Sunday would have marked the 94th birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, had he not been gunned down at the age of 39. He was alive fewer years than he’s been dead, but his name and his work have not been forgotten. Even young people who were not born until long after his murder know the legacy of Dr. King.
Yes, his legacy lives on, and yet …
- Duante Wright, age 20
- George Floyd, age 46
- Breonna Taylor, age 26
- Atatiana Jefferson, age 28
- Botham Jean, age 26
- Philando Castile, age 32
- Alton Sterling, age 37
- Freddie Gray, age 25
- Tamir Rice, age 12
- Michael Brown, age 18
SAY THEIR NAMES!!!
These are but a few of the Black Americans who were killed by police, some while sleeping in their own beds, others playing in a park or stopped for a routine traffic violation. Killed for the crime of being Black. All were unarmed. Many of them I have written about previously. Today … we are no better as a nation than we were on April 4th, 1968, the day that Dr. King was gunned down by a white ‘man’, James Earl Ray, at 6:01 p.m. on a motel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee.
Even today, we have lawmakers doing everything in their power to disenfranchise Black people. Even today, there are ever-growing groups in this nation who believe, or claim to believe, that the only “true Americans” are white Christians. Even today, Black people are shunned by some, are considered to be of lesser intelligence. Here’s a video clip from a 1964 CBS News program Face the Nation where Dan Rather asks Dr. King a question … and the answer is prophetic.
And as Mr. Rather says in a portion of his latest newsletter …
The record shows that in the decades that followed, the grim scenario Dr. King lamented in our exchange largely came to pass. In 1968, Richard Nixon used dog whistle appeals to racism in his euphemistic “Southern Strategy” to win the White House. In the ensuing years, what had been a “Solid South” for Democrats tracing back to the Civil War became a wall of red states that helped propel Republicans to power. From Ronald Reagan’s demonizing “welfare queens” to George H.W. Bush’s Willie Horton ad, Republicans had concocted a playbook of racist appeals in order to win the white vote. With Trump, dog whistles became bullhorns.
Make no mistake, if Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. were alive today, he would be stigmatized as ‘woke’ and attacked accordingly.
Everything Dr. King stood for is under attack in America today. You can see it in efforts to disenfranchise voters. You can find it in the whitewashing of history and the demonization of so-called “critical race theory.” Whether it’s the banning of books, attacks on labor rights, or the death knell of affirmative action, an America of ideas, engagement, and reckoning with our past is under siege. In the sneers at “wokeness,” one finds an effort by the privileged to hold onto the positions of power they feel they are owed. It is an insult to everything Dr. King hoped to achieve.
A significant proportion of today’s Republican Party has been taken over by performative hatred, lies, and reactionary attempts to undermine American democracy. This dynamic presents new and unique challenges to our journey toward justice. Dr. King would have been fearless in denouncing these forces of hatred and autocracy.
Yesterday I posted my annual tribute to Dr. King, including a portion of his “I Have a Dream” speech. Given the lack of true progress in the 55 years since his assassination, I sadly predict that his dream will never be realized in this country. You can legislate equality and justice for all, but you cannot control how people think, and laws are only as good as the ability and willingness to enforce them.
Today there is a growing movement to stop teaching about Dr. Martin Luther King in the schools, to stop teaching about the racism that led to his works, his activism. Will people in 50 more years even know who he was, let alone what he stood for, what he did? Not if some of the current politicians have their way — they would sooner erase his name from the history books. Dr. King spent and ultimately gave his life trying to bring the people of this nation out of the darkness, but today there are those who prefer that darkness, who prefer to live in a privileged white world, who have no humanity.