MARTIN LUTHER KING DAY: Reflections On Race Relations
“And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land.” - Image: Wikimedia Commons
BY ERNEST COREA
WASHINGTON DC (IDN) - Senseless statements by a senior Senator and a defunct politician stirred the race relations pot even as most of the country prepared to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) Day, in honour of his life and work and his enduring legacy.
An ordained and practicing Christian minister, he was a committed follower of Mahatma Gandhi whose world view and political philosophy he sought to fold into his own struggle for racial justice and equality.
Gandhi’s influence was manifest in many of his statements and writings, as in his assertion: “Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time, the need for mankind to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence. Mankind must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression, and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.”
His moving rhetoric was inspirational, and his unique leadership helped to change the laws and practices that had held so many Americans in thrall. He was an incomparable leader, and he died as a martyr of the civil rights movement.
Now, more than two decades after President Reagan signed the legislation establishing Martin Luther King (MLK) Day, it is easy to forget how difficult it was for King’s supporters to reach that goal.
The first attempt to have Congress adopt a resolution creating a Martin Luther King Day failed. The effort continued, with strong support from the labour movement. Adding his voice in a special way was musician Stevie Wonder, who recorded “Happy Birthday” which was widely distributed to keep the spirits of King’s supporter strong, and win more adherents to the cause.
In the final attempt to move Congress, a petition with 6 million signatures was presented to both Houses. After prolonged discussion on and off the floor, a resolution was adopted by a majority of 338:90 in the House of Representatives and 78:22 in the Senate.
The suggestion that the day of celebration should be his birth date, January 15, was rejected, and the day fixed was the “third Monday in January.” This year: Jan. 18.
MLK Day was celebrated as a federal holiday for the first time in 1986. It was observed for the first time in all 50 states only in 2000, after South Carolina, the last hold out, fell in line and acknowledged the federal holiday as a state event.
The multi-ethnic nature of commemorative events as well as the range of activities undertaken both here and abroad -- from concerts and parades to voluntary service -- speak to the strength and breadth of King’s legacy.
The insensitive and imprudent comments that were the focus of public attention as Jan. 18 approached, reflected attitudes that had no rational connection with that legacy.
The lesser of these statements -- because of its source and the sentiments expressed -- came from Rod Blagojevich, impeached governor of Illinois, who has been under investigation on allegations of corruption.
He told “Esquire” magazine: “I'm blacker than Barack Obama. I shined shoes. I grew up in a five-room apartment. My father had a little laundromat in a black community not far from where we lived. I saw it all growing up."
Blagojevich is visibly non-black. His comment came out of nowhere. It was neither relevant nor accurate. The ruckus it created has since abated, with Blagojevich himself acknowledging that his comment was "stupid, stupid, stupid.”
The comment that had to be taken more seriously -- also because of its source, and the sentiments expressed -- was made by Senator Harry S. Reid, Majority Leader in the Senate, and a legislative ally of the White House on many matters.
"Game Change," a new book on the recent presidential election campaigns, co-authored by Mark Halperin of “Time” magazine and John Heilemann of “New York” magazine, reported that Sen. Reid, in listing Obama’s plus points as a candidate, had implied that he would benefit from being a "light-skinned" African American "with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one."
The comment was offensive for four reasons. First, it highlighted Obama’s ethnicity as his strong point, not his accomplishment and record which included voting against the war in Iraq. Second, it used the “N” word, which is now buried in the trash heap of forbidden expletives.
Third, he referred to a “light skin” which can be an incendiary description in the black community. Fourth, he inferred a sense of deceit on Obama’s part by suggesting that he was able and willing to fake dialect or patois when that would be advantageous.
The nature of the reaction to Reid’s insensitive comment was in many ways fascinating. Obama himself was at his serene “no drama, Obama” best. When Reid had apologised to him, and to everybody within hearing distance, Obama made a public statement in which he declared:
"Harry Reid called me today and apologized for an unfortunate comment reported today. I accepted Harry's apology without question because I've known him for years, I've seen the passionate leadership he's shown on issues of social justice and I know what's in his heart. As far as I am concerned, the book is closed."
Michelle Obama, similarly, “closed the book,” saying: “I measure people more on what they do, rather than the things they say.” National leaders of the black community, including Julian Bond and Al Sharpton, rushed to Reid’s defence.
Somehow, this only intensified the outcry. Much of the adverse comment came from the Republican Party. Senate Republicans called for Reid’s resignation. Others predicted his defeat at the next election. Liz Cheney, the former Vice President’s assertive daughter, went into attack mode. That’s politics.
Politics aside, however, the fact is that insensitive comments were made, and that they were made in a supposedly post-racial society, with an African American as elected president, and other African Americans holding positions of responsibility across the country.
Does that suggest that racist impulses are alive and well despite the great strides made in developing and enforcing laws that give the people equal protection? As King said: “It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can stop him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important.”
So how is that “love” to be nurtured? “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools,” King said. Often, it appears that there are too many self-destructive fools around. Nevertheless, had King been alive today, he would have taken great pride in the fact that -- without a shot being fired, or a Molotov cocktail exploding -- important positive trends have developed.
The reputed Pew Research Centre reported, based on a nationwide survey on race conducted in October-November 2009, that assessments by the African American community about their own progress improved during the past two years more than at any time in the past quarter century.
The Pew Centre’s research determined that “in the teeth of what may be the deepest recession since the Great Depression, nearly twice as many blacks now (39 percent) as in 2007 (20 percent) say that the situation of black people in this country is better than it was five years earlier, and this more positive view is apparent among blacks of all age groups and income levels.
“Looking ahead, blacks are even more upbeat. More than half (53 percent) say that life for blacks in the future will be better than it is now, while just 10 percent say it will be worse. In 2007, 44 percent said things would be better for blacks in the future, while 21 percent said they would be worse.”
Nevertheless, the Pew Centre found that “four decades after the turmoil, triumphs and tragedies of the Civil Rights era……more than eight-in-ten blacks -- compared with just over a third of whites -- say the country needs to make more changes to ensure that blacks have equal rights with whites.
“Blacks also continue to lag behind whites in their satisfaction with their lives and local communities, and most remain skeptical that the police treat blacks and whites equally.”
These negative assertions tie in with other data. The annual “State of the Dream” report published by “United for a Fair Economy” in conjunction with Martin Luther King Day claimed that African Americans and Hispanics are three times as likely as whites to be poor.
The same report said that the median income for African Americans and Hispanics was $27,800 while it was $170,400 for whites.
King never said that total fulfillment of his dream was going to be easy. But he still had a dream, though, as he said, “we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow.” That was at the Civil Rights March on Washington DC in 1963.
King also said: “And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land. So I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man.” That was in Memphis, Tennessee, the day before he was killed.
Progress has been made but “difficulties of today and tomorrow” remain to be overcome. The trends emerging from the Pew Centre’s nationwide survey demonstrate that they are being dismantled; perhaps, too slowly. (IDN-InDepthNews/16.01.2010)
Copyright © 2010 IDN-InDepthNews