Last Thursday was officially MLK’s birthday. If he had somehow lived, not been brutally executed, survived the stress of his conversion of the Civil Rights Movement into a class and human rights struggle, the loss of friends and political support, the conservative shift of the country, not to mention his marriage, infidelities and children, he would be eighty years old as of now. Over the past year, and especially the past three months, all pundits and people have talked about are the glowing connections between King and Obama, between dream and dream fulfilled. I just don’t see it that way — I guess I already showed that with my posting last Thursday.
My wife reminded me of Aaron McGruder’s The Boondocks, an episode in which Dr. King had awaken from a coma to find himself in the late ’00s. His slow, methodical, preacher’s style of oratory wouldn’t have made it in a sound-bite driven era. His views on race, class, and other rights may have kept up or may not have, but either way, he would’ve been marginalized had he lived to this day. We would likely only bring King out on occasion, to remind ourselves of whatever we think he represents, kind of the way Muhammad Ali or John Hope Franklin gets treated these days. King certainly wouldn’t have a holiday named after him had he lived. So for folks who are constantly jawing about wouldn’t it have been great for King to have seen this day, it’s a bittersweet notion if we take that thought to its logical conclusion.
So, for all of the polling on Blacks and our much more positive views of race relations since Election Day, it’s really about euphoria. Plain and simple. I know, I’m guilty as charged myself. Obama’s election is a big step forward, a symbol of what America can do and be. And we — Black, White, Brown and Yellow — should and are celebrating Obama’s inauguration as if our best friend was elected president. But with all of this, Obama really is only a symbol. All of this will mean little in the everyday lives of poor people, especially the poor of color, of marginalized groups such as undocumented workers, gays and lesbians, Muslims and others if Obama merely remains a symbol. Or worse, turns out only to be as good a president as say, Bill Clinton.
I know that many folks my age and older think I’m an ingrate. Even with me laying out my story, telling some of my most private memories in heart-wrenching detail, there are those of you who’ll say, “How dare you!” As if the actions and ideas of the Civil Rights Movement are sacred, forever sacrosanct because of King’s blood, Medgar Evers’ blood, Malcolm X’s blood, even John Lewis’ blood. I realize that I couldn’t say anything to those completely wrapped in the bedsheets of the ’60s that would justify my “On Being An Unspecial American” dispatches. There more people like you than me, unfortunately, so I have to live with that.
Still, I must say what I have to say. I don’t think that the sufferings and struggles of the Civil Rights Movement benefited me in any substantial way. The symbols of the movement helped shape my thinking and relative optimism growing up. But the fruits of the movement never penetrated down to my family, my siblings or me. The Civil Rights Movement didn’t end poverty, or discrimination based on poverty intertwined with race. It didn’t change much the perceptions of my teachers when it came to my abilities or possibilities. To a person, if you asked most of my teachers between elementary school and college what they thought of my potential, they would’ve seen me as a nobody or as an underachiever who somehow just didn’t try hard enough. Most of my professors in the History Department at Pitt didn’t even want me in grad school, much less expect me to earn my degrees. My job search wasn’t aided by affirmative action, my publications by the mere fact that I needed a hand up and not a handout.
The sad fact is, often the hardest people to break through to were Blacks who did benefit from the Civil Rights Movement in real, tangible ways. The undertold story of the movement was how MLK’s death spurred government hiring of white-collar Blacks, colleges hiring Black professors and administrators, private philanthropic efforts at improving schools and eradicating poverty, corporate hiring of Blacks for human resources positions, and so on. These were the first fully professional African Americans I encountered outside of the classroom after finishing high school. Many of them found their initial jobs in that post-’68 window of efforts to realize the movement. By the time I met these folks, that optimism had long passed, in their organization or college, in their actions toward me, and in their hearts and minds.
The great Derrick Bell, in his Faces at the Bottom of the Well, tells an allegorical tale about the use of symbols in America when it comes to race. His fictional character says, “he,” The Man, that is, “only gives you when it will do him the most good!” That was certainly true in the years between ’68 and ’79, when many of the Blacks I’ve met in my professional life got their start and positions of gatekeeping influence or power. Of all of my work and post-high school educational experiences, these tended to be the worst. These folk were often too busy hanging on to their relative positions of power to be a mentor or even a supervisor to me.
Some, like Joe Trotter or my former boss during my undergrad summers at Westchester County Department of Community Mental Health, were too envious of where they thought I was headed in life to do anything other than “run interference” on my behalf. Sabotage is a much more accurate term. Even now, in the midst of a career transition, shopping a book and teaching part-time, I come across folks who “marched with King” or whose parents “marched with King” who somehow think that the symbol of the man gives them carte blanche to be gatekeepers in the lives of other, younger professional Blacks. Of course, I’ve met, worked for and with, and been friends with Whites and Latinos who have the same gatekeeping mentality around the Civil Rights Movement and race. It’s obviously unfair, but they’re also delusional, which makes for interesting conversation — which I’ll discuss in another blog.
I don’t need anyone to tell me to suck it up or make more of an effort than I already am. No duh, right? All I’m saying is that the current talk about going from Dream Deferred to Dream Fulfilled is something close to bs. Yes, for the Obamas, it’s Dream Fulfilled. But not all of us have dreams to be president. In fact, I’m certain that King didn’t foresee this reality when he gave his “I Have A Dream” speech in ’63. King’s dream, which has many interpretations, was as simple as it was complicated. To see the day when ordinary people could have and fulfill their ordinary aspirations and lead ordinary lives without the scourge of racism and racists to take that away from them. Anything else, even in all its extraordinary spectacle, is symbolism of what could be.
At eighty years and four days since MLK was born, far more than twenty percent of his work has been fulfilled. I doubt, though, we’re at eighty percent fulfillment of the Civil Rights Movement, or any other movement for that matter. At least twenty percent of us can and should only see the past forty plus years as a partial fulfillment, the rest being symbols that we can cash in one day, and hopefully soon. Certainly President Obama can help move all of us there in using his office as much more than a symbol, but only if hold his feet to the fire the same way we did with W in his last three and a half years in office. I remain hopeful, but I also remain watchful.