Dr. King would have been 81 this week


Firebrands and activists like Dudley Laws in Toronto and more international high profile voices like Americans Jesse Jackson and Rev. Al Sharpton can be counted on to “speak truth to power” when, from time to time, the problem of race – and more specifically racism – threatens to become a genuine public debate.

But the debate only goes so far in the mainstream. Jackson, Sharpton and other such activists become resource persons for the mainstream at particular moments when the brittle exterior of racial tolerance is cracked. Their informed opinions may be a surprise to all but the people whose reality they are called upon to represent, before the debate is routinely quelled.

That is because the Black liberation movement of the mid 20th Century, like so many other liberation movements that had such fire at that time, has transited into more fragmented maneuvers in this new century. Only recently in the election of Barack Obama has the power of that coalescence been seen.

Those who created and rode the wave of activism to end racial discrimination may reflect with some pride on what has so far been accomplished, but one has to wonder what the iconic civil rights leader, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., would have to say about the times in which we currently live. One wonders if he would greet with appreciation Black progress or would he instead consider that we are still disadvantaged, condemned for the colour of our skin rather than judged by the content of our character?

January 15 is the anniversary of King’s birth. Had his remarkable life not been cut short by an assassin’s bullets he would have turned 81 this year.

In 1964, King, then 35, became the youngest person to have ever been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The announcement made the American establishment uncomfortable because the honour put America’s ugly treatment of Black Americans in the spotlight.

King was a highly educated minister of religion. His title of “Dr.” was not an honorary one. He earned his doctorate from Boston University in 1955. In fact, 1955 was a key year for him. While pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, a position he had assumed the previous year, he was active in the civil rights movement and became leader of the nonviolent movement that included the 382-day boycott of the then segregated Montgomery buses.

Another Nobel Prize winner, George Bernard Shaw, has said that the reasonable man encounters circumstances and adapts himself to them but the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt circumstances to himself, and that all progress depends upon the unreasonable man.

It would be hard to argue in hindsight that King was an unreasonable man. But it is clear that he had given his life over to the great cause of progress toward racial equality. Is there a young person today who can claim the sacrifice that King embodied during his lifetime?

The married father of four traveled thousands of miles across the United States to galvanize the civil rights movement and was jailed numerous times for his efforts. It was during one such detention, in 1963, that he wrote his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, his manifesto on why nonviolent civil protest had to be pursued as a means of precipitating a Black revolution for equality.

Andrew Young, a contemporary of King’s who fought and marched side by side with the civil rights leader, recalled that King often joked about his inevitable assassination. To ease their worry, Young said, King would joke that he would likely be saved by a member of his circle intercepting the shot just to get on television. To have been able to laugh in the face of such impending tragedy showed faith.

These days, Black teenagers in their groups reflexively go to the back of the bus; as do other teens. But the state of race being what it is, when Black teens do this teen thing it holds some irony for those who can remember how hard fought was the freedom to sit anywhere one chooses as opposed to being relegated by race to the back of the bus.

The problem is that while an authentic discourse across all racial lines remains deferred too many of us are still figuratively at the back of the bus.

On a note of losing one’s self…

If reality has come down to whether it’s better to have someone looking beneath one’s clothing via a scanning machine rather than having one’s body touched all over by security personnel at airports then we are really failing to admit that the terrorists have already won.

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