Harry Smith, the longtime NBC journalist, presented a report this past Sunday morning recognizing the impact of Dr. Martin Luther King as we celebrate his birthday. If Harry’s intent was to get people to think he was successful in at least one case. He asked, and this is not a direct quote but what I heard, “If Dr. King was still alive today what would he think about present condition of Civil Rights in the United States?”
I grew up “white” in the Fifties and Sixties in the South. Like most preteens or teenagers, I wasn’t a particularly socially aware person and believe I was somewhat sheltered from the realities of race relations by both my family and the area I grew up in…or it could have been my own form of “white privilege” rearing its head. I have very vivid memories of the stories that played out on our black and white RCA. School desegregation in Little Rock, Freedom Rider buses burning in Anniston and nonviolent marches and protest, turning violent in far off places like Selma. I remember wondering why were the white folk so angry? One outcome was to make me wonder if I should have been angry to.
Throughout these times, filling my TV screen, Martin Luther King was quite visible and the center of much of what was going on. I remember a man with a powerful, yet soft baritone voice and a slow Southern drawl to go with it. I would not fully comprehend the full power of his voice or his personage until I watched a History Channel presentation on his “I HAVE A DREAM” speech, too many years later, as I actually tried to explain the impact and power of his words to a “lily white” US History class more than twenty years after his death. Sometimes I truly find myself quite late to the dance.
As hard as he worked to promote positive social change, I also remember the furor created when John Conyers and Edward Brooke co-authored a bill to recognize King’s birthday as a holiday. It would be fiercely opposed not only in the South, as one might expect, but also in states like Arizona. Arguments against its recognition included King’s beliefs on “Marxism or Communism” and his stance against the Viet Nam War along with personal attacks that I won’t speak to. South Carolina, my home state, would be the last to recognize it in 2000. I really don’t have to wonder why?
As I finally return to Smith’s question, I would believe Dr. King would be disappointed. He would recognize there has been some improvement in “individual” race relations but would find we still have a framework in place that is systematically discriminatory toward large numbers of our population. I believe he would say that we have lost ground overall and become less willing to cause any type of meaningful change. I also believe Dr. King would point a finger directly at our government shenanigans starting with a President who should have done more for race relations and trailing down to a Congress that would not let him. Dr. King’s biggest disappointment, however, would be would be reserved for “We the People” because we are ALL still “judged by the color of (our) skin,” (rather than) “by the content of (our) character.” I would also add judged by our creed, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, and lately our political orientation. Like Harry Smith, I believe Dr. King would say “There is much more work to be done.”