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Community Or Chaos: MlK & Clint Eastwood

By Grace Lee Boggs

Michigan Citizen, Jan. 25- 31, 2009

On Monday, January 19, thousands came together to plant trees, deliver meals, refurbish schools, etc in response to Obama's call to celebrate the MLK holiday by a Day of Service in our communities.

As they enjoyed each other and the good they were doing, I wonder how many of them were aware of MLK's painful struggles after the 1965 Watts rebellion to deepen the meaning of community.

Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino, as reviewed in my January 11 column by Scott Kurashige ( "An American Icon Looks in the Mirror") gives us fresh insights into these struggles.

In Gran Torino Eastwood's character, Polish-American Walt Kowalski, a Korean war vet and retired auto worker, must find common ground with a population now entirely composed of low-income people of color, especially Hmong refugees from Southeast Asia. This requires not only confronting the racism, materialism, and militarism that, beyond hard work, made the "American Dream" possible for white workers like Walt. It also requires finding non-violent and non-punitive community building solutions for the petty crimes of urban youth and the gang violence that has turned our communities into hoods.

Gran Turino is the gripping story of how a grumpy old white American gunslinger grapples with these increasingly urgent social issues.

King was wrestling with similar issues in the last three years of his life. On August 6, 1965, he was among the black and white leaders who joined President Johnson in celebrating the signing of the Voting Rights Act, the culmination of a decade of civil rights struggles beginning with the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott.

Less than a week later, black youth in Watts, California, protesting the police killing of a speeding driver, exploded in an uprising in which thirty-five people died. When King flew to Watts on August 15, he discovered that few black youth in Watts had even heard of him and that they claimed victory because their violence had forced the power structure to acknowledge their existence. The next year, on the March to Mississippi, Stokely Carmichael voiced the anger and despair of these young people by calling for Black Power.

King was deeply troubled not only by the violence of the Watts uprising and the Vietnam War but by the speed with which Stokely rushed to assume leadership of angry black youth. Instead, he moved to Chicago to be in daily contact and dialogue with these youth. At the same time he re-visited Karl Marx to gain a deeper insight into how poverty and imperialist wars are both structurally rooted in capitalism. He also went back to Gandhi and gained new insights into how violence increases chaos while non-violence requires self-transformation, or becoming the change we want to see in the world.

His last books and talks in 1967-8 are the fruit of these practical and theoretical struggles.

His 1967 book is entitled Where Do We Go from Here: Community or Chaos? In his April 1967 anti- Vietnam war speech, he called for a radical revolution of values against the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism, Finally, only months before his assassination, he projected self-transforming and structure-transforming direct action programs for youth in our dying cities as the new stage of two-sided transformation that the movement needs to go beyond protest and beyond both the civil rights and Black Power movements. (The Trumpet of Conscience, ch.3)

Out of our experiences in Detroit we arrived at a similar conclusion when we founded Detroit Summer as a multicultural, intergenerational program/movement to engage young people in rebuilding, redefining and respiriting our city from the ground up.

Today, programs to Reclaim. Rebuild, Renew our Cities and Communities are emerging all over the country. They are not just for one day. They will require transformation not only of ourselves but paradigm shifts in all our cultural institutions and structures, new kinds of participatory education, of sustaining ourselves by meaningful Work rather than Jobs, of Restorative rather than Punitive Justice, Many of these paradigm shifts are already beginning with planting community gardens, not just to grow food but to grow the trust, cooperation and collective self-reliance we now need to survive in these increasingly hard times.

It would be a great leap forward if Day of Service volunteers become engaged in these year-long and decade-long activities.

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