Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
The day has added meaning this year. There are only three days left in the administration of our first black President; he is being replaced by a successor who embraces the fact that he is endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan, and has nominated several cabinet officers and advisers who openly espouse racism. This holiday should never be about lip service in the best of times, but this year I urgently feel that contemplation and conversation are in order. Clearly large numbers of Americans have got some other notion of what America is about.
I well remember when this holiday was instituted, for I had to hear my father’s loud complaints as it was debated in Congress from 1979 through 1983, which coincided with my time in high school. Rest assured that hatred of African Americans motivated these tirades, but there were other aspects of his animus that come closer to thought than passion and are thus easier to confront and deal with. Since we’ve just learned to our horror that millions of Americans continue to be hamstrung by these ancient prejudices, indeed they seem to be crawling out of the woodwork, and we’re looking at the continued prospect of gerrymandering, voter suppression, and much else (the most recent affront has been the President-elect’s insulting of Civil Rights icon Congressman John Lewis) it is clear that a civics lesson is in order.
White People, you are not the only people on earth. You are not the only people whose voices matter. You are not the only people who have UNALIENABLE RIGHTS, which the Declaration tells us were “Endowed by our Creator.” This means voting rights and equal treatment under the law are owed to everybody, not because it now says so on a piece of paper but because that is how it is. Humans are all the same, and are all due the same legal and moral and political considerations. This was denied for centuries by some who held all the power, but the injustice of that has been partially redressed in some measure by the law of the land, thanks to leaders like King.
To a good chunk of America, the above paragraph seems painfully obvious, but I can tell you from experience, to another chunk of America it is not. Those people see things a different way. We heard an articulation of it the other day, ironically enough from Dr. Ben Carson as he was he being vetted by a Congressional committee for the position of Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. When asked about housing discrimination against members of the LGBTQ community, his reply was “No one gets special rights.” A reply which has added irony given the fact that Dr. Carson is black and the Trumps were found guilty in the 1970s of discriminating against African Americans in property rentals. “No special rights”. The world has been governed by that convenient logic for ages. If subject to the end result of that logic, Dr. Carson himself could legally have been denied the opportunity to get the education that made him a great doctor, and may well make him a cabinet secretary.
Somehow, in the minds of some people, the rights theoretically enjoyed by all Americans, become “special” when the attempt is made to extend them to those who have been denied them. The only thing that makes this mindset possible is if you are denying humanity to the people you are demonizing. You are only seeing them in the light of the aspect that sets them apart. And so there’s this attitude on the part of some white people, “What’s this got to do with me? Why do we ALL need to celebrate a holiday honoring this black man, and the granting of civil rights to this one group of people?”
We’ll get to the justice aspect of it shortly, but even before that, there’s a selfish reason to honor the day. What all Americans (actually, all people everywhere) owe to the Civil Rights movement is the fulfillment and validation of the promise of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Without the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Right Act, those documents, which we’ve always claimed to live by, are nothing but meaningless hypocrisy, potentially as blind and deaf to the rights of all Americans as they had historically been to those with dark skin. King and his colleagues and followers forced the nation to recognize the truth of its own gospel and start living it. They did so by exercising their First Amendment rights to pressure political leaders to change laws. And there were powerful people every step along the way (including the highest levels of government and law enforcement) who tried to stop them, using every dirty trick at their disposal. But King succeeded anyway, and in doing so demonstrated to Americans the efficacy of their own system, and unmasked the un-American nature and tactics of those who tried to prevent that. Wiretaps, extortion, police dogs, water hoses, billy clubs, bombings, arson, murder. That’s the stuff of Tyranny, which theoretically America is supposed to be against.
And even if it weren’t about the broader promise. What if it were just about the rights of a single minority, what of it? The ancestors of white Americans kidnapped the ancestors of black Americans, shipped them en mass like cattle to another continent, enslaved them for over two centuries, then grudgingly freed them into a condition of despised second-class citizenship, where they remained for another century or more, and they’re owed nothing for that? Not even an apology? Not even the occasional celebration of their contributions? Not even a jingle in a public service announcement encouraging their children to succeed? I mean, what the hell?
I hate saying “their”; it’s awfully reminiscent of “You People”. But given a situation where some people demonize African Americans into some group enjoying “special rights”, it becomes necessary to point out that in a just world such a group has something — something positive — coming to them.
Legally, that’s a thorny problem, in the sense of reparations. Oprah is a billionaire, and some Italian immigrant who got here two minutes ago never had anything to do with slavery. But those of us whose ancestors kept slaves have a personal responsibility of some sort. If not a legal one, a spiritual one, a moral one. If you believe in inherited gifts and legacies and privileges than you also inherit responsibilities. I’ve come to feel it keenly, like a fire I’ve been standing very close to, or an injury when the anesthesia wears off. It is a dawning. “Holy Christ — what have I been sleeping through?!” On a legal level, something like a Federal holiday is the very least we can do as a nation. It’s about as minor and painless as it gets. But STILL there are millions of people who have a problem with as little as THAT. They don’t just have a problem with it. They seethe with anger, they get red in the face about it. Yell at the TV about it. Something about this symbolic gesture alienates them. It sounds laughably obvious, but the media shies from saying it outright: the only reason people would react this way is if they hate black people and/or they don’t recognize a responsibility.
But if you are white and you live in America, you DO have responsibility. First, because you enjoy privileges you don’t even know about, or won’t acknowledge. Cops and neighborhood patrols tend not to kill you outright for walking in the wrong neighborhood or having a broken tail light. Employers are more likely to consider you for a position. There are statistics on this stuff. It happens to be factual — whether you live in a mansion or a trailer park. You may not be rich, White Person, but you’re still not getting called “nigger” or getting snuffed in your jail cell for mouthing off to a traffic officer.
The second reason you have responsibility is that, as we said above, the odds are extremely good that you have a literal duty. The reason I’ve been harping on this for two years is that I’ve done my family history. I’ve found plenty to be proud of. And plenty NOT to be proud of. As we wrote here, many of my ancestors and relatives owned slaves. Some of my relatives fought for the Confederacy ; some rode with Nathan Bedford Forrest. At the time the first iteration of the Ku Klux Klan was founded in Pulaski, Tennessee in the wake the Civil War, my great-great grandparents lived one county over, in Fayetteville, where 100% of the residents had voted for secession. My relative Alfred Holt Colquitt was a Governor of Georgia who fought against Reconstruction. My (5th) great Uncle William Rufus Devane King, founded Selma, site of the famous 1965 march; The Edmund Pettus Bridge, which freedom marchers walked over, was named after another distant relative, a Confederate General, a Grand Wizard of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan. During the time of the Second Klan in the early 20th century, my great-grandfather Virgil Stewart lived in Huntsville, Alabama, where lynchings occurred, as they did throughout the south. The Scottsboro Boys were railroaded 40 minutes from his house.
It’s too much to hope that I don’t have relatives among the red-faced, hate-filled visages you see in old tv clips screaming at Civil Rights marchers. But the odds are very great that it’s too much to hope that YOU don’t have such relatives either. I grew up in New England, where I heard racist talk that would curl your hair. Here in New York City my wife and I heard a cop refer to the visiting President Obama as a “nigger”. See my post here regarding the North’s culpability in slavery and high participation in the second incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan. There are sins in our collective past that have to be atoned for, debts that need to be paid. If you think this doesn’t apply to you, you are so very wrong.
History tells us that there is no limit to the bestial acts people will stoop to when the law gives them permission. We now face the terrifying prospect of leaders who want to make laws granting such permission. They want to single out and penalize entire groups of people based on who they are. My understanding of America, and of justice, and morality, compels me to struggle against that effort however I can. The fact that we’re even in this predicament is the greatest indication there could possibly be that this holiday is extremely necessary indeed.