21 January 2008

Dr. King’s Birthday (Observed)

Once a year, kids get out of school on a Monday in January and that seems to be the extent of interest many young people have in the observation of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday. Is it their fault that Dr. King's message of brotherhood and peace doesn't register more strongly with them? Or is it that, in their world, they've either grown up in a relatively peaceful time or that they consider such an ideal obselete? It's almost a paradox, but this generation of kids coming up today have had the best of the best while living in a world in which Americans fear terrorists; the closest thing to the civil rights movement, with its sporadic rioting and intense demonstrating, is the gay rights movement.

Yet, somehow, the gay community's fight for legal equality lacks the resonance with mainstream America that the movement for minority (chiefly African-American) rights held. Is it because people of all races have homophobia, or is it because those pursuing legal equality today have not resorted to the same high profile methods favored by their 60s predecessors? Some will read this and become irritated or even angered by the very mention of the gay rights movement in a blog about Dr. King and the civil rights movement. While we know that Dr. King was not, himself, a proponent of gay rights (he was once blackmailed with the threat of a rumor that he was gay), his message of brotherhood, peace and tolerance must be universal in order to have validity. The women's suffrage movement, the civil rights movement and now the gay rights movement are all part of an overarching march toward true equality. Without equal recognition of the validity of people of all backgrounds, we can never form the chorus Dr. King envisioned singing that old African spiritual.

I have much appreciation for Dr. King and his work; indeed, I owe a good deal of my identity as a liberal to his legacy. He stood tall in a turbulant time, and somehow managed to marshall an army to fight for what was right while resisting the urge to incite violence. He took a lot of heat for not being more militant, but he had a true vision of not only what was right, but the right way to fight for it. And yet, there are so many other significant contributors to the civil rights movement whose names erode a little bit more each year as Dr. King's name and legacy become more ensconced in our canon of great Americans.

Malcolm X and Rosa Parks are two names that continue to resonate, but many have forgotten the work of Senator/Reverend Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. (in many ways, Dr. King's forbear in the movement, though far more flambouyant). Today, it's not that big of a deal for Beyonce to go multi-platinum with an album, but few recall the way Josephine Baker confronted racism with dignity during the Harlem Renaissance. Jackie Robinson has been immortalized by Major League Baseball, his number 42 retired throughout both leagues; but what of Muhammad Ali, whom many younger people know only as a boxer and not as a man who set white supremacists into an uproar by defeating one white opponent after another? And if the legacy of "The Greatest" can be distilled into just boxing, what of boxer Jack Johnson, who to this day has yet to receive the pardon he rightly deserves?

In 2008, as we progress through our presidential primary season, Dr. King would no doubt find it remarkable that an African-American, Barack Obama, has a strong chance of emerging as the Democratic nominee for the presidency. And he would no doubt find it satisfying that Senator Obama's chief competition comes from Senator Hillary Clinton, a woman who has worked prominently over the years on behalf of African-Americans and issues relevant to their communities. It was postulated in an episode of The Boondocks that, were he alive today, Dr. King and his grand style of oratory would find no audience in today's soundbite-happy media. I agree his style is incompatible with the MTV-based format of the American media of today, but I disagree that he would not have found an audience. Perhaps he would have adapted, being as dynamic and charismatic as he was, and found a way to sell his message in thirty seconds. Of his entire "I Have a Dream" speech, the only part with which most Americans are familiar is the part wherein he describes a vision of unity; if the entire speech had just been that one part, he would have gotten through to many.

Beyond the confidence I have in Dr. King's ability to reach an audience, though, is the stronger reason I have for disagreeing with Boondocks's premise. The message Dr. King had was one of peace, of brotherhood, of equality, of fighting for what is right, of standing together to confront what is wrong. For Dr. King, it was a dream, but one he fought hard to bring closer to reality. Dr. King may have been the one to describe the dream, but he was far from the only one to have it. That dream exists in people across the world, even in people who have never heard of Dr. King's legacy. It existed before him and it will always exist, because it is ingrained in our values as a free people. We should not forget those who have given of themselves to realize the dream, certainly, but we should also never forget that the dream has not yet been realized. There is still much work to be done, and on this day of all others, I pause to reflect on how much work has already been done and how far we've come. Tomorrow, I will resume focusing on how much work there is yet to be done.

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