It’s Martin Luther King Day.
We could have a game. I’ll list all of the typical responses to King and his day and we’ll all run around the internet looking for instances of them, first one to find them all wins a photo of my here-to-fore underphotographed left boob.
I’m thinking of things like
–Why do black people get their own day? White people don’t get one.
–King was a plagiarist and a communist.
–King said, “I have a dream that my four little 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.” therefore we owe it to him to quickly do away with affirmative action.
Yeah, really, I’m thinking of how much we white folks love that line. Let’s see it again, shall we?
I have a dream that my four little 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.
A whole speech full of stuff we ignore just so we can skip ahead to the part we think requires black people to stop asking us to acknowledge that their skin color matters. Yep, we’re suckers for calls for racial justice that put us on the side of the angels (see Freedom Writers).
But King isn’t calling for a society that is willfully colorblind. Blackness matters. Whiteness matters. He looks forward to a time when “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers,” a time when, “all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands.” He’s not calling for some utopia* where everyone only sees each other as brothers and sisters.
He’s aiming for a reachable point where we at least see each other also as brothers and sisters.
He’s not saying that this state is reached by judging his children only by the contents of their character; he’s saying that we will realize we’ve reached this state when his children are judged only by the contents of their character. We tend to confuse the results with the process.
And, frankly, for good reason. Because the process he outlines is difficult.
We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny and their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.
As we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall march ahead. We cannot turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied, as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We can never be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.
We, white and black, have to realize that our destinies are tied together and that our freedoms are bound to each other. And then, we must work for real change, change that by King’s standard, we’re not very far along on. Black men are still regularly victims of unspeakable horrors of police brutality. There are still plenty of places where black folks know they aren’t welcome. There are still disenfranchised voters in Mississippi (and the rest of the country) and there are still plenty of folks who believe they have nothing to vote for. And, while these things remain serious problems for black people, they’ve become systemic for all of us (because, to reiterate, our destinies are tied together).
Anyway, my point is that we’ve done a great disservice to King’s legacy by turning him into some easy-to-live-with dynamic public speaker instead of remembering him as the prophet** he was.
*There’s a way in which wanting to read King as some kind of utopian can be seen as the same urge that faults him for having human fallacies, that urge to create unspoken standards and then fault him for not living up to them.
**In the “here’s what’s fucked up about society and here’s what God’s people need to do about changing it and here’s how we’ll recognize when the change has happened” sense, not in the “I see a bright future where we can all just forget about this unpleasantness” way. Prophet, not fortune teller.
Sorry we didn’t finish up with the game. I got distracted by my larger point.