Monday, January 21, 2008
Martin Luther King Day
Every year at this time, we celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Politicians, columnists, and activists all take their turn assessing the current state of affairs in American civil rights. Some tout the progress our nation has made, while others lament how far we have to go. Some wish for this discussion to go away, while others try to continue the struggle Dr. King led so long ago.
Dr. King died ten years before I was born. Only ten years, yet to hear my teachers tell it in school, the civil rights struggle was a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. Malcolm X was seldom, if ever, mentioned. To the extent that the nation had to acknowledge that the civil rights movement even happened, they were going to choose to lionize the less threatening of the two, lest children get ideas in their heads about how to affect change.
The nation has come far. To look at the history of where the nation stood when Dr. King was alive is simply mind-boggling. Even more mind-boggling are the number of people who were alive at the time and have seen such profound change. But in light of that, it makes sense that so many would simply want to say, "That's enough change for one life time," hang up their brains and vote for Ronald Reagan in 1980.
But change continues. Today we have a credible African-American candidate for President of the United States. We also have a credible female candidate. Barring the unexpected, one or the other of them will be the Democratic nominee. Neither of them is the first to run, but they are the first to be taken seriously by their party's establishment.
This gets to the heart of the real issue of progress: it's not about legislation we pass, but about changing people's attitudes. Are women taken seriously in the work place? Are blacks or other racial minorities? Often it depends on where you're talking about. To a white, blue collar worker, the disparity between the races (or the genders) is less apparent. The question of why a guy working 60 hours a week just to feed his family doesn't have a lot of sympathy for the plight of other people should almost answer itself. But it doesn't mean that he necessarily thinks less of his black co-worker, doing the same job as him. Sexist and racist attitudes do prevail, but I would contend that your average "Joe Six Pack" is markedly ahead of the curve compared to the establishment's power brokers in Washington, or the white collar management who cut his pay check. To him, it's a simple issue of fairness, and if he treats the black co-worker as an equal, then that, to his mind, should be enough, as it is largely all he can do.
Yet over the years, the talk of "quotas" often pitted white working class people against black working class people, thus stunting progress for both. Established power used the civil rights movement as a scapegoat for whites, thus stopping them from confronting the real cause of their problems while simultaneously using these whites to stop civil rights legislation, and thus continuing to foster distrust of whites among blacks. This drama continues to play out, as we've seen in this current Presidential election. Issues of women and racial minorities continue to play out, and at times, against each other.
MLK is often presented not as a symbol or spokesman for the larger civil rights movement, but as the "leader" or even as a movement unto himself. With the passage of time, his legend grows until it is no longer a man we remember, but a myth. Nearly 40 years have passed since his death, and here I am, less than ten years younger than he was when he died. Ten years -- that's it. What have I done to better the world? What have any of us?
By ourselves, we can do very little, but together, we can accomplish much. That's the lesson that the civil rights movement should teach us. It seems simple or trite, but it's something that many people have yet to learn. To present Dr. King as a giant that no man can measure up to is to cheat us of that most profound lesson. A Baptist minister from a church in Montgomery, Alabama stood up and made a profound difference, but he could not have done it alone. He did not do it alone. It was a movement in which the people spoke to power, not the other way around. This was not a prophet presenting the "will of God" to the unwashed masses. This was the unwashed masses telling the throne how things were going to be in the future. And they won.
Here we are today, 40 years after his death, yet we are still not yet in the promised land Dr. King spoke of. Injustices abound, and mistrust between the races is still deeply entrenched. There are other minority groups which have still not achieved equal standing. Gay couples do not have the same rights as straight couples, and gays still must hide their nature when serving in the military. Women still make less pay for equal work. The U.S. still keeps colonies (or "territories", if you must) that do not have voting rights in Congress and do not have the right to vote for President. Native American reservations often live in dire poverty, as exemplified by the life expectancy of Lakota men (less than 44 years). De facto segregation still exists, as seen in cities like East St. Louis, over 90% black, where obscene poverty still abounds, and nearby St. Charles County in Missouri, over 90% white, where the economic outlook is much more sunny. New Orleans, a city once over 60% black, was allowed to drown and rot while the poor were kept at bay and prevented from returning. And Iraq today serves as an example of how the U.S. government happily throws away the lives of the poor to further the wants of the rich, much the way they did in Vietnam back in Dr. King's day. These are just examples I've seen with my own eyes, in my own limited time on this earth. It does not even begin to scratch the surface of the injustices which prevail in our nation or the amount of work we still have left to do.
Today we stand in the midst of one of the darkest times in our nation's history, the presidency of George W. Bush. We have a unique opportunity to not only choose a President who will listen when the unwashed masses speak, but also to hold whomever we choose to the promises he or she makes. Regardless of the victor, we must follow Dr. King's example and make them remember that we are the true power, and that we are the ones they answer to. We must make them remember that we owe them no tribute, no acquiescence. They are our servants, and they will acquiesce to us.
If we make them.