Friday, April 5, 2013

4/4/68: What was taken and what remains


FORTY-FIVE years ago, a skinny, rusty-butt African American boy left school and came home to find the lights down and his mother crying. His brothers, both of whom were younger than he was, were absent, somewhere else in the house that seemed larger than before. But his mother’s tears jarred and frightened him. He hadn’t seen that for a while. At least three years. Or four.

His father emerged from one of the rooms, his eyes bearing the rheumy sheen of someone who’d been crying too. Pops had just retired from the army the year before, after 22 years in, and he was no pushover, no lightweight. So to find him in the same condition as his mother filled the kid with alarm. Something big must have happened.

His mother, finally regaining her self-control, wiped the tears from her face long enough to get maternal again. She stepped to her son, the oldest of three, and spoke softly.

“You boys don’t go to school tomorrow.”

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It goes without saying that when Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis this date in 1968, the nation lost its most populist moral compass, and African Americans lost their distilling messenger, the one who, since the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, articulated and defended the aspirations of black America in every precinct of the national life.

In the years since, the social and political advances this country’s made have rightly been viewed against the metric of King’s own aspirations for his nation — measured against the particulars of the “I Have a Dream” speech that's part of the double helix of the spiritual DNA of our modern United States. From the Equal Rights Amendment in 1971 to the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990, from the Lily Ledbetter Act in 2009, to the still-emerging legislative evolution on marriage equality, our nation’s leaps or lurches toward social justice and personal freedom have used King’s vision as a benchmark.

What remains of King’s “dream” is more than the grainy newsreel footage of the man speaking truth to power at the Lincoln Memorial. It’s percolated heartily into the bedrock of reality. In the last 45 years, African Americans have achieved pinnacles of leadership in the worlds of entertainment and the media — taken summits whose importance isn’t defined by mainstream America, but on its own terms, sufficient unto itself. They’ve seen America elect its first African American president, a signal event King would have praised with tears in his eyes.

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BUT THERE’S more work to do. What also remains is the persistence of old inequities, imbalances of race, culture and class. We’ve only to look at the protest today by about 400 workers at several different fast-food restaurants in New York City — a protest sparked by people who’ve had enough of minimum wage, everyday people pushing back against the same economic injustice that King made his last mission.

We only have to consider the fact that the Voting Rights Act, one of the crowning achievements of his career, is thought to be targeted for dismantling by conservatives in Congress and, quite possibly, by the U.S. Supreme Court.

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” King said in 1965, paraphrasing Theodore Parker, an 19th-century abolitionist whom King admired. And what was true in Parker’s distant day and in King’s more immediate lifetime is a fact today. But that arc doesn’t bend all by itself.

What we lost 45 years ago was irreplaceable; what’s left 45 years later is inescapable: It’s left to us to further the “Dream” and make it both closer to reality and more of a reality than it already is. It’s up to us to be the weight that makes that arc bend.

Image credits: Detail from King statue, Washington: BBC News. Times Square fast-food worker protest: Lucas Jackson/Reuters.

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