Well, it’s not officially Martin Luther King Day yet, but since Dr. King was born on January 15 and would be 79 years old tomorrow, better to talk about him today than next week. What a legacy. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. One of the great American patriots of all time. Yet his generation of civil rights activists and righteous protesters have done as much harm to his legacy as have conservatives evoking his “I Have a Dream” speech to distract us from their bigotry and greed.
Yeah, that’s right. I said it. It’s something I’ve seen almost my whole life. One of the benefits — if you want to call it that — of being born in 1969 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 a former high school administrator whose statement 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, as if I should’ve been born at least ten years earlier. On April 4th, it’ll be four decades since Dr. King was executed on a motel balcony in Memphis, but we’re still discussing the Civil Rights era as if “We Shall Overcome” will truly carry us to the Promised Land.
What’s happened in those forty years? 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 four decades 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 the last forty years, he wouldn’t have stood by to allow his generation to constantly criticize the under-forty as slackers and immature and unfocused, as folks more concerned with money than equality, as people more willing to give up rights than fight for them. He likely would’ve made the point that the post-Civil Rights generations 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 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 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 or work for.
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. It didn’t 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’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 belongs 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 it’s then that 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.