Thursday, January 22, 2015

Reflections on Dr. King, Society, Race and Life

I used to hate that I was from Memphis (and loathe that I'm from the South). As a child, I felt ashamed that my city was the place that killed Dr. King and took that wonderful, transformative man from his family and from the world. As I got older and began to understand the full weight of American history, especially the history of Blacks in this country, my shame often turned to anger. As I aged, I understood better that my city didn't kill Dr. King but evil citizens who were in my city killed Dr. King. And while there is plenty of evidence to suggest collusion with city leaders (which would suggest that the city did help to kill him) and even the United States was found to be responsible for his death, the city itself did not kill Dr. King, and the assassination didn't stop his work. The more I studied his assassination and history, I also realized that if it hadn't have been Memphis, it would've been another city. It just so happened that it was my city. I still don't like it, but I've learned to reconcile it.

I've often found myself angry the more I learn about history. I LOVE learning new things, but I often feel cheated from knowledge that I should've learned years ago.
I often wish I could wave a magic wand and make evil disappear from the world. But that's not reality. So, I study more and more so that I'm informed and aware and can pass that knowledge on to my boys and anyone else I encounter.

As I child, I revered Dr. King and all that he stood for. He fought so bravely against forces larger than himself, against seemingly insurmountable entities, against a system of oppression hellbent on keeping blacks and the poor under the boot heel of the majority race and class.  From a very young age, my parents exposed me to the truth of our history in this country. Dr. King was a central figure in my lessons. I admired him because my parents did, because it was what I was supposed to do.

As I aged and continued to study history, the militant teen in me began to gravitate towards the methods of El Hajj Malik El Shabazz, better known to most as Brother Minister Malcolm X. I took the view that Dr. King had been too meek, too pacifist, too conciliatory, too nice in his approach for equality. Brother Minister Malcolm X promoted taking equality "by any means necessary"--including violent means, if that was what was required, or at least be prepared to meet violence with violence. I became angry that Dr. King was lauded by most while Brother Minister Malcolm X seemed only lauded by a few. Dr. King had a federally recognized day (except in Arizona and New Hampshire until the 1990s--ThaHell!?); Brother Minister Malcolm X had his date of birth and date of death that's barely remembered and certainly not celebrated nationally.

As I began to truly study rhetoric and the power of it, I realized that while both men had strong rhetorical skills, Dr. King was clearly more powerful. It takes amazing ability for your words and actions to move a people. He wasn't a pacifist. He was damned intelligent, a damned skilled rhetorician. He was talented and learned to achieve things within the set of circumstances he was given. It's easy to take a hammer to attempt to knock down a wall. It takes amazing skill, talent, fortitude, tenacity to attempt to convince the wall that it needs to fall.

Each year, around Dr. King Day, tons of people and publications write observations reflecting on where we are, would he be proud, what issues would he stand for today? In the long view of history, I think he might be proud in some ways, but overall, I think he'd weep. We are now refighting battles that he (along with so many others) struggled to secure. Once a victory is secured, society cannot stop and just rest and assume that the right will always be there. We must continuously work to maintain the rights, but we should not have to start the fights anew decades later. But that's what happens when people stop paying attention, when schools stop educating kids and start worrying about whether the kids can pass tests, when we become complacent, when we stop having fire in our bellies, when we stop knowing that everyone should be equal and treated the same in ALL matters of society. We took our eye off the prize, and now we're rebattling when it should just be maintenance battles.

As I reflect on this Dr. King day, I am grateful for my parents' lessons for me that began when I was so young. I'm grateful for what Dr. King and Brother Minister Malcolm X stood for. I'm grateful for the many people--named and unnamed by history--who fought, bled, were tortured, and died for me to be where I am. I am grateful for my education so that I am aware of where we came from (my family, my race and this country as a whole) so that I can try to see a clearer view of where we should go and how to help my boys get there. I'm grateful for the opportunities I'm granted, the friends I have (of various races), the things I've accomplished.

But...

Despite many opinions to the contrary, we are NOT post-racial. We ARE better off in some ways, but don't confuse the accomplishments and achievements in some areas as being indicative of everything being better. We are better, but we have SOO much further to go. Starting with making sure cops know that using people (esp. black teens) for target practice is not ok even if no policies explicitly state not to do that. Why should a policy need to state "don't use human faces, esp. of only one race as targets"?  What happened to the damn silhouette head/body? Start by making sure cops don't instantly view blacks as aggressors. (Cops using blacks as target practice might have something to do with this.) Start by making sure ALL cops are aware of actual laws, esp. Tennessee v. Garner. Start by overturning the decision that said that cops can pull you over and search you if they think you've broken a law, even if that law doesn't actually exist. Start by having honest conversations about history, agreeing on the facts of what has and has not been improved, so we can have open and honest discussions about where to go.  But that would require willing participants, and let's face it: there are still tons of hateful people who'd rather not.

So, where are we? Where am I today?

My own admiration of the man and myth of Dr. King has come full circle even as I continue to struggle to reconcile where the country is compared to where ideally we should be by now. I'm still angry at the past and many current events. I sometimes feel that the only reaction is to scream out "FUUUUCCCKKK!" because no other words will suffice. But then I remember that I'm not where I am by accident. Achievements weren't gained by accident. It's not happenstance that societal situations are remaking activists and social justice warriors for the 21st century.

I no longer hate the city that raised me. I no longer hate that I'm from the South. I embrace them both. I walk proudly in my being, my beginnings, my existence because were it not for Dr. King (and even his assassination), I might know what I know, be who I am, and cherish what I have.

Thank you Dr. King for your work, effort, dedication, tenacity, and accomplishments.

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