Today is Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday, a federal holiday in the United States. I’m still amazed I typed that sentence. Even at the age of 51, I never really thought there would be national holiday for a black man who was neither a president, nor even held political office. The younger generation seems to take this granted, but I don’t. I can’t.
When I was growing up, special bulletins were truly special. When a news program broke into a regularly televised show, it was a big deal and usually portended bad news. So on a overcast April day in 1968 when a special bulletin suddenly cut into a program to say that Martin Luther King had been shot, my eight year old mind took notice. I didn’t clearly understand his importance, but I knew it would be news to my parents. I woke my mother to tell her, and watched her face closely for a reaction. Her eyes filled with tears. “Well, the finally got him,” she said finally. My seemingly stalwart mother shocked me. Who was this man? Then she learned he’d died and I learned he was a black man, just like I was black girl. Even my naive self realized a news bulletin about a black man was a Big Deal. My father came home early. My parents sat grim and silent, watching riots break out that were somehow connected to this man. My father occasionally cursed. People on the news were sad and angry, even the newscaster. I could tell. Why would they want to shoot this man, I asked. Thus began my political awakening.
Although I had been dimly aware of the civil rights movement, I didn’t really understand until MLK’s death. After all, I lived in the supposedly liberal North, not the recently unsegregated South, so my little world was unaffected. I devoured every magazine and newspaper I could find, avidly watched the funeral and every program about him afterwards. I learned about inequality, injustice and evil in the world and the movement by many through the years to combat it. I memorized the “I Have A Dream” speech and vowed that if even one person – me, would remember the past with an eye to changing the future, then he would not have died in vain.
Once I was ridiculed for being idealistic and naive but I cling to that vow in the face of cynicism. Since the election of the country’s first black president, there has been a resurgence of fear and bigotry: covert and overt racism, Islamophobia, homophobia, and sexism. Some are calling it a backlash against political correctness. I call it national amnesia. With the passage of time and birth of new generations, there is a sense that history is dead and has nothing to do with present. This has always been a fallacy. We build upon the past, and if we don’t learn from it, we are fated to repeat it again until we get it right. It’s a vicious cycle.
So today there will be tributes to Dr. King and civil rights movement, and congratulations on how far the country has come because people no longer have to fear being hosed down in the street, fire bombed or lynched, and the president is black. People will act as the civil rights movement is thing of the past. But it’s important to stop and take notice when somebody says something derogatory about the Muslim neighbor across the street, or the president’s heritage, or women being responsible for their rapes, or the gay man who can’t visit his ailing partner in hospital. The civil rights movement was about justice and equality. His work is still alive; it’s just taken on a different form.
Nina Simone performed the following song live a few days after Dr. King’s assassination. It was used in a moving documentary called King: From Montgomery to Memphis produced in 1969. Unfortunately, I’ve lost the tape and have been unable to find the actual segment from the film but the following is close enough. It makes my heart hurt but says it all. To really celebrate Dr. King’s life, don’t let his death be in vain.
I conclude this tribute with his rousing speech, “I Have A Dream.”