Eloquent speaker, I Have a Dream, the marches to Selma, Montgomery, you name it we’ll tell our children about the man who was named Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr and his call of equality for all. As written before on this blog, there are supporters of the good doctor who emphasize the need to remind ourselves of the constant struggle of our basic rights as his detractors, older, richer and playfully use his quotes to further their agendas and stifle others. But this entry isn’t about that. It’s about the times Dr. King wasn’t popular, wasn’t taken seriously or that the message got ‘too old’.
When the news cameras flash, microphones thrushed to the mouths of our children, they’ll mention the typical ear-soothing comments about Dr. King in that ‘he was a fighter for justice’, ‘he wanted all people to live together’ and ‘he had a dream that we should be the same’. You know how it goes. If you don’t, watch your television screens highlighting any King Day Parade and see what the attendees say.
Back in college I remember reading Letter From Birmingham Jail and what caught my eye were the comparisons made between Dr. King and the apostle Paul. Both were thrown in jail for what they believed in, they involved in their spiritual missions met with stiff oppositions from the governments they served under. As Dr. King exhorted the churches not to ‘wait’ – a word my parents and late grandparents heard once too often – the suggestion is that we cannot wait, a very unpopular view in the eyes of Southerners who detested the so-called ‘agitators’ ruining their Jim Crow status quo, their way of life. No eloquent speech can replace the lingering frustration of the non-response of Dr. King’s noncommittal spiritual brethren.
There are a pair of clippings saved in my folder that I lifted from an old L.A. Times microfilm in my college days. One clipping is from Dr. King’s visit in the midst of the Watts Unrest of 1965. By that time, people were angry and upset. What worked in the South didn’t work for the southern section of Los Angeles, according to the hecklers who greeted the good doctor as he tried to make his appeal to the citizens in a local meeting shortly after the firestorm. Could you imagine if you were Dr. King standing in the middle of your own people and viewing from your own eyes how much they wanted to ‘burn’ rather than seek nonviolent means, a method you adhered to? It was the bittersweet of all bittersweet ironies; just as he urged the churches in his letter not to ‘wait’, the citizens of Watts didn’t want to wait either.
We’ll continue to watch films and reenactments on the historic March on Washington and the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech and in between the “Mountaintop” speech the night before he died, but we never really see what happened in the five years between 1963 and 1968. Perhaps those years are too painful to watch because it reveals a deeper truth about ourselves; we only remember the messenger at his height, but never during his descent for we are the ones who caused it. Consider: after the Civil Right measures were passed, the failed attempt to desegregate the North, the growing impatience with the nonviolent method to achieve anything past Civil Rights, the emergence of the Black Power Movement, the violent civil unrests unfolding around the country, criticizing the Vietnam War, etc. I don’t know how much of a toll I could take if I were in his shoes, but within that five year period, so much change, anxiousness, that it is a wonder he was able to continue to persevere through it all. I guess that’s the true measure of a leader; to continue the fight although the troops may not follow your example.
In order to show how special Dr. King was, we have to include it all; the joys of defeating an unjust law, winning a fight for equal rights and pushing across legislation that aimed to promote equality. We have to show the tremendous struggle against wily Northern politicians, our own growing frustration with the philosophy of nonviolence, and the result of his life’s work in this year, 2008 A.D.; one step forward, five steps back.
Continue to show the speeches, the marches, and repeat the quotes but we have to ‘keep it real’ and show that at times he seemed one man against a world he hoped to change and almost succeeded. If we’re going to remember the great Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr on this day, perhaps we should make the one courageous act we dare not try lest it would be deemed as not cool or just plain whack. Nevertheless, Dr. King didn’t try for a popularity contest, he just ‘wanted to do God’s Will’. What is that one courageous act then?
Follow his example, even in the eyes of many, seen as unpopular.
Charles L. Chatmon
President, Chatmon’s Books