Next week, on August 28, 2011, the National Mall in Washington D.C. will be unveiling the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. This day will also mark the 48th Anniversary of the famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
America has been unimaginably lucky. Some of our Presidents were great writers, and some were great speakers. Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior’s writings, plus his speeches, stand with the best from our Presidents.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Check out his Letter from the Birmingham Jail. He wrote it on whatever paper he could find in jail. Read it aloud. Feel the rhythms on your tongue and hear his voice. See how wide-ranging his intellect was. The depth of his arguments. See how persuasive he was. And the breadth of his empathy for humanity.
Put yourself in jail, in his place, and imagine the best you could do under those same situations. He began writing his famous letter on strips of paper slipped to him in jail. More amazingly, he even apologized for its length: “I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing it from a comfortable desk, but what else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?”
America should be grateful a man like Martin Luther King lived, even if for such a short while. He gave us so much that has had such a great impact on our lives, on our national identity, even the direction our future might be taking.
In fact, we Americans are very grateful that MLK lived. That is what the national holiday of his birthday is about. He earned and thus deserves that recognition because –- in addition to his work in civil rights -– he was one of America’s greatest orators and one of America’s greatest writers.
On the eve of his assassination, King put aside his own doubts and fatigue, cast off threats against his own life, and rallied the crowd to the cause he had taken up so many years before.
“Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop and I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will, and He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over, and I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight, that we as a people will get to the Promised Land. So I'm happy, tonight; I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
Do not take my word for this appreciation of the man, either.
As David J. Garrow wrote for the Los Angeles Times back in January, 2002, “The best source for appreciating (Dr. Martin Luther) King's deep humility is also the most deliciously ironic: the hundreds and hundreds of King's telephone conversations that J. Edgar Hoover's FBI secretly taped and that have been publicly available for more than 15 years, thanks to the federal Freedom of Information Act. The FBI's intent was to damage King's reputation through evidence of either communist-affiliated advisors or sexual indiscretions, but instead the agency generated a documentary record that time and again attests to King's selfless nobility.”
Martin Luther King wrote,
“I'm Tired of Violence. I've decided that I'm going to do battle for my philosophy. You ought to believe something in life, believe that thing so fervently that you will stand up with it till the end of your days. I can't make myself believe that God wants me to hate. I'm tired of violence. And I'm not going to let my oppressor dictate to me what method I must use. We have a power, power that can't be found in Molotov cocktails, but we do have a power. Power that cannot be found in bullets and guns, but we have a power. It is a power as old as the insights of Jesus of Nazareth and as modern as the techniques of Mahatma Gandhi.”
In this united-we-sometimes-stand nation, we need, for instance, to keep reminding new generations of Americans that hundreds of white Tulsans burned and looted the black Greenwood section of that city in 1921, leaving an estimated 50 whites and 150 to 200 blacks dead in their wake. No one was convicted for the murders, larceny or arson.
The Tulsa riot was not the only such event in this country. Similar episodes happened in Wilmington, N.C., in 1898, Atlanta in 1906, Springfield, Ill., in 1908, east St. Louis in 1917, Chicago in 1919 and Detroit in 1943.
Now add the sordid history of lynching in post-Reconstruction America. This mostly Southern pastime claimed the lives of nearly 5,000 people, the vast majority of them black, between 1882 and 1968 — an average of one lynching per week.
The rationale provided by apologists of this atrocious act, in which participants were known to mutilate their victims and keep body parts for souvenirs, was that outlaw blacks needed to be controlled for the safety of whites.
All are part of black history in America.
Supposedly colorblind conservatives love to recall a famous line from Martin Luther King's most celebrated speech: ''I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.''
But in that same speech, King also talked about a ''promissory note'' of unpaid rights due to America's darker-hued citizens — a point reparation opponents don't allow to get in the way of their efforts to co-opt ''the dream.''
Racism: that's just the way things are in America. Nope. You’re imagining that. Much of who we Americans are stuck with (and wish we could get over with) started with Chris Columbus. This shaky structure we call “race” was constructed haphazardly, with inferior materials, by thieves who wanted to line their pockets without us catching on how they were manipulating us. Yes, racists were and are thieves ripping us off.
By 1770 in the state of Georgia, the white elite owned slaves at several hundred coastal plantations. The Governor and the Lieutenant Governor together owned 12 plantations, 50,000 acres and 800 slaves. Statewide, there were 15,000 Africans. In fact, the state population was 80% African.
Later on, after the revolution wherein all men were created equally, the glorious symbol of America, the US Capitol Building, would be built with . . . slave labor. The anguish still lingers.
Racism is a system of oppression. It has its own history and its own logic. It is self-perpetuating. Its goals are to dominate and to subjugate. Racism says where some individual gets “located” in a system. After all, “who you are” is who you say you are and where we have placed you. If you don't “know your place,” then you are “an uppity (fill in the blank.)” If I am rich, and you're not, then you are inferior in so many ways to me.
In the USA, sex and race have always been the major issues, the major categorizers, and then comes social class. Sex (gender) discrimination is fairly straightforward and often more easily understood and recognized. Males & females are polar opposites. Easy seeing how one could dominate and patronize the other. Harder justifying it, of course. The more we try justifying it, the weaker our argument becomes, and the goofier we sound.
Certain Americans “created” and “constructed” the “race issue” in order to enslave for financial reasons. Now we are all paying the costs of that racism.
In the same way, America was founded according to social class. In the earliest days of America, you needed to own property to vote. Consider how we still stigmatize “poor white trash” or “trailer trash.” Notice we added skin color to further humiliate the poor.
Racism is a social construction. It is political. There is no consistency to racial issues. In the past Europeans saw themselves as white, but at the same time Greeks were Orientals, while dark-skinned Spaniards were white. Under British rule in South Africa, Japanese were whites while Chinese were “colored.” In today's America, we distinguish between (white) Cubans and (black) Haitians. Where one race ends, another begins. Race is amateur biology. Social Darwinism means that I am rich and you're poor, so I belong to a superior race. Which is hogwash and nonsense.
In the United States the whites define who is black. In the United States, our views on race relations are very rigid, while in Brazil race relations are much more relaxed. (Unless you are dark and live there, of course.)
Racism has a long history of being used to rationalize or justify how the wealth has been distributed. “Show me the money!” often leads us right into the racists’ roost.
Contrary to the historical amnesia and revisionism of Congresswoman Michele Bachman and her BFFs, most framers of the Constitution were from the merchant class, were land owners and land speculators, and slave owners. They liked slavery; they got rich off it. George Washington was well-known as the richest man in the colonies. John Marshall and John Adams were slave-owners. As President, Thomas Jefferson signed the 1807 Importation of Slaves Act. He had inherited 100 slaves. More slaves imported in the colonies would lessen the value of his property. When he died, he had his slaves sold to pay off his creditors. Except his mistress and his children with her. (Can a slave be a consenting adult? Nope. Sally Hemings remains a slave.)
“Droit de signeur” was “the right of the lord” to take the new bride on her wedding night away from her husband. In the British Caribbean, the children of a black woman and a white man were “born free.” On the American mainland, mulatto children were born slaves and were slaves for life. Well, that seems fair, doesn't it? Or did profit enter in? What a great idea! Sell off the evidence of rape and go to church on Sunday with a clean heart.
Yes, racism is also an integral part of our religious heritage in America. After all, Christians can be slave-owners. Check out the runaway slave in the New Testament book of Philemon. Using that text to build upon (but also many others,) back in the very early 18th century, slaveholders were told that, yes, they should convert and then baptize their slaves into Christianity. Luckily, the Pulpit Bullies said, the black slaves will have an equal but separate salvation. Oh, the slaves will go to heaven. Just not OURS. (Whew! Got scared there for a moment.) By the way, ministers could buy slaves; slaves were a sign of the church's prosperity. Hallelujah!
We see this religious hypocrisy in Huckleberry Finn when he rejects turning Jim into the authorities as a runaway slave.
“I was a-trembling, because I'd got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself, “All right, then, I'll GO to hell.”
Remember the Alamo! The Mexican government abolished slavery in 1829. The Southern white colonists in Texas hated this. They formed their own racist republic. For many blacks in Texas, Juneteenth is the real Independence Day. That day commemorates June 19, 1865, the day slaves in Texas learned of their freedom — more than two years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. The news came from Union troops who landed in Galveston. (What? Tell our slaves they’re free?)
Racism is a cruel agenda to perpetuate nonsensical bullshit. Believing that you can equate “nation” and “race” is absurd and arbitrary, pseudo-science, what Hitler tried. Is Winston Churchill an American because his mother was?
Cultural historian Jacques Barzun writes in “From Dawn to Decadence,” that “Equating nation with race defied the most elementary knowledge of history. From time immemmorial, Europe and America have been playgrounds of miscegenation. Celts, Picts, Iberians, Etruscans, Romans, Latins, Huns, Slavs, Tartars, Gypsies, Arabs, Jews, Hittites, Berbers, Goths, Franks, Angles, Jutes, Saxons, Vikings, Normans, and a host of lesser tribes once thought distinct mingled in and around the Roman empire, a vast mongrel population.”
King Baudouin of Belgium (1930 – 1993) said, “America has been called a melting pot, but it seems better to call it a mosaic, for in it each nation, people or race which has come to its shores has been privileged to keep its individuality, contributing at the same time to the unified pattern of a new nation.”
Barack Obama is not our first black president. He is also half white. He is our first biracial, bicultural president. At Barack Obama's first press conference as president-elect, when asked what kind of dog he was considering for his two daughters, he mentioned shelter dogs, many of which, he said, “are mutts, like me.” Obama is a true American mosaic.
Racism can often be especially cruel and unusual because it is a sneak attack. Those subjected to a racist's attack most often don't do anything about it. For one thing, they're almost always caught off-guard. When it is minimally offensive, racism can feel like a bucket of ice water thrown on you. (More often, a stab in the back.) The episode is over quickly. Time to move on. Victims don't necessarily talk about it, either. Facing racism is a private pain, mostly. Usually it's not the first time, either. That too is the realities of race in America.
Yeah, yeah, old news. You’re yawning. I’m wasting your time.
Yet, three weeks ago, in Jackson, Mississippi, on June 27th (a Sunday morning just before dawn) two carloads of white teenagers, saying “let's go fuck with some niggers,” according to law enforcement officials, drove from a nearby (and predominately) Rankin county to the west side of Jackson. There they found and then attacked James Craig Anderson, a 49-year-old black man, an auto plant worker who was standing by his car in a parking lot.
First the teens beat Anderson repeatedly, yelled racial epithets, including “White Power!” according to witnesses. Then they climbed into their large Ford F250 green pickup truck, floored the gas, and drove the truck right over Anderson, killing him instantly.
What the gang of teens did not know was that a surveillance camera was focused on the parking lot that night, and many of the events, including the actual murder of Anderson, were captured live on videotape.
Afterwards they gloated. The leader of the thugs, an 18-year-old Deryl Dedmon, Jr., of Brandon, Mississippi, allegedly said, “I ran that nigger over,” in a phone conversation to the teens in the other car. He repeated the racial language in subsequent conversations, according to the law enforcement officials.
Yes, Dedmon has been charged with murder and could face two life sentences in connection with the killing.
I know; it’s just a fluke. A criminal aberration.
Since then, on August 2nd, Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colorado, sent a letter to Obama “apologizing for using a term some find insensitive.” In specific, Lamborn apologized after saying that being associated with President Barack Obama would be similar to touching a “tar baby.” He made the comment during an interview on a Denver radio station about proposals to raise the nation's debt ceiling in exchange for spending cuts. This slip of the tongue of course is not symptomatic of our nation’s abiding agenda fostering racism, some might say.
Since then, after President Obama’s private 50th birthday party at the White House, “Obama’s Hip-Hop BBQ Didn’t Create Jobs,” read the headline on an article on The Fox Nation, a conservative arm of FoxNews.com, which is owned by the News Corporation. Below the headline were photos of Mr. Obama and, separately, three black celebrities who attended the party, the basketball player Charles Barkley, the comedian Chris Rock and the rapper Jay-Z. Not pictured were any attendees of other racial backgrounds, like the actor Tom Hanks or Mayor Rahm Emanuel of Chicago.
The children visiting in Washington, D.C. today will lead America tomorrow. Our kids need this statue of Dr. King so they can repeal the devil’s merriment.