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Monday, January 21, 2008

Reflections on Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Birthday Part One

As a US citizen, I am happy that the birthday of the martyred civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is one of our national holidays. But I am not happy with what many US whites make of him. I need to first be clear my standpoint: I personally am of Euro descent, although I hail largely from the more oppressed Euro ethnicities, the ones that have been referred to as "white n******." I have lived almost all my adult life in an urban, poor/working-class black neighborhood now threatened by gentrification, raised my child here, and my own household/family is interracial (black-white).

Too many white Americans look upon the establishment of King's birthday as a national holiday as a definitive proof that we have arrived at his Promised Land already...even as the struggle is far from over, even as they have not yet begun to unlearn the vast reservoirs of white privilege to which any white person in this society is heir, consciously or unconsciously, even the most wellintentioned white liberals (myself, alas, included).

White privilege remains intact as a big blinder to the ongoing struggles for economic and environmental justice, for peace in and outside black homes and neighborhoods, for self-respect and the healing of the deep psychological wounds that have accumulated down the 500 years that people of African descent have been in the Americas. It expresses itself in such plaints as "What are You People always so angry about, didn't you get what you wanted?" And in such deeds as the police's constant roughing up of my future son in law, who braids and do-rag and all has not a criminal deed to his name. Except the purported offense of Driving While Black, and that with a white woman, my daughter.

There is also a prevailing white view of King that sanitizes away his profound and prophetic radicalism. That Dr. King is not the Dr. King, for example, of the 1967 speech Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence, nor the Dr. King commemoratedby the LGBT rights Soulforce in its dispatch Can You Hear Martin Luther King Today?

Soulforce recounts King on racism, militarism, and materialism. They do not speculate on his possible views of homophobia. All we can know today, really is that he stood by his friend and civil rights movement colleague Bayard Rustin, organizer of the 1963 March on Washington and an openly gay man.

In the "Beyond Vietnam" speech, King speaks of being "moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart" and of the "many persons [who] have questioned me about the wisdom of my path... And when I hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern, I am nevertheless greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment or my calling. Indeed, their questions suggest that they do not know the world in which they live."

His vision of nonviolence was ever more-expansive; who knows today where it would have stopped, if anywhere? And being ever more expansive, it ran into the truisms and partititions of his time.

Which for me raises the question: What might King have made of a feminist, consistent life ethic?--Next Up.

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