Perhaps the most famous episode of Aaron’s McGruder’s award-winning series The Boondocks was his “Return of the King,” which originally aired on the Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday in ’06. In it, King survived his ’68 assassination and came out of a coma into an early twenty-first century America and Black America in which his style of activism was no longer in vogue.
Instead, in McGruder’s vision, King came to realize how generations of younger Blacks have become lost in their overt materialism, as symbolized by ass-shaking, hip-hop and rap culture, the constant use of “nigga” in public, and the self-aggrandizement of Black televangelists and other purveyors of the cult of prosperity. In response, McGruder’s King said, “I’ve seen what’s around the corner, I’ve seen what’s over the horizon, and I promise you, you niggas have nothing to celebrate! And no, I won’t get there with you. I’m going to Canada!”
McGruder’s attempt to address the generational and socioeconomic divide between the Civil Rights generation and the post-civil rights generations that have followed is a limited one. It certainly represents well the views of a Black elite nurtured at the altar of the Civil Rights Movement. But despite the hilarity and the double-meanings, I don’t think that The Boondocks‘ “Return of the King” episode is even close to a decent representative of what King would’ve been like had he lived to see the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington and his “I Have A Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial.
Extrapolating from King’s last years:
The best and easiest guess in thinking about what King would’ve said or done in the years between that dreaded first Thursday in April ’68 and today would be to look at was King was doing in the last months of his life. Openly protesting the Vietnam War and the oppression of the poor and of color in the US and abroad. Breaking with other civil rights leaders on the Vietnam War and issue of addressing the collusion between institutional racism, income inequality and anti-union efforts in Memphis, in Chicago and in other places in the US.
Alienating a president in Lyndon Baines Johnson — the most radical support of civil rights and anti-poverty efforts of any president ever — was what King did in expanding his words and deeds beyond “I Have A Dream” and “We Shall Overcome” mobilizations to end segregation and overt racial discrimination. Moving beyond the grassroots movement paradigm of respectable Negroes (i.e., traditional church-going, middle and some working-class Blacks) to include Black men and women who weren’t relatively well-educated and in good jobs — like the sanitation workers in Memphis — was where King had already moved himself.
This is the King that would’ve evolved over the previous forty-five or so years had he lived. Based on this actual King, it would be a bit mystifying to hear him give speeches on, grant interviews for or write op-eds in which his main theme would be to eviscerate the American poor, Blacks and Latinos for buying into a material capitalistic hip-hop culture. Or to spend all of his waning moments lamenting the perpetual stereotype of teenage welfare mothers looking for a handout instead of a hand up. Or to devote his remaining energies to blaming Black males for their inability to wear waist-fitting pants and then connecting hip-hop to a criminal culture, a drug culture and general thuggery (That’s Bill Cosby’s and Don Lemon’s jobs, apparently).
King would’ve probably withdrawn from public life by now, maybe even to Canada, as McGruder’s version suggests. But not before an additional two or three decades in which he would’ve boldly gone after the military-industrial complex, corporate welfare, government corruption, the War on Drugs and insufficient investment in America’s public school and infrastructure. King would’ve seen all of them as factors that would have a negative impact on the life chances of the poor, especially poor African Americans.
Assessing blame – or not:
No doubt that King would’ve also found aspects of how Blacks have expressed themselves in pop culture and in the public sphere over the past four and half decades problematic. Yet based on the last years of his life, I think that he would’ve saved much of his ire for the aging Civil Rights generation for resting on their laurels and standing in judgment of younger Blacks, poor Blacks, or anyone else who didn’t follow directly in their now elitist footsteps. As King evolved in the four years, seven months and one week between the March on Washington and his assassination, so had his views of civil rights leadership. Well-meaning but pretentious, with the assumption that fixing the South would clear the way for Blacks of every socioeconomic strip everywhere.
What’s most important to realize, though, is that King, had he lived, would’ve seen what most Americans regardless of race have seen in their own lives. Decline in wealth and income, a gulf of a wealth between them and the top one-percent of income earners, a significant decline of well-paying union jobs replaced by minimum-wage non-union ones, rising unemployment, and expensive housing and healthcare. These are among so many other things that 240 to 270 million of us face on various levels that didn’t exist at the end of King’s life, things that disproportionately affect the poor, especially the poor and of color.
King and the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement:
The movement never evolved to address such issues, King would’ve said. Individuals did. Jesse Jackson, at least in the 1970s and 1980s, did. But the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement as a whole didn’t. They assumed that eliminating all forms of deliberate and overt discrimination in public institutions would bring down barriers for all African Americans. King would’ve said they were incorrect, and knew as much by the time of the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike in February and March ’68.
Despite the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (both of which have obviously been weakened by the Reagan Years and this year’s Supreme Court Shelby County v. Holder decision), the life chances for any Black person born into poverty haven’t improve much at all. They remain in segregated communities, despite the movement toward mixed housing. They send their kids to underfunded and overcrowded schools, despite the paternalistic efforts of the so-called education reform movement. Jobs that pay a living wage are few, and conditions that promote neighborhood stability are better but still rare.
To assume that Blacks a half-century removed from the March on Washington and King’s “I Have A Dream” speech would be eternally grateful for the triumphs of the Civil Rights Movement in the wake of subtle yet pervasive discrimination on the basis of both race and socioeconomic status is ludicrous. It would smack of the elitism in which those who benefited most from the movement have displayed over the years. I think King would’ve realized the same, certainly well before the turn of the twenty-first century.
That anyone poor and of color in particular can overcome such barriers to, say, earn a doctorate or write a book is something akin to a miracle. Or to become a professional athlete or a music artist, a bit more common, if stereotypical, for that matter. King would’ve seen this and brought an analysis to the legacy of civil rights that didn’t put the movement and its leaders on a pedestal or proclaim victory where defeat was obvious.
What King would’ve (maybe) done:
King wouldn’t have given speeches in the years after the height of the movement to Black Gen Xers where he would’ve said, “I’ve got mine. Now it’s time to get yours,” or blamed hip-hop culture for Black-on-Black crime. Instead, King would’ve listened, learned, facilitated and spoken without accusing those most vulnerable to discrimination of being the only ones at fault, if he would’ve faulted them at all. In terms of what he would’ve done beyond the attempt to form multiracial coalitions to fight for better conditions, it’s unclear. It would’ve been better than chest-thumping and belly aching, though.