I was just talking to a friend of mine, with the television “celebration” of Martin Luther King day in the background. And we were talking about how false that celebration is in many ways. That people are often not celebrating the real person, but almost a Disney version of who he was, what he accomplished, and what life was like at the time he was around.
My friend grew up in Chicago. She became inspired towards political activism when Dr. King marched through her neighborhood. But she also remembers that, in her white neighborhood, people were openly talking about going out and bashing him with baseball bats. He was hated, and people wanted him dead. She said that even if you were a white person who just supported him or the movement he was a part of, you were a target for harassment, assault, and possibly murder as well. People openly and frequently used some of the vilest terms for black people possible when referring to him and his supporters.
She said the television portrayals make it look like most ordinary people loved him at the time he was making these speeches. If that had been true to the extent it’s portrayed at times, he wouldn’t have had so urgently to make those speeches and lead those protests. Many of the people who today celebrate their particular whitewashed (the double meaning there is intentional) idea of him, at the time would have been completely against him, possibly even among the ones advocating violence towards him, and that is rarely acknowledged.
Generally if a person makes big changes in the world, and people think they’re wonderful a long time after they’re dead, there’s a good chance that the same people wouldn’t have found them so wonderful when they were alive. Fighting racism means, among other things, getting white people to change. And most white people, find it all well and good to speak out against some kind of injustice if they think it’s not close to them and they won’t have to do anything about it. Dr. King forced change, and white people were not happy about the idea they had to change anything. He is far more palatable to the same exact sorts of people, after his death and when they can claim (inaccurately) that the fight they are fighting is all done and they don’t have to change anymore.
And that’s another thing rarely acknowledged — that the fight isn’t even close to over. Things have come a long way in some areas, but racism is alive and well in America. The television often makes it look like there was this awful thing going on and Dr. King came along and made inspiring speeches and fixed it. That’s the myth taught to children, but it isn’t the reality. Dr. King would probably be horrified by many aspects of racism and poverty in America if he saw them today. At the time he died, he was becoming more and more outspoken about these things. Many of the problems he noticed are still with us, and many of the problems he predicted came true.
I’ve seen or heard these television specials in the background my entire life, and I’ve always been vaguely unsettled by something about them. I’m glad my friend had enough political knowledge to articulate why: Because they’re not about the real events, but a warped version that is more palatable to certain powerful segments of American society. The real events were much more important, and involving much more serious conflict from far more people, than is usually let on in TV specials. For many white people, saying racism is bad, is just fine with them, until they have to change something they’re doing. That is as true then as it is now, but we’re led to believe that the problems are all over, or mostly over, when unfortunately we’ve barely begun in many areas.
So I’d like to celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King as a real person, who helped accomplish real things, and who would obviously not be remotely satisfied with the way things remain even after the accomplishments of the movement he was part of. And I’d like to celebrate him whether it happens to be the one particular day of the year dedicated to him or not. I’d also like to see white people stop talking about racism in the past tense, as if it was something fought and conquered sometime in the past that nobody has to worry about anymore, or as if it’s something white people don’t have to worry about anymore. It’s still going on in a big way, and white people are pretty close to the only people who have the luxury of not noticing it or pretending it doesn’t exist.