As we approach the eve of the MLK Birthday holiday these words from “A Tale of Two Cities,” Charles Dickens’ epic novel about the French Revolution came to mind: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times … it was a season of light, it was a season of darkness.”
On Jan. 5, the people of Georgia elected a Black preacher and the son Jewish immigrants to the United States Senate, giving President-elect Joe Biden a fighting chance to restore a modicum of humanity and sanity to American government — a season of light.
Jan. 6 should have gone down in history as the day the election of Kamala Harris, as the first woman and first woman of color, would be certified by the Congress. An extension of the season of light.
But that was not to be the case. Jan. 6 will forever be the day a racist mob of white terrorists, encouraged by the president of the United States, invaded and occupied at their leisure the Capitol Building, forcing members of Congress into hiding — a season of darkness.
This is the context surrounding this year’s MLK ceremonies. And it will be the context when we once again misunderstand the historical Martin Luther King.
With that in mind, I’ve decided to liberally reproduce what I wrote last year at this time, because many of this year’s celebrations will probably look much like last year and every year before that.
I’ll begin with the disservice we do Dr. King’s memory and historical record every January as we insist America recognize him, and by extension us, as worthy of inclusion in the pantheon of American heroes. But is the Dr. King we memorialize every January, the Dr. King of history, or more importantly, is the history we’re memorializing worthy of the man?
The Dr. King we celebrate is an homage to the myth of America. The Dr. King of history, properly understood, is evidence of, and testament to, the indomitable spirit and will of Black people in their struggle against America’s endemic white racism.
America, with our complicity, has made Dr. King’s life and story about one moment in time, August 1963, that improvised closing of his speech at the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington.
That improvised closing doesn’t require repeating, but his forgotten opening that stated the reason for the March for Jobs and Justice should be permanently imprinted on our minds and hearts.
He said, “ ‘Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation … But 100 years later, the Negro still is not free …”
He continued, “In a sense, we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir … It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned.’ “
Here’s what I wrote on the eve of the holiday last year, “So what would MLK birthday celebrations look and sound like if the beginning of his speech was the focus and not the end?
What if there were essay contests for middle and high school students in January on the importance and meaning of the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” for today’s America? What if there were panels on American foreign policy with his speech at Riverside Baptist Church as the predicate for the discussion?
And if we truly wanted to honor and remember his life, what if we engage in a community conversation about the neoliberal American socioeconomic order, in light of the fact he was assassinated in Memphis supporting striking garbage workers while he was organizing the Poor People’s March on Washington?
What would the MLK holiday ceremonies look and sound like if we understood his growth and political evolution over the arch of his too-short life?
Let’s remember what he said to Harry Belafonte, shortly before his assassination: “I have come upon something that disturbs me deeply. I’ve come to believe we’re integrating into a burning house. I’m afraid America may be losing what moral vision she had. Until we assure the underclass has justice and opportunity, we will continue to perpetuate the anger and violence that tears at the soul of this nation.”
What would it look like if we understood the multiple purposes that history serves, including providing context for the present that we’re experiencing?
Let us never forget that the elevation of Black individuals to the highest offices in the land, is not the same thing as elevating Black people.