he is almost always reduced to a dreamer today, Dr. King was a most powerful exemplar of action. His last book is titled, "Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?" It is a question that is most appropriate for us in this moment.

Dr. King worked in the shadow of slavery and discrimination. We are in the shadow of the worst natural disaster to ever befall America.

What better way to celebrate him than by rising to a challenge?

His challenge was to reverse 80 years of legalized apartheid -- a veritable way of life in our land of freedom. Our challenge is merely to rebuild a great city in times of unbelievable political callousness and corruption.

Through a tireless single-minded campaign to expose injustice, fraud and debilitating political apathy, Dr. King never lost faith in the ability of humans to behave better. He didn't settle. He succeeded. Certainly his single-mindedness is what is required of us at this time.

When we look around here, we see destruction, anguish and uncertainty. Let's look deeper into ourselves and find possibility. That's why it's important to mark the reopening of New Orleans with the triumphant return of Tulane, Xavier, Loyola and Dillard Universities.

If we're lucky, we only have a good 80 years or so on this earth, and through education, those 80 are extended through the generations that follow. Look around: Paul Tulane put his life into this campus over 120 years ago. It's still here -- inviting us tonight.

That's why it's important to address young people in the reopening of New Orleans. You have always been at the forefront of social change.

The soldiers in Martin Luther King's army were people demanding change -- lawyers, clerks, politicians, housewives, businessmen, maids, clergymen. The ones on the front lines were America's youth.

Young people, much like you, who felt empowered to better our nation, who understood that change required sacrifice, who were emboldened with a spirit of rightness and were determined to create change for the betterment of our country.

You know, we love to patronize young people with slogans like "the young will lead the way" -- when actually, the young very seldom lead anything in our country today. It's been quite some time since a younger generation pushed an older one to a higher standard.

My daddy thought -- no, he expected -- that my brothers and I and our generation would make the world a better place. He was correct in his belief, because he had lived in an America of continual social progress. Depression followed by prosperity, segregation by integration, and so on.

Though I haven't quite pinpointed it, somewhere between my daddy's youth and mine, generational aspirations for a richer democracy changed to aspirations for a richer me. Oh, and forget about our political process. Voting became too much of a bore.

The result of this social inactivity is that generations are now named simply for the last letters of the alphabet. And these alphabet-named people are distinguished by the ability to manipulate new technology, buy new things and be obsessed with the trivial lives of celebrities.

But I know you're more than that.

We have the tendency to make generations unanimous. But in fact, there really have only ever been a few people in each generation who step out, are willing to put themselves on the line and risk everything for their beliefs.

If you realize the unfortunate consequences of inaction, hopefully you will understand even more the importance of holding both your elders and your peers accountable when it comes to the rebuilding of New Orleans. Stay up on the facts.

What, other than injustice, could be the reason that the displaced citizens of New Orleans cannot be accommodated by the richest nation in the world? You, along with the entire world, saw the bureaucratic fumbling and lack of concern inflicted on those very same citizens at the Superdome and the Convention Center. Who is being held accountable now?

The rebuilding of New Orleans is an important point in the history of the United States. Don't wish for someone else to do later what you can do now. When you perceive a problem, put together a group of friends and be loud in your dissent. When you notice inconsistencies between what is said by government officials and what is done, exercise your individual and collective power to take steps to remove them. Our form of democracy allows you to do that. Remember, the best way to be is to do.

What are you going to do?

Well, when it comes to the rebuilding of New Orleans, start with the president. He stood in Jackson Square and told the nation that he would rebuild New Orleans and fix the levees. When public outrage was at its highest and his popularity was nearing its lowest, let's remember that he put Karl Rove in charge of the reconstruction effort. That was in September. Has anyone seen or heard from Karl Rove? Hmmm . . .

In the opening days of this New Year, the president reiterated that the levees will be fixed. Yes, money has been appropriated. But is it enough? The task has been assigned. People have been put in charge. But are they going to take care of it? Are they waiting for people -- like you -- to stop paying attention?

I know that the challenge of rebuilding may seem insurmountable. But we have a road map to success -- the path of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

You will hear that the most immediate concerns for New Orleans are the wetlands, the levees and the homes. But I'm here to tell you that the most immediate concern for New Orleans is the well-being of our displaced neighbors spread out in a diaspora all over the United States.

I'm here to tell you, when young folks are motivated to action, when they act with insight, soul and fire, they can rekindle the weary spirit of a slumbering nation. It's time somebody woke us up.

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