Monday, January 16, 2012

Celebrating King

Yesterday, January 15th, was the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s actual birthday.  Had he managed to live to the present, he would be 83.  For several reasons, I feel deeply motivated to write this year’s first Tower post about Dr. King, his influence on my life, and my less-than-happy feelings about his status in the present as well as the recently-dedicated King Memorial in Washington DC.

I was 16 when King was murdered on April 4, 1968 at the age of 39.  I’ve never forgotten (or entirely recovered from) the sense of loss, rage and helplessness I felt in response to what the King Family and many others (including the jury of a 1999 wrongful death suit) believe was a government conspiracy.

In addition to grief and anger, there were countless poignant moments in the initial wake of the assassination: for the nation, for the black community, within the civil rights movement, and in the lives of individuals.

The moment that occurred in my family was this: my [white] maternal grandmother, a poor, uneducated Russian-Jewish immigrant who, more than 50 years after emigrating to America could still barely speak English, was living with my parents and me at the time.  The night of the assassination, my folks and I were going to a neighborhood [activist] church for a memorial service and my grandmother said she wanted to go with us, because “he was a good man; this is a bad thing.”  At her funeral, my [black] father told this story, saying how moved he had been that this woman who had literally never set foot in a church in her life, willingly went and stood, linking arms with us, weeping and singing We Shall Overcome.

This year is the 25th anniversary of the federal holiday.  In the spirit of this occasion, I am consciously grateful to have lived when King lived, to have witnessed his work to combat the racism he so deeply understood lessens America’s greatness and impedes its progress.  And I still marvel at the courage and foresight he displayed (and the criticism he endured, even from his colleagues in the movement) when he broadened his message to include opposition to the Vietnam War and the destructive, enormous poverty in America, both of which he viewed as essential components of championing non-violence, justice and economic equality.

Martin Luther King, Jr. certainly deserves to be lauded as a great African-American icon.  But it has long pissed me off that, even to this day, he is not commonly recognized simply and truly as a great American by all Americans.  It is a telling, distasteful reminder that racism is still very much alive and well that he is not regarded as such by the general public – meaning white people, a considerable number of whom, both ordinary citizens and federal legislators, fought for years against establishing the King holiday, then, years later, doggedly opposed having a King Memorial in the nation’s capitol.

And that Memorial, which was supervised by a racially-diverse committee and should be a handsome, inspiring tribute, is instead a peculiar structure that is quite unattractive: carved out of a massive slab of white granite, barely resembles him (among other incorrect features, King’s signature mustache is hardly-visible or just plain missing ), and displays what many critics regard as an inappropriate (and heavily edited) King quotation.

The designer has had the chutzpa to “explain” that the quote problem was because of space limitations.  But what can possibly justify a design that didn’t incorporate sufficient space for a longer, much better and intact quote?  Dr. King wrote numerous books and countless hundreds of speeches and sermons – and this was the best they could come up with?  It makes me wonder just how much that diverse committee actually knew about King, his work and his writings.

Which brings me to my primary King-related pet peeve.  Aside from his 1963 March on Washington “I Have a Dream speech; his Mountaintop sermon, delivered the night before he died; and his book, Letter From a Birmingham Jail, many Americans of all ethnicities (particularly contemporary youth) are sadly unfamiliar with the content, even existence, of King’s extensive body of written work.  In essence, to the general public, King’s legacy has been reduced to a postage stamp’s worth of information, not unlike that about Honest Abe Lincoln and his log cabin, and George Washington’s chopped cherry tree.

I do rejoice today in the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as the brave, tenacious efforts of his widow, the late Coretta Scott King.  I also applaud the subsequent individual and collective accomplishments of their children.

But the country’s general understanding of black history seems to consist of this inadequate picture of Dr. King, along with the fact that George Washington Carver did marvelous things with peanuts; Madam C.J. Walker was the first to invent and market black hair care products; and Rosa Parks wouldn’t change her bus seat.  Most people don’t even know that in 1872, feminist Victoria Woodhull and abolitionist Frederick Douglass were the presidential/vice presidential candidates put forth by the independent Civil Rights Party.

It is my great hope that from this day forward, there will be an ever-increasing interest, understanding and appreciation for all that Dr. King achieved and espoused, because it has enormous pertinence to present-day America – as well as a considerable increase in the public’s familiarity with the much wider world of black history.  Until that happens, we as a people will never fully “overcome.”