Friday, April 04, 2008

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Forty years ago today, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in front of his Memphis, Tennessee, motel room at 6.01 p.m. Depending on how deep your understanding was of popular music, you knew Memphis either as Elvis Presley's home turf or as the birthplace of Stax Records, where some of the best and most famous rhythm and blues recordings were made in the 1960s. Memphis would now be forever known as the city where a crazed, racist lunatic named James Earl Ray gunned down King as he was preparing to leave for dinner with Ralph David Abernathy and Jesse Jackson. King had been town for a little less than a week to draw support for the strike staged by African-American sanitation workers, who were paid so little that, even after a 40 hour week, they still qualified for welfare.

So much has been written about King's life and legacy that there is nothing that I (or anyone else, for that matter) can add to the historical narrative. Unlike many other public figures of historical import, how one feels about King has much to do with who you were then or who you are now, whether you were or are black or white, whether you lived in the South or somewhere else and how you were taught to view King. In April 1968, I was six and a half years old, almost at the end of my first year in elementary school. I don't remember much about that day; in fact, I don't remember anything at all, other than my dad staying late at work to watch his store, as rioting broke out that evening in Atlanta as it did around the country. My mother was devastated and cried for hours, unable to shake her depression over the death of a man that she viewed as most important American since Franklin Delano Roosevelt. My father grew up in the New York City suburbs; my mother was born in Moultrie, Georgia. Both were unabashed liberals, with my mother the hell-raiser of the two; my dad had a somewhat different approach to the civil rights movement. His business was in the heart of black Atlanta, directly across the street from the Pascal Motor Hotel, which was the Grand Central Station of the city's nascent black political leadership. Among my father's early customers were King, King Sr., Julian Bond, Ralph Abernathy and Hosea Williams, and many, many more whose names escape me. A lot of hell broke loose that night. The few stores owned by whites in a community where most businesses were black-owned were all torched or vandalized except my father's. This was the environment in which I was raised, and it made all the difference in the world. I was fortunate to be born when I was and to whom I was. I could have ended up like many of my friends who called me a "nigger lover" because of my father's business, and because, every now and then, the college-age guys who worked for my dad, many of whom attended Morehouse or Morris Brown, would come to my baseball games. They would catch stares or would be asked to pick up the trash, the assumption being, of course, that a 20 year-old black man could only be in a white neighborhood if was a janitor or garbage man.

Or a criminal.

As much as contemporary American folklore now loves to count King among our nation's most important citizens, it wasn't always that way. More people than would ever now admit it did not a shed a tear over King's death, the thinking being that he had it coming by trying to bully the region and the nation into accepting a new social contract it wasn't prepared to embrace. The director of the F.B.I., J. Edgar Hoover, whose name embarrassingly and inexplicably remains on the Department of Justice's main headquarters in Washington, D.C., used government resources to harass and spy on him. Hoover even had members of his office fabricate a death threat to King so that he would stop taking his case public. King didn't flinch. Later, in the 1970s, when the idea of a national holiday in honor of King was proffered, many well-known politicians laughed it off, including Ronald Reagan and, yes, John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, who voted against the holiday as a Arizona congressman in 1983. President Reagan, whose political instincts (King supporters had a veto-proof majority in the House and Senate) were good enough to put aside the robotic opposition by right-wing racists and signed it into law later that same year. MLK day was first observed in January 1986, although some states continued to voice their opposition by combining the holiday with "heritage" days of their own. Until 2000, the day was known as Lee-King-Jackson Day, as in, yes, incredibly, Robert E. Lee and "Stonewall" Jackson. Arizona's opposition lasted well into the 1990s, ebbing only after the National Football League refused to permit the 1992 Super Bowl to played in Tempe after the legislature failed to honor King with a state holiday. New Hampshire refused as well, the reason being that King wasn't "important" enough and it would unfairly cost the taxpayers by giving state workers another day off. Uh-huh, and the "white, working class" voters supposedly flocking to Hillary Clinton instead of Barack Obama can identify with a woman whose joint income with her husband over the past eight years was $109 million. That's one blue collar mama who'll never be an Obama mama.

In 1976, when I was tenth grade, our back-to-school assignment was to write an essay about the three most important Americans in our nation's 200 year history. This was our school's nod to the national Bicentennial celebration that was taking place around the country. I chose Lincoln, F.D.R. and King. I was one of two people in my class to include King, the other student being the class hippie, which I was most certainly not back then. My teacher returned the assignment to me the next day and asked me write about a "serious" American, like George Washington, Harry Truman or . . . and I kid you not, the Rev. Billy Graham, who, as the nation's most famous evangelist, was a major figure in the South. I refused to change my mind and received a D on the assignment because my work on Lincoln and F.D.R was good enough to allow me to pass. The hippie-kid wasn't so fortunate. He picked King, Alan Ginsburg and Charlie Parker, putting him way, way ahead of his time.

Nothing has changed my mind since 1976. Martin Luther King, Jr. is among the great Americans this country has ever known, and one of the most important public figures in modern world history. King led a non-violent revolution on behalf of African-Americans, doing more to liberate them from the social and legal bondage that had followed them one way or another since Africans were first deposited as slaves in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1609. But the true legacy, as John Lewis, the civil rights warrior who now represents Atlanta in Congress, has said, was that King liberated white America from the prison of racism, and, in the process, encouraged all dispossessed Americans to stand up for their rights. King gave his life to free his oppressors, something that is often overlooked, and an accomplishment not duplicated in American history.

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