Well, it is Black History Month, after all…
As Chris Rock said in one of his routines years ago, the only thing they ever taught in school about “Black History” was Martin Luther King Jr. Like that was the answer to everything. What’s the capital of Zaire? MARTIN LUTHER KING! But, y’know, the truth is, I’m almost ashamed to say, that I never really appreciated the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., or what he accomplished and stood for, while I was growing up. It wasn’t until I became an adult that I could really reflect on him.
As a teenager, like many of the young Black males of my era, it was all about MALCOLM X for me. He was the brave fearless Black leader that I idolized. I wore the t-shirts and sweatshirts with his face on them, and had a hat with an X on it, and a medallion, all that stuff. But I can say that, unlike far too many of those other Black teenagers, it was not just a fashion statement or a trend for me. I wanted to learn as much about it, and bought and read over a dozen books about him and his life, including his Autobiography (& this is the days before the internet, so I couldn’t just check Wikipedia, I had to go to actual book stores to find the info I wanted to learn). I bought documentaries about him, watched old interviews with him, and when the Spike Lee movie starring Denzel Washington came out, I saw it in the theaters twice, something I very rarely did. I even ended up converting to Islam, and was a Sunni Muslim for about 5 years (I’m not anymore), and that’s largely due to the impact of Malcolm X.
Dr. King, on the other hand, well, he was boring. Sure, I nominally knew that I had to respect him, and I knew the I HAVE A DREAM speech, and all that. But his turn the other cheek philosophy sounded crazy to me, in my stupid teenage brain. I remember watching a speech he gave to his supporters where he talked about continuing to love their enemies no matter how much they attacked them, and beat them, and burned down their homes, and I was just shaking my head like, that’s frakkin’ crazy.
But now I know that he was RIGHT. In the long run, his way of protesting and enacting social change was the correct way. Physically fighting back sounded good, but would have been impossible for Blacks @ the time that he was alive. The odds were so stacked against us, it wouldn’t matter how violent the racist Whites were, if the Blacks ever lifted a hand in self-defense, they would be the ones blamed for violence, and nothing would change (and would likely just get worse). But by taking the extreme High Road, by emphasizing that they were peaceful, they were able to slowly change the hearts and minds of the rest of America. When he would lead his peaceful protests, and the police would run them down and beat them, and sick fire-hoses and police dogs on them, the decent White Americans could see how unjust this was, and more would be swung to Dr. King’s side.
And talk about courage! Dr. King knew that many wanted him dead. Every single time he went out in public, gave a speech, participated in a March, he knew he was putting his life in danger. To walk directly into a crowd armed with bats, sticks, bottles, bricks, etc., while vowing to not fight back, is way more brave than all the tough talk of Malcolm X and his cohorts (but don’t get me wrong, I still love & respect Malcolm, too). It’s even more remarkable that Dr. King had this vision, and the courage to carry it through, with the confidence that his sacrifices would be worth is in the future, when you consider that he also knew that he personally wouldn’t be likely to live long enough to see the justice that he was fighting for. I know that he and many other Blacks, especially the ones who took the more Militant route, like Malcolm, had to be frustrated @ the slow pace of change, and being treated like a second-class citizen in America, but King was looking decades ahead of himself, and said this isn’t about him, it was about the future world of his children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren. He was laying the foundation the future of today, so now that the America that I live in is much better than the America that he lived in. That takes an extraordinary man to see that. And I think it is appropriately symbolic that America’s first Black President (which never would have happened if not for Dr. King) was sworn in for his 2nd term on the day that we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday.
REST IN PEACE, MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.
He was a great man. But let’s not forget all the other Civil Rights activists who also fought for freedom, and risked their lives, too. He didn’t do it alone.
You are absolutely right, I shouldn’t act like he was a one-man movement. Ralph Abernathy, Julian Bond, Rosa Parks, Medgar Evers, and so many other people and organizations also worked hard to get us where we are today as a nation.
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