What sticks out to me the most during this Holiday season are two things: 1) Dr. King has become an institutionalized figure who has lost a lot of his true grit in societal terms and 2) A lot see the events of Dr. King as “back in those days” and fail to realize the “fight” for equality is still on. Hence, the struggle for equality becomes longer and harder in these times.
Therefore, the legacy part, for me at least and for many other ethnic minorities, is that we continue to educate, train up the next generation, and push forward towards equality for all and racial justice. But what does that mean? I was having a conversation the other day with some students who wanted me to call senators, help them organize a rally, and sign more petitions. All very good stuff indeed. However, a shift has occurred in our society over the last decade which has made it even more problematic to effect change through these channels. Am I saying we should abandon the march? Throw away the petitions? Hang up the phones? Of course not! However, in this day in age those avenues afforded to us as advocates for justice and equality in this free country are wearing thin in their effectiveness for change. For example, when the country found out we were going to war, millions marched, signed petitions, and called their senators and representative to put pressure on the White House to not do this; of course we all know those efforts were futile. Fast forward a few years and we have the events of Hurricane Katrina hit the New Orleans area hard. Once again, thousands marched and wrote letters…still, no real effective change; some areas still look as though the hurricane hit last week. Fast forward to the Dream Act where I personally called and petitioned, thousands of others called their representatives and many agencies (both left and right of political lines) stood together to write letters for this act to pass; no change. It would seem that the marches and protest—while still a great way of expressing thought—do not have the same impact they once did during Dr. King’s time.
What might all this mean?
As I spoke with my students, we struggled through this very question and weighed its significance in the future of equality and justice. Moreover, what are the “next steps?” How might Dr. King’s legacy continue when one of the most effective tools he himself used is becoming obsolete?
I also struggle with where we are at in terms of racial progress. As a Black male I tend to see a lot of these issues rear their foul countenance towards me: getting looked over to be served in line, being spoken to rudely at the library while other White patrons are spoken to in a nicer tone, being asked “Do you work here?” constantly at places like Home Depot when I’m clearly not wearing the classic orange—all underlying tones of something deeper at work within our lens of the social construct of race. So, I struggle in finding that balance in continuing the legacy of Dr. King.
I love the parades and I love the nuances and homage paid to Dr. King on this day. However many, including many African Americans and ethnic minorities, fail to see the depth and scope of what that changed cost. It cost time, energy, tears, sweat, time away from family, human hours, organizational minds, nails, paint, glue, shoes, voices being lost, coordination, and most importantly it cost many lives. Dr. Stephane Dunn writes that there are businesses that are taking “snow days” on this Holiday and not truly observing the actual meaning of the day (you can read more here). At one of the schools I teach at, one year several social and racially unconscious students ran down the dorm hallways screaming “yeah, whoo hoo, Dr. King’s freaking Holiday…” in mockery of the day. Many other social and racially unconscious students laughed as they wore black hats and ties. That type of ignorance is extremely hard to deal with, but even harder, if not impossible, to educate and change.
What’s the point? The point is that we need to re-group: African Americans, Latinos, Euro Americans, Asians, and oppressed peoples everywhere… we need to realize the significance, depth, responsibility, awareness, and complexity of change and what it will cost; because what we can’t afford is a future not paid and in debt socially and institutionally.
Note: the picture used in this blog is that of Dave Dennis, delivering the eulogy at the funeral of James Chaney (killed by cops/Klansmen) in 1964. See the intensity, the anger, the call to justice, and the passion within this photo.