Dear Dr. King,
Your national day of recognition is upon us. People are already planning their extended weekend as flyers with you adorned in pimp wear and gold chains circulate the Internet. Many of them are funny, but all are disrespectful. You'll be happy to know that your family is following in your footsteps and speaking out. “I feel like we have failed to reach these [groups],” said your daughter, Bernice King, in an interview this week. “This imagery thing is just appalling, and it’s almost embarrassing. For me, as his daughter, it’s like ‘Wow. I lost a father who sacrificed everything for them to live a much more dignified and respectful life, and for it to come to this makes me sad.'”
I was somewhat ashamed for giggling at the obviously photo-shopped pictures made in your likeness. But why? It's simply a photo. Cartoons, caricatures and unflattering drawings of all sorts have been created in the likeness of famous and infamous individuals since before the Roman Empire. If these things were actually taking away from your legacy, then it was a flimsy legacy to begin with. But we know this isn't true. We know what you've done. On the other hand, I understand your daughter’s concern over those usurping the King image for a three-day holiday weekend profit.
But her uproar simply reminds me of the way she and your other children participate in courtroom fighting that has besmirched your image over the right to control that image.There once was a time in some black family homes, when there were three pictures representing the holy trinity of the African American experience – JFK, Jesus, and you, Dr. King. But the upbringing of respect and reverence toward you, sprinkled with an understanding of your cause, seems to have faded.
As a child, I got it. History lessons and celebrations of your Dream speech and marches were regular social studies lessons. But when I listened to your exploits as a teenage boy, it suddenly became difficult for me to fathom your thinking. Dr. King, you allowed yourself to be hit, punched, spat upon and humiliated in your impassioned pleas to the conscience of American decency. A conscience that many thought did not exist. But to me, in my modern day world and reality, the idea of nonviolent protest did not compute. My heroes were Eldridge Cleaver, Malcolm X and Huey Newton, individuals who spoke of the rights of African Americans to defend themselves against a system that was irreparably racist at its core. I believed non-violent protest was soft and rather ungodly. In the fog of youthful stupidity, I wanted to literally fight the power.
Today, three decades later, the crystal clarity of your wisdom is indeed apparent to me. Violent vengeful uprisings of people fighting fire with fire would have burned the country to the ground. Similar to how the current battle of Palestinians living in Gaza has burnt individuals fighting for a similar cause. Separation and marginalization only makes it easier for individuals to single out and destroy a minority.
Yes, racism still persists in America to this day. I know you see it from wherever you are. But its virulence, and the palpable danger of a legal system that was in full support of Jim Crow at the time, cannot ever be understated. Many popular black and white photos are available that illustrate the sickness of legal racism. It was against the law to standup against its injustice. This wasn’t some glorified activist slumber party. It was truly dangerous. Pictures of police officers beating innocent protestors about their heads with billy clubs and letting ferocious dogs tear at their clothing and flesh, as well as firefighters using water cannons to blast grandmothers and children, helped galvanize a nation to vote down legislation that was clearly designed to exclude minorities from inclusion in the democratic experiment.
I, being a Generation Xer, was raised by a parent who came from a familial generation which grew to adulthood during your struggle to end segregation in America. But up until the election of President Barack Obama in 2008, you were the single most popular visage of black leadership in American history.Still, something was lost in translation over the decades since your death, dear Dr. King. A ball was dropped. A link was broken.
The parents of my parents were in on your message and many of them marched with you or attended some of your grand speeches. While the parents of my generation honored and revered your memory, they did very little to further the gains made. By the time my generation came to adulthood during the cocaine 80s, non-violent protest was so abstract and distant, it became a concept that no longer resonated. Parents of children growing up during that era had no choice but to teach us, my peers, that if someone puts their hands on us, we have carte blanche to knock their blocks off, whether black or white.
I know your teachings, Dr. King. But non-violence in the hood is not a virtue. I would much rather have walked away from most of my childhood scuffles. But my mother would yell, ‘If you don’t fight him and win, then you’re fighting two people today." By "two people" she meant her and whatever individual offended my family's honor. This scrapper mentality has followed many of us into adulthood and permeates our politics and how we prefer to deal with race as well. The modern stereotype of the liberal, hippy Democrat is one that is not in line with the sensibilities of contemporary African Americans. We are fighters. But rebels without a cause are ultimately rebels against self. Perhaps we recall seeing all the footage from your era's struggling, marching and singing. Perhaps we just don’t have the spiritual fortitude or maturity to proceed down the road toward a truly colorblind society. Or perhaps we have witnessed ongoing, unbelievable conspiracies prove to be more true than false. Perhaps we have given up on the idea that American racism can ever be legislated away?
In a report released by the Sentencing Project in 2011, black males have a one in three chance of being incarcerated today. The irony of the prison industrial complex being called the New Jim Crow is glaringly apparent. African American males are consumed by the ravenous maw of the prison industrial complex with mandatory minimal sentencing, the war on drugs, and the Rockefeller laws. Each has the stain of racial discrimination smeared upon the bottom of its feet. I don’t want to even mention the number of children growing up in single parent households or the catastrophic level of black on black gang violence. There's so much to mention. But in my eyes, Black people hate and undermine one another today at such a rate that it is hard for me to fathom a time when it was worse.
I don’t want to give you the impression that your dream is in complete shambles, Dr. King. After all, Barack Obama, a man of Nigerian and Caucasian American descent, was elected to the White House for a second term in 2012. That’s a big deal. But you can imagine the stunned realization of some who believed he would herald in an age of Get Back for blacks in this country. Reparations? Ha! Housing? Nope! Better public schools? Jobs? No, Dr. King. I’m afraid things that were once considered intangibles for all Americans have steadily been whittled away for the descendants of your constituency. In 2013, the Supreme Court even passed a law rolling back key portions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. There are individuals who are virulent in their ongoing fight to ensure the exclusion of minorities from shaping the future of this country. While the numbers of those fighting to counter the moves of powerful and nefarious individuals seem to be shrinking. Civil Rights are no longer a cause. But they are a way to get rich and to manipulate people.
Prior to desegregation, an African American neighborhood, though humble, was clean, the lawns were manicured and flowers often dotted the perimeter of the property. Today, when black communities are thought of it is mostly as a hopeless, sad ghetto. If one were to live on a street named after you, like MLK Blvd, it's probably the worst of them all. Dr. King, we've gone from isolated but proud, to integrated, poorer and dependent now more than ever. Your presence is missed. Because today, African Americans seem unable to organize or create anything of substance without the help or permission of their Caucasian American counterparts. The underlying fact is that blacks have less political clout now than in decades, and that’s truly sad considering a brother and his quintessentially African American wife are in the White House. Perhaps it is our mindless allegiance to a Democratic Party that takes us for granted, or a system still filled with so many racial loopholes and societal trap doors that make it impossible for our children to grow in an increasingly toxic land.
I’m not all knowing enough to even begin to have a complete answer for you, good Doctor. You laid down your life with the full knowledge that you would not see the mountaintop. But if you were alive, looking me in my face today, the only words I would be able to muster, as the black experience of the descendants of the beautiful struggle play out behind me like some sad drive-in movie are, ‘I’m sorry'. Sorry you live on in a memory that sees the dream perverted to the extent that it has. It is a shame we all have to bare for allowing your dream to crumble into a seemingly inescapable existence of race-baiting, demagoguery, in-fighting and constant compromise.