Sunday, January 20, 2008

MLK's Words Unfortunately Illustrate Our Return to Normalcy

I watched Soledad O'Brien's piece, MLK Papers: Words that Changed a Nation on CNN and as is always the case when I am visually reminded of how we've had to live in this country, the sights and sounds stirred up four of the five usual suspects: pain, anger, disgust, and resolve. But this time cynicism, the new kid on the block that had long been vying for the fifth spot in the suspects’ line-up, was firmly planted where hope used to dwell. Notwithstanding the "Normalcy - Never Again" working title of the "I Have a Dream" speech, there's overwhelming evidence of a return to normalcy for a lot of Blacks. In 1963, Dr. King was invited to lend his very visible and strategic support to marchers trying to desegregate businesses in Birmingham. Arrested and put in solitary confinement for “his defiance” (read – “Let’s put the uppity nigger in his place”), Dr. King read a newspaper article in which eight white Alabama clergymen published a statement asking the citizens of Birmingham to wait on the law to deal with the problems of racial inequity in the city. They warned citizens not to be led to demonstrate for change by outsiders saying, "We recognize the natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized. But we are convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely." In his quite lengthy April 16, 1963 response, "Letter from Birmingham Jail," Dr. King clearly made the case for the wise and timely demonstrations fueled by an impatience of a people tired of the rhetoric and inaction of whites regarding the leveling of the playing field. The reason my hope has been supplanted by cynicism can be summed up in this excerpt which is as relevant today as it was more than 40 years ago: "Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, 'Wait.' But…when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your 20 million Negro brothers smothering in an air-tight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society;…when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, never quite knowing what to expect next, and you are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of 'nobodiness." And before you get your panties in a bunch asking "What about Obama, Oprah, Cosby, etc.?" - let me ask you, "What about them?" It seems, even then, Dr. King had a clear understanding of the “what” about them as further down in his letter he said: “I began thinking about the fact that I stand in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community. One is a force of complacency, made up in part of Negroes who, as a result of long years of oppression, are so drained of self-respect and a sense of "somebodiness" that they have adjusted to segregation; and in part of a few middle class Negroes who, because of a degree of academic and economic security and because in some ways they profit by segregation, have become insensitive to the problems of the masses The other force is one of bitterness and hatred, and it comes perilously close to advocating violence. It is expressed in the various black nationalist groups that are springing up across the nation, the largest and best-known being Elijah Muhammad's Muslim movement. Nourished by the Negro's frustration over the continued existence of racial discrimination, this movement is made up of people who have lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded that the white man is an incorrigible "devil.” Had he lived to see 2008, his “middle class Negroes” would have been the now-upper class Negroes Obama, Winfrey, Cosby, et al who seem to have chosen the “burning house” game over the dream in my humble opinion. But then again, had he lived to see 2008, he may well have been the first Black president who could honestly represent a real change in America because he was not a bargainer for justice. His message was not dependent upon the group to which he was speaking at any given time. Could be my imagination, but when I hear Sen. Obama speak to a predominantly Black crowd, he seems to channel Dr. King for effect – very annoying. When the crowd is predominantly white, John F. Kennedy’s ghost seems to take over – also very annoying. Instead of channeling King for effect, he should take a page out of his book and speak to ALL of us as Dr. King spoke to those clergymen from his jail cell in Birmingham back in 1963 because it is just as necessary today as it was then. Anything less is a return to the “normalcy” of the two Americas against which Dr. King fought and for which he lost his life.

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