Monday, January 20, 2014

King's Character Content Quotient

Putting words in his mouth.

Today is the day we honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Some people will mark the occasion by attending a civic parade, marching down a road that used to be called something else, but is now called "Martin Luther King Boulevard," because it runs through a predominantly black neighborhood.  Others will perhaps participate in some act of charity or public-spirited endeavor, like painting the outside of a house in a run-down part of town, that just happens to be owned by a widowed elderly black lady.

Some corporations will give their employees time to participate in these conventional racially-themed activities as a good-will gesture.  They'll make sure local television news cameras are on-hand to capture the scene as blacks and whites, who ordinarily labor harmoniously alongside each other in their rewarding white-collar jobs, are hard at work happily making life just a little bit better for somebody whom corporate America would otherwise ignore.

Like a lot of American holidays, Martin Luther King Day is a day for pretension, and lately, in addition to the parades and Habitat for Humanity PR stunts, people try to vocalize what Dr. King would say if he were alive today.  They imagine how he would view the civil rights struggle, fifty years after his assassination.  He would be 84 by now; about to turn 85 in April.  Granted, black men of his generation did not have a very robust life expectancy, even if they weren't the target of an assassin's bullet.

Whomever the assassin(s) was(were).

James Earl Ray was the man officials accused of pulling the trigger, and initially, Ray confessed.  But he quickly recanted, and spend the rest of his life claiming King's death was the result of a conspiracy.  In 1999, the King family officially lent credence to Ray's claims, although all the facts may never be known.

And speaking of life expectancy, the doctor who performed King's autopsy said the civil rights leader may have been 39 calendar years old when he died, but the ravages of his struggle had worn his heart down to a 60-year-old's.

Here in Dallas last week, one of the TV stations broadcast some video from an elementary school's assembly in honor of King, and one little girl trying to complete the sentence, "what would Dr. King say today?"  She perhaps gave the best answer that could be given when she stated simply, "I don't know."  No platitudes, no poetry; but she did add something else, to the effect that "whatever he'd say, he probably wouldn't be satisfied with where we are."

And that's true enough, don't you think?  Both the probability of his not being satisfied, but also our genuine lack of knowledge of how he himself might have been transformed personally, not just politically or socially.  If he'd never been killed, had never died from a prematurely-aged heart, and were alive today, perhaps he'd have run for office at some time during these intervening 50 years.  Or maybe one of his children would have run.  But it's hard to tell how much he could have accomplished as a legislator from Georgia, especially considering the Deep South's protracted acquiescence to civil rights - even in the wake of King's assassination.

Then too, it's hard to tell what life would have been like if society hadn't reacted so decisively to the death of such an iconic figure as King.  When President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, some scholars have said that the shock of such an audacious attack on the leader of the free world - whether Democrat or Republican - actually galvanized both legislators and voters.  Kennedy's successor, Lyndon Johnson, was a bulldog of a politician, yet he may have had an even easier time hammering through the assassinated president's legacy legislation based as much on sympathy and political correctness in the face of patriotic fervor, as much as anything else.  Might King's legacy similarly be greater today because he was assassinated, instead of being left to live out his life?  After all, an early death has a way of granting history the chance to enshrine the memory of a life so publicly cut short.  Given the chance to live out that life naturally, there's always the chance a person could blow it.  For King, he had those widely rumored affairs with women not his wife, and the FBI was apparently convinced that he was a closet Communist.  With all due respect to King's memory, personal indiscretion and government-instigated slander have brought down mightier public personages.

At the end of the day, it doesn't really matter what King would say today.  The fact is that while he was alive, King put his voice to a good many ideologies that, frankly, our Founding Fathers should have incorporated into our country's incorporation papers.  Don't forget that after the American Revolution, not only were slaves - and howevermany free blacks there were - not eligible to vote, women and men who didn't own land weren't, either.  Weird, huh?  If somebody today were to read some of King's greatest speeches without knowing who he was, much of what he encourages American society to be is, technically, little more than what we've idealized our Founding Fathers to have intended for our country.  For King to be calling for that idealized America still, over 175 years after the birth of our country, casts him in as positive a light as it casts the people who were supposed to be forming this "more perfect union" in a negative one.

"Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging dark of segregation to say, 'Wait.'  But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim... when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you go forever fighting a degenerating sense of 'nobodiness then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.  There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair."  - from "Letter from Birmingham Jail"

And then there is King's dream that makes one wonder what what the Founding Fathers would have said, had they been alive to hear King proclaim it from the steps of the Lincoln memorial in 1963:

"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." - from "I Have a Dream" speech

Of course, being judged by the content of one's character is a two-way street, isn't it?  The very people whose personal characteristics include bigotry are the ones who could be judged as not being worthy of emulation or honor.  But they were the ones to whom King was appealing, and even today, to whom his legacy continues to call.  People not only with white skin, you understand, but blacks, Hispanics, Middle-Easterners, Jews, rich, poor, educated, uneducated, Asians, Democrats, Republicans, Tea Partiers...

If King were alive today, what might he say about the status of race relations in the United States?

How about something like this:  "well, unfortunately, Americans have progressed on race about as far as they've progressed on judging anybody else by the content of their character."

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