The Falsehoods of a Civil Rights Movement Legacy

January 15, 2013

Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial statue, National Parks Service, Washington, DC, August 2, 2012. (NPS via Wikipedia). Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws, as this is a 2D picture of a 3D sculpture.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial statue, National Parks Service, Washington, DC, August 2, 2012. (NPS via Wikipedia). Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws, as this is a 2D picture of a 3D sculpture.

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.

Hundreds of thousands descended on Washington, DC's Lincoln Memorial August 28, 1963. (Marines' Photo via Wikipedia). In public domain.

Hundreds of thousands descend on Lincoln Memorial August 28, 1963. (Marines’ Photo via Wikipedia). In public domain.

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.

NYPD Stop and Frisk caption (actual details for photo unknown), August 2012. (http://thinkprogress.org).

NYPD Stop and Frisk caption (actual details for photo unknown), August 2012. (http://thinkprogress.org).

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.


My Last Day

June 10, 2011

My last day at MVHS was a complete blur of “goodbyes” to teachers and classmates who I considered friends and “good riddance” to some classmates and my wonderful incompetent and uncaring guidance counselor, Sylvia Fasulo. My eighth-period Health class was the last class I’d ever have at MVHS. It was the class where a drug-dealing-student who lived near East Lincoln and Sheridan had suggested that Saran Wrap was a good substitute for a condom. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that. After class, I walked down the second floor steps and the first floor halls of the high school to my locker one more time.

While clearing out my locker, Estelle Abel walked by and asked to meet with me. I went over to her office, and for the next fifteen minutes, she proceeded to explain to me how much of a disappointment I was while a student at MVHS. Abel claimed that I had underachieved throughout my four years as a student, that I should have been ranked in the top ten of my class, and that my performance in AP Physics was beyond abominable. All I could focus on was the amount of anger and emotion she possessed in her voice and eyes. You’d have thought that I’d been expelled from school or had raped her daughter.

There were two really odd things Abel said during her attack on my character. One was that I had let down the Black students of the school and “my community” by not finishing closer to the top of my class. She said, “You could’ve been a shining example of achievement to us,” all but hinting at Sam as the person I should’ve been like. I guess I did let my Black classmates down. I only ranked second in GPA among Black males and eighth among all African Americans and Afro-Caribbeans in my class.

Abel’s other comments really surprised me.”You don’t have any excuses! There is nothing going on at home that could justify your performance.” When I disagreed, the Science department head’s face turned stern. She said that nothing occurring in my life would ever compare to the problems Blacks faced “back in the 1960s . . . I marched with Dr. Martin Luther King!” My mind clicked off my eardrums at that point. Short of showing her my war wounds and having her meet my family, what could I possibly do or say to that?

I left her office feeling like my years at MVHS and in Humanities were just bullshit. I was in a mood and in a mode in which I needed someone to be there for me, to not judge me, but to save me again. If anyone had walked up to me on my way home to tell me how great a place Mount Vernon was to live in, I would either chewed them out or punched them in the jaw. Mount Vernon, MVHS, Humanities, 616. I saw them as different sides of the same box, a place of isolation, ignorance, abuse and apathy, a macabre place where only the stereotypical and the cool could survive.

My opinion about Mount Vernon hasn’t changed much in the twenty-four years since Estelle Abel acted an ass with me present. Despite all attempts by former classmates and former neighbors to make Mount Vernon sound like, say, the Black suburbs of Atlanta, it isn’t that place, not by a long shot. When one in five residents are below the poverty line, with a school district among the worst in the state (even though I know it’s getting better), a crime rate that would make folks in the DC area take notice, and with a generational and ethnic divide still in existence, I think that it’s difficult to argue that Mount Vernon is a great place to live. But then again, I’ve seen the worst the former “city on the move” has to offer.

I guess that it wasn’t all bad. I miss Clover Donuts, Papa’s Wong’s, Prisco’s Used TVs and Radios, the Army-Navy store, Mount Vernon Public Library, some of my teachers, and a few folks I did get along with. Those places of business mostly don’t exist, the libraries I go to now are just as good and the buildings much better maintained, and many of the folks I liked are either dead or scattered to the four corners of the Earth. I guess that you can’t go home again, in this case, thankfully so.

With the exception of a few friends, 616 and Crush #2, I really had left Mount Vernon in my mind by the time I walked out of MVHS for the last time as a student. There are some things I wished I could’ve done growing up there. Like hanging out more, going to the basketball games and other sporting events. Or spending more time at public gatherings in Hartley Park or at th Wilson Woods pool. Yet it wasn’t to be. I was a Mount Vernonite, in it, but certainly not of it.

Maybe that’s why I don’t feel like I’ve ever really had a hometown, why I prefer my remains to be scattered in Seattle or in the Atlantic than buried in the city of my birth. All I know is that by the time of my last day at MVHS, twenty-two years ago to the date and day, my hometown had shown no interest in me or in my success. That, folks, is reason enough to not see a place you grew up in as your own.


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