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On MLK on his Day

January 19, 2009

Of all the images I saw to use for this post, this one seemed the most appropriate, for some reason. On the day before a black man takes over the White House, here’s a photo of one of the first black men to get into the White House and have a little pull. And now, three decades later, the tables are about to turn a bit – I can’t help but feel a little giddy as I imagine Obama in Lyndon Johnson’s place, and an earnest white man swapped for MLK.

Now, as far as MLK goes, there is nothing I can write here that can honor him better than (or even as well as) the numerous events, articles, videos, etc. that are out there or happening today. And so I won’t try to do that. Instead, I’ll put in a few thoughts on his legacy, from my perspective, on this day.

In my head right now, this holiday is sandwiched between two extremes – the shooting death of unarmed Oscar Grant by a BART policeman in Oakland (for a quick-and-dirty description, go here) and its riotous aftermath (almost worse, read here), and the inauguration of our first black president tomorrow.

The former represents “business as usual” and the obvious neglect of MLK’s famous “dream” and the means by which he wanted that dream achieved. The second represents an historic step towards the achievement of that “dream” decades sooner than most of us believed it could happen.

So which one is the true indicator? Obviously, the shooting and riots makes clear that we are a long ways away from the “post-racial” society that a lot of wannabe “color-blinders” would like to claim. However, Obama’s election also shows that this country just isn’t quite as racist as a lot of us (myself definitely included) thought it was.

If you’ve read this blog for a while, you know I’m a big Blue Scholars fan, and this quote from “Back Home” always seems to sum it up so perfectly:

“And they say progress but the fact is, Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy is lookin like the street we named after him
Permanently under construction, the people hustlin’
Despite the pain and sufferin'”

Now, Geologic is talking about the MLK Ave. in Seattle, but he could just as well be talking about Portland (or any number of other major cities in the U.S.). Here, MLK Ave. used to be tied to the predominantly-black area of town. It used to be lined with black-owned businesses, homes, etc. Now, as you proceed northward, the street progresses from mostly white-owned businesses, to fancier, gentrified white-owned businesses, to a bit of that “permanently under construction, people hustlin” stretch of blocks that still remains primarily a black neighborhood – then back to the rest. And, not unpredictably (but sadly), those few blocks I mentioned are where white folks try not to be after dark.

And I think it truly is in this street named after him that we can see a representation of MLK’s legacy.

In that one street, we see how “things are getting better” in a very surface-level way. The street is getting “cleaned up,” there are “nicer” businesses and restaurants popping up. It’s “safer.” Much like the election of Obama as president signifies the “progress” we’ve been making.

On the flip side, that street makes clear that segregation still very much exists (although not as a legal institution). It demonstrates the distinct economic gap between black and white that continues to this day. The schools in the north part of town are the city’s worst, by far. The area is targeted by police and “gang-prevention” task forces (which has to happen, due to the current escalation in gang violence in the area, but it’s still a sad reflection of Bull Connor’s “police state”).

And so – on a symbolic level – we’ve come a very long way from MLK’s time. People of color have so many more rights and protections compared to the 60s in this country. People of color – men and women – have reached prominent positions in the government and society as a whole. A man of color is about to sit at the head of the table in the Oval Office.

But – damn – do we still have so much more work to do. Because the state of segregation in this country (by neighborhood, by quality of schools, by economic status, by police targeting) hasn’t come as far – by half – as it should have, considering my previous paragraph. As long as “cleaning up” a street means moving the people of color out, MLK’s dream remains only a wish in the wind. As long as police can murder an unarmed black man in front of a crowd of folks that share his skin-tone , MLK’s ghost cannot rest. As long as large numbers of people of color still feel that violence and revolution are the only answer, we cannot allow ourselves to sit around patting ourselves on the backs.

So – today, I will think on the positive indicators of change and progress that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s courage (and that of the men and women who fought – and fight – the same fight) has allowed us to achieve.

Tomorrow, I will watch the inauguration with tears in my eyes, and smile with joy at all the voters around me.

After that? It’s back to work, and I will continue to think on the fact that George Bush (Sr. or Jr.) never gave their speeches from behind bullet-proof glass and do what I can to spark some true, permanent change for the better in this country.

And I ask the rest of you to do the same.

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