Note: I post this annually, but there's an important excerpt and update this time.
Where ever you are today (well, not today-today, because we all come together for rallies and marches and speeches today, but I mean on a regular "today"), look around and there is a pretty good chance that, had it not been for Martin Luther King, Jr. (and granted, other leaders of the American civil rights movement), your surroundings might look a little bit different. Some folks' surroundings (especially in places down here in TX) haven't changed much at all. Some people are grateful for the changes, some are resentful. Either way, we have come a long way and still have a long way to go towards racial, social and gender equality in this country.
Martin Luther King, Jr. understood that people were not going to change fast enough for the social climate to change back then. He got that we are a nation of laws (unfair as they were) and that it is more important to appeal to the courts (white as they were) than to the cold hearts of fellow Americans who were perfectly fine with the way things were. So they fought. And some laws changed. Today, the fight continues and the changes continue. As much as we would love to look to the White House, now inhabited by a black family, and say we are finally looking down from King's mountaintop , it is imperative that we recognize that we are not there yet.
And that's OKAY. For every 60, 70, 80 year old black person still harboring resentment from growing up and living in perpetual nobodiness, there are just as many or more 60, 70, 80 year old white folks still harboring resentment for the laws that made it possible for blacks to be treated like human beings. And these black and white people have raised children and their friends have raised children, and have very likely imparted their beliefs of racial inferiority or superiority to those children. So for every 20, 30, 40 year old black person who achieves a measurable level of education and success, there are just as many or more 20,30, 40 year old white folks who think their own ability to achieve is threatened by affirmative action. White privilege is alive and very real. Racism is alive and very real. We have made great strides, but we are not there yet.
Here is an excerpt from an essay I ran across this week from Daily Kos. It talks about King's most important accomplishment and it has nothing to do with his speech or the march. The most poignant and powerful thing about this essay, which I encourage you to read in it's entirety, is that the person writing it was there. This wasn't that long ago. We're still in healing mode, as a nation, but especially as black people:
"This is going to sound awful and perhaps a stain on my late father's memory, but when I was little, before the civil rights movement, my father taught me many, many humiliating practices in order to prevent the random, terroristic, berserk behavior of white people. The one I remember most is that when walking down the street in New York City side by side, hand in hand with my hero-father, if a white woman approached on the same sidewalk, I was to take off my hat and walk behind my father, because he had been taught in the south that black males for some reason were supposed to walk single file in the presence of any white lady. This was just one of many humiliating practices we were taught to prevent white people from going berserk. I remember a huge family reunion one August with my aunts and uncles and cousins gathered around my grandparent's vast breakfast table laden with food from the farm, and the state troopers drove up to the house with a car full of rifles and shotguns, and everyone went kind of weirdly blank. They put on the masks that black people used back then to not provoke white berserkness. My strong, valiant, self educated, articulate uncles, whom I adored, became shuffling, Step-N-Fetchits to avoid provoking the white men. Fortunately the troopers were only looking for an escaped convict. Afterward, the women, my aunts, were furious at the humiliating performance of the men, and said so, something that even a child could understand." Full Essay Here.
There might be a mountaintop up there, but we have not seen it. A few more generations from now, maybe hearts and minds will catch up with the laws and there might actually be racial, social and gender equality in the United States. Hope is enough for politicians and activists and citizens to keep fighting and winning awesome, small battles that amount to awesome, big changes. Hope is good for movement and growth and momentum.
I said all that to say that laws change overnight. People, intellectual values and grand sweeping ideas on race and equality do not. Martin Luther King, Jr. said it best, "It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important.”
I'm just sayin'.