Dr. King: More Than an Icon

Geov Parrish writes for Alternet:

MLK, Jr. Day, the holiday, has devolved into the Mississippi Burning of third Mondays. What started out as gratitude that they made a movie about it, gradually becomes revulsion at how new generations of Euro-Americans mislearn the story. King is not a legend because he believed in diversity trainings and civic ceremonies, or because he had a nice dream. He is remembered because he took serious risks and, as the Quakers say, spoke truth to power. ... What little history TV will give us to commemorate his birthday is as much about forgetting as about remembering, as much about self-congratulatory patriotism -- that King was American -- as self-examination, that American racism made him necessary, and that government, at every level, sought to destroy him.

We hear "I have a dream"; we don't hear his powerful indictments of poverty, the Vietnam War, and the military-industrial complex. We see Bull Connor in Birmingham; we don't see arrests for fighting segregated housing in Chicago, or the years of beatings and busts before he won the Nobel Peace Prize. We don't hear about the mainstream American contempt at the time for King, even after that Peace Prize, nor the FBI harassment or his reputation among conservatives as a Commie dupe.

We don't see retrospectives on King's linkage of civil rights with Third World liberation. We forget that he died in Memphis lending support for a union (the garbage workers' strike), while organizing a multiracial Poor Peoples' Campaign that demanded affordable housing and decent-paying jobs as basic civil rights transcending skin color. We forget that many of King's fellow leaders weren't nearly so polite. Cities were burning. We remember Selma instead.

And we forget that of those many dreams King had, only one -- equal access for nonwhites -- is significantly realized today. A half-century after the Montgomery bus boycott catapulted a 26-year-old King into prominence, even that is only partly achieved. Blacks are being systematically disenfranchised in our presidential elections, and affirmative action and school desegregation are all but dead. Urban school districts across the country these days are as segregated and unequal as ever, and the imminent confirmation of Samuel Alito to the U.S. Supreme Court likely heralds a new era where employers and landlords can discriminate with near-impunity.

But an even bigger problem, as a generation dies off and the historical memory fades, is that Dr. King has become an icon, not a historical figure (distorted or otherwise). History requires context; icons don't. The racism King challenged four and five decades ago in Georgia and Alabama was also dominant throughout the country. Here in Seattle, few whites know that history: the housing and school segregation, laws barring Asians from owning land (overturned only in the '60s), the marches downtown from predominantly black Garfield High School, police harassment of both radical and mainstream black activists, the still-unsolved assassination of a local NAACP leader.

Every city in America has such histories. We don't know the stories of the people, many still with us, who led those struggles. And we rarely acknowledge that the overt racism of Montgomery 1955 is no longer so overt, but still part of America 2006. It shows up in our geography, in our jails, in our schools, in our voting booths, in our shelters and food banks, in our economy, and in the very earnest and extremely white activist groups that often carry the banner on these issues.

Previous Comments


Donna, I was just thinking about how participants in this past weekend's MLK DAY Parade will be duking it out in City Hall Tuesday, and reading the article just adds fuel to the fire within me. So many of us don't realize that our past had a lot more to do than just sharing a water fountain. That was the tip of the iceburg. When my 7-year-old niece showed me her report card last week, I saw a chart in the envelope that had some JPS statistics. Soma data was sorted by race, and I could not help but notice that the "White" fields were either empty or It shows up in our geography, in our jails, in our schools, in our voting booths, in our shelters and food banks, in our economy, and in the very earnest and extremely white activist groups that often carry the banner on these issues. - Geov Parrish I could not agree with this statement more. If we really sit back and look at the current state of things, our society has done a 360-degree turn instead of a 180. The only difference is that the names were changed to protect the guilty. KKK becomes CCC, segregated schools become public vs. private, segregated communities become inner city vs. suburbs, lynching becomes imprisonment for breathing too hard, etc. Now, I will step off my soapbox, take a deep breath and remember that there have been a lot of great accomplishments such as certain elements of African American culture in the mainstream, recognition of scientific achievements by A-A's and an increasing acceptance of interracial relationships. We've come a long way, and we've got a much, much, MUCH longer way to go. Lord help us.



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