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Charlotte Amalie
Friday, February 23, 2024
HomeNewsArchivesSource Manager’s Journal: What Would King Make of 2014?

Source Manager’s Journal: What Would King Make of 2014?

Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. was at his peak. He led a civil rights movement that shattered the legal structures of racial oppression and segregation that had emerged after the Civil War, a century that had followed hundreds of years of brutal slavery. Four years later, he was dead.

Today Dr. King has become a screen onto which all kinds of people project the image that they want to see. In our culture, 50 years ago is ancient history, so it becomes easy for a public lobotomized by television and mostly amnesiac to believe anything they want to believe. And with just a click of your remote or mouse, you can find someone who tells you exactly what you want to hear.

“What would King think today?” has become a mini-version of the “What would Jesus do?” school of counter-factual history. Right now, the most interesting group in this respect is the white right, which has two distinct sets of talking points. The historically consistent group continues to view King as a communist and a troublemaker, the man who stirred things up and couldn’t leave well enough alone.

This is the school that shares the Gone With the Wind view of benign slavery, that considers segregation a case of using different water fountains and that believes affirmative action and poverty programs have reduced African Americans to their current impoverished state, have denied white people the jobs that they deserve and have sucked the lifeblood out of the hard-working white taxpayer.

Then there is a new group, often seen on conservative cable news and heard on talk radio. They are the white nationalist supporters of Dr. King. Their message is that King’s “legacy” has been betrayed by black people who, instead of wanting to be judged by “the content of their character” as King dreamt, are special pleaders, always playing the victim to get some advantage. This group happily uses King’s memory to beat black people over the head.

Among black people, the response to Martin Luther King Day is more complicated. Schools perform a valuable service by talking about some of the basic issues facing us as a society and about our tortured racial history. In a sense, these efforts are small responses to the fact that we in the U.S. have never had the equivalent of South Africa’s “Truth and Reconciliation” commission.

But the teachers leading these efforts are mostly young and have limited historical background. It is hard to capture the social and emotional feeling of something that occurred before you were born.

Then there are “the struggle continues” speeches and sermons, even though it is no longer clear what the struggle is or how to go about continuing it. Part of this confusion goes back to the fact that, in most black communities in the United States including the Virgin Islands, there was an internal struggle in the mid-1960s between King’s vision of nonviolence and the emerging Black Power Movement. In important ways, the black power groups won that struggle, with mostly disastrous consequences.

As a result, celebrating Martin Luther King Day requires squaring several circles because there has been a broad rejection of some of the civil rights movement’s core principles, nonviolence being only the most obvious one. A second would be working with others to address a range of social justice concerns that are as much grounded in class as race.

There was once a Rip Van Winkle episode of The Twilight Zone, in which a lonely gold prospector from the 1880s American West time-traveled to Times Square in New York City in the 1950s. Within half an hour in this frenetic and threatening place, the poor prospector cracks up and is hauled off to the insane asylum.

What do we think King’s reactions would be if he suddenly reappeared in our country in 2014? Would he be happy, sad, proud, disappointed? All obviously unknowable, but here is one person’s projection onto that screen.

First, on the surface, King would probably be baffled by seeing people of all races with white things on cords plugged into their ears. And why are they all doing those things with their thumbs, like they have some kind of syndrome. So many people who seem to be talking to themselves.

Then, tuning in to a basketball game, Whoa! What happened to all of the white guys? And what country do these black players come from with the head-to-toe tattoos and the celebration dances after they score a basket? Switching to football, why are the black players tap dancing for the white people in the crowd after they catch a touchdown pass? This is all too weird.

And continuing on, where did all of these nonscheduled nationalities come from? In the 1960s, it was pretty simple. You had black people and white people, with some Puerto Ricans in New York and some Mexicans in California. The rest was black and white. This is a lot more complicated but King would probably like it. And he would probably also see the challenge of making it work.

King would probably not think that President Obama’s election was the biggest event in the history of the world. As someone who was frequently late for some big event because he was talking to a janitor or some other “ordinary person,” he had a good handle on the dangers of power and celebrity.

Then there would be the more profound changes, the ones that are sometimes visible but more often beneath the surface. I don’t know if King shared President Lyndon Johnson’s pessimistic prediction of a generation of reactionary politics that would result from the civil rights revolution. King would almost certainly be depressed by the fact that it has been more than a generation and that it has produced a society and a political culture that is bitterly divided and has no time for losers.

He would probably be very critical of President Obama and his (and the Democratic Party’s) obsession with the “middle class” to the exclusion of those living in poverty. He would quite certainly be dismayed by the depth of that poverty and by the lack of hope among so many Americans, especially in rural areas and deindustrialized cities.

He would very likely be shocked by the levels of violence in many black communities and by the fact that, in many ways, imprisonment has replaced segregation as the vehicle for controlling black people in America. But he would be unlikely to buy into the self-definition of black people as powerless victims, without responsibility for this condition.

King would probably be profoundly depressed by the poverty of our discussion on race and class in our country today, and he would be unlikely to spare black Americans for their contribution to this dialogue of the deaf. This frankness, which would be captured in misleading sound bites, would immediately lead many white people to think, “See, even King agrees with us, just what we’ve been saying all along.”

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