On the eve of a rather hollow holiday: Why MLK Day is sometimes a premature celebration of a victory yet to be won

15 Jan


What useful function do intellectuals serve in the life of the Black community? Clearly, “it is not our role to sweep by the poor in black limousines and to smile from behind cut glass, whether diamonds or Waterford.” Nor does the Black intellectual serve the people by groveling to Power, even if its name is Obama. “He has failed to live up to the promises that could have helped stop African Americans still being systematically disadvantaged, thrown out of their homes by malicious banks, disproportionately unemployed and languishing in poor achieving public schools.” The Black intellectual shows her worth by contributing to the “distribution of knowledge and skills” – and by telling the truth. ……Marsha Coleman-Adebayo

Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered in 1968 when I was 20 years old. To say that he defined social justice in my formative years would be an understatement. And yet, as much as I admired his fiery and charismatic rhetoric and his brilliant mind, he was never the leader I wanted to follow. HIs personality and perhaps his religion were too different from mine, at least his public personna, we were not, obviously BFFs.

Non-violence is a great idea, conceived by and borrowed from the great Ghandi, and the message of the New Testament, to love everyone and forgive your enemies and conquer hate with love is a nice idea, but not what I have observed in my six plus decades of living. There are no doubt those who would say the reason love is having such a struggle against hate and peace is having such a struggle against violence and good is having such a struggle against evil is that not enough people believe in the messages of Dr. King.

Perhaps that is true, who knows? I just know that I have seen enough examples of evil triumphing over good and injustice triumphing over justice to have some doubts that the universe actually is in balance, that bad things and bad people eventually get their comeuppance. And, being prayerful and loving and quietly determined does not always get you where you want to go. I could name you lots of famous and no so famous examples.

Dr. King understood a lot about America, including the fact that convincing people to do something because it was right is not an easy thing. To begin with a lot of people have different ideas about what right is. I am firmly convinced that some of those Klansmen they used to interview on television in the 1960s were quite sure they were doing what was right by trying to keep blacks in their place. I am equally firmly convinced that the people who are working daily for that same goal today believe they are doing the right thing.

Oh, they are too savvy to join the Klan. They would not be seen with the identifiable bigots,  limited in many white folks’ mind to  seven or eight toothless inbreds from some back holler in Snake’s Navel Alabama, but they will work tirelessly to make certain that the status quo is protected. A status quo that has white supremacy as its guiding principal. Don’t believe me? Take a gander at any policy making group in America, the ones that make decisions about everything from how much we pay for a mortgage to who gets to attend what college and tell me what color the majority of them are?

Well, you say, of course they are mainly white, after all 76% of the people in America are white.  If we are going to use statistics then that means that 24% of Americans are not white. How many policy making bodies are 24% of color? And to expand the discussion a bit, how many of them are more than 50% female, which would be representative of gender demographics?

But, I cannot put all the fault at the feet of bigots or the ruthlessly powerful. No, a lot of people who are oppressed participate in their oppression. They live in some gray, fear-tinged area, hoping to be allowed to someday find a place at the table, but not daring to hope that it might be an equal place, or above the salt as the old saying goes. They do not join others from their groups who are battling for social justice, they duck their heads, collect their paychecks and metaphorically drive by in their limousines. I have had black people, colleagues, say to me when I tried to enlist them to struggle against some injustice, ” I am just keeping my mouth shut and collecting my paycheck.”  Back, once again to one of my favorite sayings by the great Audre Lorde, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

Dr. King knew all about the master’s tools, he had to confront them all the time, black people telling him to chill to shut up to quit making trouble for “the rest of us.” He also understood that a little threat was not a bad thing.The yin of Malcolm X to his yang of love and peace was a useful tool. A kind of ” see what you might get if you do not go along with what I am trying to do?”

The quote I opened this piece with says the job of the black intellectual is to tell the truth and not grovel to authority. The person who wrote it is either naive or a hopeless romantic. If the black intellectual would like to be unemployed and marginalized they might tell the truth, but I am afraid it will be reduced to a voice crying in the wilderness. Most institutions in America have limited interest in the truth shared through the lens of the black intellectual and failure to grovel to authority is lethal.And, we cannot forget, there are far too many people in America today ( for proof check the public and higher education system statistics) who believe the phrase black intellectual is an oxymoron.

When MLK was assassinated more than forty years ago, was the state of black America worse than it is now? In some cases yes, far worse. Affirmative action ( which is now under daily attack) and the eventual dismantling of official Jim Crow laws and practices in public life ( mostly)  have led to a larger black middle class. But, minorities continue to make up too large a proportion of the poor, education of most minorities is almost universally understood to be failing or failed and bigotry and racism have gone underground, where they flourish mightily, from racist worksheet passed out to black children in Georgia in 2011 to a black man being run down in a parking lot in Texas because he was black.

The fact that neither of these incidents caused more than a minor blip in the national media makes me shudder to think what else is happening in this great country to minorities and white women that we do not even hear about.

MLK wanted a country where people were judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin. While some folks have misconstrued that to mean he wanted people to be colorless and ignore color, what he meant was that being a minority should not truncate your opportunities. We have not gotten there yet. Look at the average white family’s assets and those of most minorities, look at the high school completion rate of males disaggregated according to race, look at who gets arrested, how they are sentenced and how long they serve. Look at who can still get a job coming out of prison and who cannot.

I am afraid the content of your character still takes a backseat to several things, your color, your gender, you economic status, you willingness to know your place and who you know.

I think it is wonderful that we have a day to celebrate MLK and his work and his contribution to America. I think it is a damn shame that we do not have more respect for what he was  actually trying to accomplish.

Let us use his day not to pat ourselves on the back for all he managed to do,  and how evolved as a society it makes us that we honor him with a day off from work, but dedicate ourselves to continuing that push and remember these words of his.

On some positions cowardice asks the question, “Is it safe?”!

Expediency asks the question, “Is it politic?”

Vanity asks the question, “Is it popular?”

But conscience must ask the question, “Is it right?”

And there comes a time when one must take a stand that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular.

But one must take it because it is right. ….MLK Jr.


One response to “On the eve of a rather hollow holiday: Why MLK Day is sometimes a premature celebration of a victory yet to be won

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