As a historian, and as someone who grew up in the South, I can’t help but shake my head at how a generation after the tumult of the 1950s and 1960s, we as a society are still struggling with virtually all of the issues that Dr. King fought against. Don’t get me wrong, we have come a long way, even in my lifetime, but that progress still doesn’t mean that we live in a “post-racial” society.
Huntsville, Alabama – the city where I grew up – managed to desegregate fairly peacefully in the early 1960s, and much of that was assisted by the large presence of Federal employees at Redstone Arsenal and George C.Marshall Space Flight Center. Even with that history, and with the efforts of ordinary residents like my parents (who moved there from Massachusetts – my dad sometime in the mid 60’s and my mother after they were married in 1967), there was still a lot of residual racism and segregation. You just can’t grow up in the South and not be exposed to it. It’s impossible. You can’t escape it. For example, my parents hated the n-word and would have washed my mouth out with soap if they had ever heard me say it. But I still heard it all the time, and not just from kids at school but from authority figures like the parents and grandparents of my friends and even my teachers. When a black family moved into our neighborhood, I became friends with their son, Roland. But I dare say not all the neighborhood was pleased with their arrival.
Even in my lifetime, I saw a lot of pretty awful stuff. Not lynchings, mind you, but there was definitely violence committed by the Klan in my lifetime in Alabama. And there was a lot of ugly blatant racism. And a lot of that sort of passive racism, the sort that is ridiculously widespread and that many white people still seem to think means that they aren’t really racist. And I haven’t even touched on all of the other ugly events of Alabama in the 1960s, of course.
So despite all that, and despite the fact that most white people at the time hated Dr. King and the civil rights movement, Dr. King has become much more of a national hero in recent years. In fact, opinions of him are so high and respect for him such that many white conservatives now find themselves trying to argue how Dr. King would be on their side. The idea that Dr. King would support them seems to be based almost entirely upon the interpretation of his “I have a dream” speech that ignores a tremendous amount of historical context. And since he is not alive to speak for himself, they feel free to appropriate him to rationalize their own beliefs, as if that would immunize them from criticism. Because ultimately, that seems to be the goal of many of the contemporary critics of those who constantly attack African-Americans and especially contemporary civil rights leaders. Not to mention the most prominent black man in America, the President, who is under constant attack by people who keep insisting they are not racist. Sure, some of them aren’t, but a lot of them sure are. Like these. And these. And these. Think I’m wrong? Then ask yourself why so many people continue to insist that Obama is from Kenya, and refuse to let it go even after the whole birth certificate thing was long debunked. If you don’t like him, fine, criticize his views or his policies by criticizing his actual views and policies, but don’t make jokes about watermelon and say you’re not a racist.
So don’t invoke Dr. King to support your conservative pet issue when you have apparently no idea what he really stood for.
Anyway, don’t want to rant too much. Perhaps someday (hopefully) we, as a society, can continue to build on Dr. King’s legacy and make true equality – and by that I mean equality of opportunity, too – a reality.