Sunday, April 4, 2010

MLK Jr. - reflections on the anniversary of his murder

I can remember this day forty-two years ago like it was yesterday. I was in my high-rise dorm room when the voice of my friend Jimmy Mac, a cool dude with wire-rim glasses from Harlem, came through the phone. "They did it," he said. "What?" I said. "They killed him." "Who are you talking about?" "Martin Luther King." "WHAT? They KILLED HIM? They KILLED him!" That gentle giant with black eyes like that of a doe, willing to get his and others' heads bashed in in the name of love and turning the cheek. I could not take it in, but told Mac I'd be downstairs in a few minutes to join him and others who were going downtown (Boston) to be together with other Black students in the area.

I am still not over it. The issue of race took on a new philosophy and role in my life. But that's another blog.

What I didn't appreciate at the time was how radical Martin Luther King Jr. was, not just in terms of his non-violence stance (which truthfully didn't seem that radical to me at the time), but when he began to address the immorality of Vietnam and of class oppression, and suggested that the ghetto was a colony. This progression in his thinking, his voice, his actions doesn't get much play, and he had just started to support the Black sanitation workers on strike in Memphis when he was shot down. Bill Moyers recently did a show on PBS about King and the state of class and race nowadays. He and Michael Winship also did a piece in King lost a lot of support when he widened his lens and protest, including flak from the N.A.A.C.P. So sad. It reminds me again of how lonely it can be to take a stand against injustice, and yet as he said "There comes a time when silence is a betrayal."

Not long ago, there was concern that the sculpture of him for the memorial being built in Washington looked too forceful (my word). Or is it that it looked 'angry'? His face, his hands needed to be toned down, smoothed over. This is what society wants to do over time with social justice heroes, render them innocuous teddy bears so they can be loved. I think about this not only with Martin Luther King but Muhammad Ali. These Black men did not go gently against injustice, and they were willing to risk status and lifestyle in taking their stands. Muhammad Ali gave up his heavyweight title, his ability to make a living in is profession for years, and Martin Luther King gave us his life. These men had the courage and integrity to speak up and lose the support of many.

The cost of integrity can be high. This post-modern notion that everything can be negotiated pleasantly with appropriate empathy and good will is itself a sanded-down notion. There is sacrifice, burning, and heartbreak in speaking truth to Power.

I give thanks to these brothers and others who bear witness to such strength. Though I cannot be them, they hold me up in the little steps I take to speak up at times when silence is preferred and well cultivated.

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