Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered in 1968 when I was 20 years old. To say that he defined social justice in my formative years would be an understatement. And yet, as much as I admired his fiery and charismatic rhetoric and his brilliant mind, he was never the ideal leader to me. On Monday we will celebrate his life and work with a holiday which, for most , will do absolutely nothing to erase bigotry, and hate, and oppression.
Non-violence is a great idea, to love everyone and forgive your enemies and conquer hate with love is a nice idea, but not particularly effective .There are no doubt those who would say the reason love is having such a struggle against hate, and peace is having such a struggle against violence, and good is having such a struggle against evil, is that not enough people believe in the messages of Dr. King.
Perhaps that is true, who knows? I just know that I have seen enough examples of evil triumphing over good and injustice triumphing over justice to have some doubts that the universe actually is in balance, that bad things and bad people eventually get their comeuppance.
Dr. King understood a lot about America, including the fact that convincing people to do something because it was right is not an easy thing. A lot of folks know what is right but do not do it because it would cost them something. All of the spectators in the fight for social justice are not white either. There are black people who will not risk their status or their paychecks in order to do what is right. Much of the wrong done to black people today could not be done without the complicity of other black people who are more interested in their personal advantages than justice.
One of my favorite sayings by the great Audre Lorde is, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Dr. King knew all about the master’s tools, he had to confront them all the time, black people telling him to chill, to shut up, to quit making trouble for “the rest of us.”
When MLK was assassinated, was the state of black America worse than it is now? In some cases yes, far worse. Affirmative Action, although it seems to be ignored more and more, and the eventual dismantling of official Jim Crow laws are two examples. But, minorities continue to make up too large a percentage, although certainly not the majority, of the poor, public education of most minorities is inferior, and bigotry and racism once underground is flourishing in the public sphere again. I am afraid the content of your character still takes a backseat to several things, your color, your gender, you economic status, your sexual orientation, your willingness to know your place, and who you know.
I think it is wonderful that we have a day to celebrate MLK and his work and his contribution to America. I think it is a damn shame that we do not have more respect for what he was actually trying to accomplish and do not work harder to accomplish it. America loves dead black heroes, it is not so fond of live black people.
Let us use his day not to pat ourselves on the back for all he managed to do, and how evolved as a society it makes us that we honor him with a day off from work, but dedicate ourselves to continuing to work towards his goals and remember these words of his:
“On some positions cowardice asks the question: Is it safe?
Expediency asks the question: Is it politic?
Vanity asks the question: Is it popular?
But conscience must ask the question: Is it right?
And there comes a time when one must take a stand that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular.
But one must take it because it is right.”
Cookie Newsom is a Greene County resident and guest columnist.