Well, it’s not officially Martin Luther King Day yet, but since Dr. King was actually born on January 15, 1929, better for me to talk about him today than next week. Especially with President Obama’s second inaugural going on at the same time. But what a legacy! Yet his generation of civil rights activists and righteous protesters have done as much harm to his legacy as have conservatives invoking his “I Have a Dream” speech every time they’re called out on their bigotry.
Yeah, that’s right, I said it! One of the benefits — if you want to call it that — of being born in ’69 is that I’ve witnessed the devolution of the Civil Rights Movement and its leaders and followers into a gauntlet of gatekeepers who expect everyone from my generation to start every sentence paying homage to their sacrifices. I have no problems with that, at least in theory. But the reality is that most folks from the Civil Rights generation — at least the successful ones — made few if any sacrifices for “the cause.” They were in the right place at the right time with the right education and managed to find jobs, careers and positions of influence while the least fortunate of us all saw few material or psychological benefits from Dr. King’s ultimate sacrifice.
I’ve already talked at length about Estelle Abel, a former Mount Vernon High School Science Department chair (see my posts “My Last Day” from June ’11 and “In-Abel-ed” from June ’12 for much more). Her soliloquy about sacrifice and the Civil Rights Movement was supposed to make me feel bad about letting Black Mount Vernon, New York down because I only graduated fourteenth in my class out of over five hundred students. There are others, former and current teachers, professors, librarians, politicians, writers, producers, editors, pastors, politicians, bosses and charlatans who’ve made a point to discuss their elitist notions of the Civil Rights Movement and generation with me.
But most — if not all — of these folks are wrong about their glorified view of the Movement and its legacy four and a half decades later. For college educated, middle class African Americans, life has gotten better, even with bigotry, glass ceilings, DWB, a less stable economy, and the conservative backlash that has gone on unabated since the three years before Dr. King’s assassination. For Blacks not as fortunate, almost nothing has changed, at least not for the better.
Some of it, to be sure (and to cut Bill Cosby some slack), is because of individual choices and poor decision-making. Folks, however, can rarely make decisions outside of their own context and circumstances — think outside of the box, in other words — without a significant amount of help. Poverty in all of its forms is just as grinding now as it was a half-century ago. To expect people from the generations since Dr. King to suddenly forget their poverty, abuse, neglect and exploitation and give praise to a generation where many but far from most made sacrifices for the Movement is ludicrous.
I’m certain that had Dr. King lived over the past forty-five years, he wouldn’t have stood by to allow his generation to constantly criticize the under-forty-five as slackers and immature and unfocused, as folks more concerned with money than equality. King likely would’ve made the point that the post-Civil Rights Generations X and Y are merely a reflection of their upbringing, of their parents and teachers and mentors’ nurturing and training. He would’ve made the same point that others from his generation like the late law professor and scholar-activist Derrick Bell has made over the years. That fighting racism, educational neglect and economic exploitation requires more tools than the moral high-ground, protests, marches, a sympathetic media and obvious redneck tactics. The Movement is itself a shifting terrain that requires new tools and tactics to achieve small victories over a long period of time, longer than most folks from the era are willing to admit.
I actually don’t have a strong ax to grind against the Civil Rights generation. Without folks like Dr. King or Jesse Jackson, Medgar Evers or Ella Baker, I wouldn’t have found myself in a gifted-track program in middle school or high school in the ’80s. But let’s not act as if my life was a walk in the park. The legacy of the Civil Rights era never stopped a fist from being thrown into my face by my now ex-stepfather. It never kept us from going on welfare or kept two of my siblings from bring diagnosed as mentally retarded.
Nor did the Civil Rights Movement’s legacy stop teachers and professors from putting up barriers to my success as a student or employers from putting up a glass ceiling in an attempt to slow my career advance. It never stopped me from being followed and frisked by police or harassed by overzealous security guards. It’s never paid one of my bills, kept food on my plate or kept me from experiencing homelessness. It’s never even been a source of pride, because that would mean that the Civil Rights Movement and its legacy would belong to me as much as it does to the people who allegedly marched with Dr. King.
I can’t wait for those who cling almost in desperation to the idyllic legacy of Dr. King and the cause to retire and fade away, for the ’60s to truly be over. Maybe that’s when folks from the post-’60s generation — folks like me who care about economic and educational equity, social justice and spiritual transformation — will be able to make an impact on our nation’s sorry state of consciousness without pouring libations to folks who gave up on Dr. King’s work ages ago.