Thursday, April 05, 2018

Fifty years ago today

Fifty years ago today, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. It was the beginning of his transformation from controversial political figure to martyr, and he became a hero to many who weren’t even born when he died. His legacy of a commitment to non-violent social change is still something to be admired and emulated, even if far too many still fall short. That’s the thing about human examples: They continue to show the way long after they’re gone. Dr. King became a hero to me, despite all sorts of reasons why that might not have happened. This post is about why all that is so.

I remember Dr. King and his assassination, though barely: I’d turned nine the previous January, so his career and death all happened when I was too young to know much about it, to understand it, or to even care about social or political issues. That was all outside of everything I knew—but that would change.

I grew up Republican in a white, Mainline Protestant household that was, by appearance, anyway, middle class. I knew nothing about the realities of life in America for its black citizens, especially poor black people. There were a few black kids in my primary schools, but we moved to a different town in December 1968, and things were very different in the new town. Among other things, my new primary school had no black kids, and I don’t remember if there were any Mexican kids (the fact I don’t remember suggests there weren’t).

High school didn’t help much, either. We weren’t taught much about recent history (Dr. King was assassinated 9 years before I graduated from high school), and we had one black family in our school—and they moved away before we graduated. Our school was mainly white, with growing numbers of the children of Mexican immigrants with whom the white kids didn’t mix a lot. So, most of us white kids didn’t have either formal education or personal experience to teach us about the realities of being poor and non-white in America.

For me, then, the life and death of Dr. King didn’t change anything—until I became and adult.

At university I finally began to learn about the realities of race in America, and that picked up pace toward the end of my university years when I came out and wanted to know everything about other oppressed people and, especially, what things they’d done successfully to change society: I wanted to learn from their experience.

Through that process, Dr. King became a personal hero of mine. A large part of my own single-minded determination to demand justice for LGBT people, and refusal to settle for anything less, is directly attributable to the inspiration I drew from Dr. King. That also led me to seek alliances with other non-LGBT oppressed people in society where possible—and, for many reasons, it wasn’t always possible—so that together we might make the world a better place.

All of which goes to show that Dr. King’s optimism wasn’t misplaced: People can grow beyond the world they knew to help build a better one. Also, (almost) no one is a lost cause, not matter how it may sometimes seem.

My dad was a good man who tried to do the right thing, but he, too, was the result of the world he was raised in and knew. I remember him making what we’d now call racist jokes that were, by way of description, mostly in the minstrel show sort, not vicious ones. I also know that as a Republican he wasn’t a particularly big fan of Dr. King’s work, though he shared many of the same theological views. When Dr. King was assassinated, he was extremely subdued and was saddened. Sure, he didn’t agree with Dr. King’s politics or perhaps tactics, but he didn’t want him dead, either. By the end of his life, my dad had become a much more socially aware person, much more evolved, and we had many good discussions about fixing what was wrong with society. Dr. King was more of a direct influence on me than he was on my dad, to be honest, but it’s fair to say that the passage of time helped even my dad to take on board some of what Dr. King tried to do.

American society in general is better than it was fifty years ago, but far from where it should be. Poor black and brown people still struggle and feature at the wrong end of every statistic. Unarmed black men are still dying from police bullets. White supremacism has become resurgent since the 2016 presidential election. And, while the black middle class exists, it has declined from 2001-15, and remains stubbornly lower than the percentage of middle class white people. That’s largely because of the stark reality of America: In general, a white kid is seen as their economic class, a black kid as their race. Being middle class won’t protect a black kid from prejudice, racism, or being shot by a cop without cause, and not even large wealth can protect them.

When President Obama was elected in 2008, lots of white people—good people—said it was the start of “post-racial America”, something that made anyone who’d been part of the struggles for social justice cringe. We knew it was nonsense, and within two years the rise of the openly racist “tea party” movement showed how “post-racial America” was a delusional fantasy. The 2016 election raised the volume on America’s racist reality to 11.

Despite all that, America IS better than it was when Dr. King was murdered. There have been millions of people inspired to be better and do better and to demand better. And for every drooling racist carrying a badly-spelled protest sign and Confederate flag, there are thousands who are repulsed by that behaviour. There are plenty of white people who want to end racism and racist behaviour in themselves and others. All of those are things to inspire hope.

As a gay man, I’ve seen the current regime in Washington working hard to undo all the progress that LGBT people have achieved over the past 10-15 years, so I can imagine how the regime’s active racism must feel to black and brown people, as if all the progress of the past half century is about to be erased. And yet we see signs of hope that this regime may be contained later this year, and, if so, defeated in two years. To ensure that happens, hard work will be required.

The USA has so very far to go before achieving Dr. King’s dream. Not only is the promised land he glimpsed still over that mountaintop, the mountain is much higher than any of us could have imagined. But Dr. King gave us hope that it’s possible to climb over that mountain, that hard work, determination, and complete commitment to the non-violent demand for justice will get us there. Dr. King never gave up then, and we can’t give up now.

Having a symbol of hope was important fifty years ago, and it still is today. That’s the thing about human symbols: They continue to show the way long after they’re gone.

Photo above: By Nobel Foundation [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


rogerogreen said...

"post-racial" (snort). Sorry. Good piece, which I'll figure how to use in a post eventually,

Arthur Schenck (AmeriNZ) said...

Right? I can't help rolling my eyes whenever anybody uses that without irony or sarcasm. 😕