Forty Years Later
Today is the fortieth anniversary of Doctor King’s murder as he stood outside his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. For the past week, anybody and everybody whose path crossed Doctor King’s path is coming forward and expressing the pain they felt when they heard that Doctor King was shot. Andrew Young was interviewed by Soledad O’Brien on CNN, Jessie Jackson was with another reporter expressing his sorrow over Doctor King, Doctor King’s speechwriter and former neighbor Doctor Vincent Harding has released a number of books and recounted what he was doing the day when Doctor King died.
It is truly amazing how emotionally sensitive we can become when we think of the civil rights icon. The percentage of people who still get teary when they think of the loss of Doctor King is extremely high. You would think they’ve never suffered any other loss in their life. I was listening to a discussion on National Public Radio about Reverend Jeremiah Wright and his relationship with Barack Obama when the conversation was momentarily directed. Somebody made a comparison between Reverend Wright and Doctor King. A caller recounted how she met Doctor King the day before he was murdered and she started to cry over the air. She was fourteen when he died. She is fifty four now.
Forty years later so many of us are still connected to the moment we had with Doctor King. What is really phenomenal is the fact that today there are so many white people who identify with Doctor King and his message of equality and empowerment for the black community. So many white people like to reflect on Doctor King’s messages of love and forgiveness but choose to overlook his messages about how corrupt the American government was with its attack on the Vietnamese people and the continued disregard for the rights of non white, non European people. A lot of white people want to conveniently forget that the dominant community was persecuting Doctor King. The man that was preaching love and understanding and patience was the same man that was being beaten, stabbed, attacked with dogs, sprayed with a water hose, spat on, stoned, and jailed. He was being investigated by the FBI. He had his phone tapped. And he was shot by white people.
While Doctor King was preaching non violence and talking about turning the other cheek his house was bombed. His life and the life of his family, his children, were threatened. Doctor King may have been an icon of peace but he was in fear for his life. Doctor King may not have carried a weapon but he had bodyguards to help ensure he kept his life as long as possible. But Doctor King also knew that every time he stepped out in public he was gambling with his life. He had dodged death a number of times. It was only a matter of time before he would be murdered. This country couldn’t protect one of the most popular Presidents in America’s history, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. How the hell could a handful of black people protect one of the most hated black men in America?
When Doctor King was assassinated forty years ago the vast majority of people in the dominant community celebrated. The voice of the most dangerous black man in America has been silenced. The status quo of white privilege and black subjugation would continue indefinitely. Let people everywhere know that black people who don’t know their place in America will pay the ultimate sacrifice for their impudence. Combined with the assassination of Malcolm X, the ability of the black community to organize was utterly destroyed. Like a chicken with its head cut off the black community thrashed around headless, without a purpose, and without a thought. When Doctor King paid the ultimate price no one was willing to step forward and continue the fight. Every one of his disciples scattered to the wind even though they all said they had, or say they have, the same goals in mind. If Doctor King’s death taught subsequent civil rights leaders anything it was the fact that you do not put yourself out there if you are not willing to pay the dominant community’s price.
Forty years later the black community is still running around like a chicken with its head cut off. When people in the black community are attacked by people in the dominant community, the black community turns inward and attacks each other. Michael Richards stands on stage and launches into a vicious racial tirade on black people in the audience. Don Imus uses his radio show to ridicule a predominantly black women’s basketball team as a bunch of nappy headed ho’s. Duane Chapman rebukes his son for having a nigger girlfriend. And what did the black community do?
Black children across the country are receiving seriously heavy prison terms for the most innocuous of crimes while white children are running amok. Famous icons from the white community attack black people and are given passes from so called black spokesmen. Black leaders want to stand in front of white people and berate the black community for not doing enough to end the subjugation of black people. But these same black leaders are as quiet as a church mouse during a funeral when the black community is clearly under attack. Pat Buchanan says black people should be on their knees thanking the white community for their subjugation. Where are the leaders of the black community to refute this racist opinion? Chances are the famous black leader that is beloved by the dominant community just as much if not more than the black community is simply too busy focusing their wrath on the black parents and people to notice the racism from the outside.
Forty years later the black community is still trying to come to terms with its relationship with the dominant community that works so diligently to protect white privilege. A lot of black people who have done well have become complacent and self satisfied with the current racial dysfunction. People like John White of Long Island, New York, who probably thought he and his family had ascended their racial handicap of blackness, received a painful reminder when he defended his family and property from a drunken white mob that showed up at his house to confront his son. John White now faces jail. And more black people will find themselves a victim of far from blind justice.
Many well to do blacks have separated themselves from the black community. Unfortunately, the dominant community that is mostly white will have a way to remind the well to do black people that they would do well to remember their place in the racial structure of things. In essence, the message is one of, you might be better than the average black person but don’t think you are the equal of the average white American.
The dominant community, predominantly white but with plenty of black people who believe that they are above any affiliation with the average black person who simply refuses to get their act together, will say that it isn’t their fault black people are too lazy or black people aren’t educated enough to compete with non blacks or black people don’t have a work ethic or black people don’t have the gumption to do what it takes to earn their way out of their predicament. However, as Stephen B. Oates quoted Doctor King, “A society that has done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years must now do something special for the Negro.”
The dominant community is quick to keep another Doctor King from obtaining a grasp and firing up the black community’s imagination. As soon as someone steps forward and unleashes a condemnation of the American establishment, the establishment recoils in an imitation of genuine horror. People from the establishment stand in their position of privilege feigning shock and surprise and say, those ungrateful black people are dissatisfied with the condition of the black community in this land of opportunity that opens its arms to all. Reverend Jeremiah Wright has the nerve to speak ill of America and the way this country subjugates its black community and denies the African American an equal share at the various opportunities of America.
Reverend Wright spoke truth and the dominant community came down hard on him in order to minimize his message. He is a crackpot. He is a throwback to an era that no longer exists. He is a bitter man stuck in the past. America is no longer like the society that would brazenly subjugate an entire community simply because of the color of their skin or their belief system. America is now much more sophisticated and subtle in its racist practices. And with much more sophisticated tools thanks to social science and more effective management of propaganda, our society can be engineered to be racist and the vast majority of people will be content to exist in this environment of disparity. Yes America is racist but what can you do about it? Yes America is racist but black people want special treatment.
Reverend Wright is not a crackpot living in the past. The disparity he spoke of didn’t happen just in the sixties. The disparity that Mr. Wright spoke of is a product of America’s society here and now. Reverend Wright isn’t speaking from some type of victim mentality perspective. He is a very successful religious leader who has given spiritual guidance to the American President. Reverend Wright was speaking about police who are quick to beat and kill black children. Reverend Wright was speaking about black people dying in a hail of bullets for walking home with groceries or going home to get dress for a wedding. Reverend Wright was speaking about black children being prosecuted for second degree attempted murder by an overly enthusiastic district attorney or of a black young man suffocated to death by seven boot camp guards. This is recent history, not sixties history.
And instead of the black community coming together to support Reverend Wright, and give credence to his message, he is allowed to whither away and disappear in a cloud of obscurity. Where are all the black leaders that are now crying today forty years after King was assassinated? Where is the support of King’s children who supposedly hold the welfare of the black community dear to their heart? Where are all the people who are working so diligently to establish the ninety million dollar King Memorial in the nation’s capitol? Where are all the high profile blacks who profess to have the black community’s wellbeing dear to their heart? Where are all the average black joes that revel in our blackness and long for the days when the black community had some kind of unity?
The hypocrisy of America is thick. It is thick enough that if a black person of Doctor King’s ilk was to try and bring attention to the racial disparity of America he or she would be dismissed as having a victim mentality or for being rooted in the past or whatever cliché can be employed to minimize his or her effectiveness. Every media outlet would attack with the full force of the corporate community moving as a single entity. And instead of the black community coming together to protect somebody who speaks on our behalf, we meekly abandon Reverend Wright to his retirement.
Doctor King would not be so quick to abandon Reverend Wright or anyone else who spoke truth so well. He would not be quick to tuck his tail between his legs and pretend all is well. This man who feared his life being snuffed out every single day had the courage to do what must be done anyway. These days, black leaders have too much to lose to speak out about disparity. Reverend Wright spoke his mind and now he’s retired. Black leaders, managers, well to dos, and others have too much to lose to speak about disparity with the same strength as Doctor King or as Reverend Wright.
We constantly refer to the day we have true racial equality as Doctor King’s dream. We forget that it wasn’t just his dream. It should have been a dream for all of us. Black people should remember to take ownership of this dream so that, now that Doctor King has passed on, we will continue to work diligently and do everything within our power to make sure we exist on a level comparable to the level people in the dominant community enjoys. It wasn’t Doctor King’s dream. It didn’t die when he died. We, the black community, are still dreaming.