Monday, January 16, 2012

EXTRA: What goes through peoples’ minds about King Day these days?

There are times I wonder just how much have we managed to trivialize the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr. – all in an attempt to make him more acceptable for society as a whole.
KING: Have we lost the 'real' man?

As we participate in ceremonies all across the country on Monday to pay homage to King’s memory – just what “memory” are we remembering?

BECAUSE MUCH OF what we hear these days – some 44 years after the man’s death – makes him sound like an African-American version of a “peacenik” or “hippie;” images which themselves have been tampered with by the conservative ideologues to try to trivialize their significance.

I can’t help but wonder just how many people of an older generation are gnashing their teeth and silently seething at the very thought of an official holiday (and now, even an official memorial on the Mall in Washington, D.C.) to pay tribute to the man whom they once lambasted as an “agitator” and a “Communist” – to use a couple of the nicer epithets that used to get tossed out with regards to King.

I’d like to think the fact that the only people who still use those terms to describe King are Ku Klux Klan members (and even then, only when they’re looking to provoke a brawl) would be evidence of our society having changed to the point where we now realize how thoroughly stupid we ever were for thinking such a thing.

But I can’t be that naïve. Younger generations won’t ever fully appreciate the contempt level once felt for King – which is both good AND bad.

GOOD THAT THEY don’t get the hate first-hand, but bad that they might not appreciate the degree to which King and his followers had to overcome. Because what they sought is really so obvious that only the biggest of nitwits were opposed to him.

Unfortunately, too many of the rest of us who don’t want to be called on our trash-talk of the past were more than willing to sit back and let the ideologues rant and defer to them so as to avoid a confrontation.

It strikes me as so similar to the debate taking place these days whenever immigration reform and the growing Latino population comes up that it makes me think we really haven’t learned much of anything.

What made this thought boil over in my brain was a King Day celebration I attended Monday in south suburban South Holland, where the Rev. Reginald Williams, Jr., of First Baptist Church in University Park (all the way down at the southernmost edge of the Chicago area) gave his own assessment of King’s image – which he calls, “a man taken sorely out of context.”

BECAUSE TOO MANY people reduce King to a few lines of “peace” rhetoric without placing it in the context of just how opposed some segments of our society were to such “peace.”

As Williams put it, “they made him a wimp who held a utopian dream.”

He cited, as an example, the famed “I Have a Dream” speech made from Washington, D.C., where everybody remembers the line about, “My four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

But we then ignore the line in the same speech in which King said that “Negroes” were in the nation’s capital that day to “cash a check” for freedom and unalienable rights, except that, “America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds’.”

REMEMBERING THE REAL King and his struggles might very well stir up the old resentments. Yet trying to ignore the resentments as though they never existed merely trivializes the whole matter – which is something we should never want to do.

Because then, King’s memory becomes just another holiday – perhaps a black version of President’s Day. One in which some people get some time off without really understanding why, and some businesses concoct special sales to try to get those people to use their days off to shop some more.

It may bolster the economy a bit, yet I can’t help but think that Williams was on to something on Monday when he said, “Corporate America has created an image to use King to sell anything from bedsheets to chicken wings.”

Somehow, I doubt that King – when he wrote his ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’—had in mind trying to bolster the bottom line for Shark’s Fish & Chicken!


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