Monday, January 22, 2007

Dr. King

Sure, there are big things coming up which will get mountains of commentary. The State of the Union, the who's-got-a-scorecard presidential campaign, the Super Bowl and accompanying commercials, the non-binding and therefore ignorable congressional resolution opposing the war escalation, I mean "augmentation", according to the Secretary of State.
But before tackling these items, let's pause a minute to discuss Dr. King and his contribution to our country. Following WW II, black soldiers returned home to find their own country divided along racial lines to their disadvantage, particularly in the former confederate states. It wasn't just custom - it was LAW that kept black folks down, and those who MADE law were not going to help things change. Mississippi even had a kind of "shadow" government with no other aim than violent intimidation and continued subjugation of its black citizens.
But change was sure to happen, one way or another. The black veterans were tired of being ignored in the very country they had fought to keep "free". A black middle class led mostly by the clergy was starting to make its moderate and patient voice (at first) heard. Truman integrated the Armed Forces, and Jackie Robinson had shown up to play for the Dodgers.
In the midst of this, Rosa Parks, one of many black household servants in the city, refused to step to the rear of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, sparking a citywide boycott of the bus system in 1955. Martin Luther King, still in his 20's and new to Montgomery, was asked to lead the boycott organization. It was felt he could be more effective than other black ministers who depended in one way or another on the local white establishment.
And the story goes on from there until King's assassination in 1968, just 13 years later. The speeches, the marches, the protests are all pretty well recorded and remembered, particularly in the places they occurred. The thing Dr. King deserves credit for was using his Christianity along with the methods of Ghandi of India to make changes happen without violence, that is to say, with LESS violence than might have been the case if someone else had emerged as national leader.
Not all blacks were as patient, especially as the 1950's gave way to the sixties, as Dr. King. The old clips of Malcolm X make him seem like a moderate, but he was a scary figure to most of white America. Ditto for other leaders of student organizations and Black Panther chapters who talked tough, though they were often in great danger from local police and J. Edgar Hoover's FBI.
The country was, I believe, lucky to have Dr. King as the most visible leader for change. It could have been MUCH worse for both sides if cooler heads had not possessed the levers of
leadership. Lyndon Johnson was not a great president, but he was brave enough to demand the help from Congress he needed to change our laws and our society even though he knew it might mean the permanent loss of the South by the Democratic Party, which has happened before our eyes. Congress itself deserves a little credit. It was less polarized then, and enough of its leaders could see that change was inevitable to actually bring it about. Southerners at first resisted change, but then made most of their protests vocal instead of violent. They didn't actually become Republicans until later, denying for the most part that they had ever BEEN racists, grudgingly making adjustments to the new order of things.
We can't pretend that racism has disappeared, but it's been pushed toward the margins and is rightly often opposed when it appears in the open. To History, this change will seem to have happened very quickly, in a single generation. Perhaps change was so overdue that it finally happened in what seemed like a heartbeat.
Dr. King wasn't perfect, but we shouldn't judge him on a different set of standards from the other leaders of the time. Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, the Kennedys all had faults which we usually ignore. Maybe that's what Dr. King finally meant when he hoped out loud to see all of us judged by the "content of our character."


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