1.19.2005

celebrating king

It occurred to me that I was so focused on Moron's inauguration that I didn't properly acknowledge the holiday that celebrates one of the very greatest Americans.

Martin Luther King Jr.'s purpose and message have been sanitized for public consumption, as is the way of things. A kind of feel-good, we're-all-in-this-together spirit of volunteerism defines the current popular image. This is not in the spirit of King's life and work.

King was not just a brilliant orator and an organizer of civil disobedience and nonviolent protest. He was a revolutionary. He understood - and acted on - the connections between human rights, poverty, segregation and war. He steadfastly opposed US involvement in Vietnam. He knew that justice must come hand in hand with jobs, and that democracy on paper is not good enough.

King was persecuted by J. Edgar Hoover's FBI, which went after him with a fervor unrivaled for actual criminal conspirators. And Hoover was able to act with impunity, because he was blackmailing the President. He had so much dirt on Kennedy - including that one of his many girlfriends had turned out to be a Soviet spy - that Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy was helpless to stop the wiretapping, surveillance and, yes, death threats.

For more about the life and legacy of the great Reverend King, I highly recommend the two massive books known as "the King books": Taylor Branch's Pulitzer Prize- winning Parting the Waters and Pillar Of Fire. (They are the first two books of a planned trilogy; I eagerly await the third.) They are absolutely fascinating histories of the American civil rights movement, told through the prism of a biography of King.

These books are both epic in scope and rich in the details that make history vibrantly alive. Among its many eye-openers, these books will demolish your image of Kennedy as "the civil rights president", not because the author has an ax to grind against Kennedy, but because he cares about historical accuracy, as opposed to myth.

JFK did everything he could to ignore the entire civil rights movement, since championing it would cost him the precious Southern vote. As civil rights workers were attacked with bombs, shotguns and bullwhips, and an entire population lived in daily terror, the Kennedy Department of Justice turned their backs, interested only in appeasing the white Dixiecrat vote. JFK was dragged kicking and screaming into the civil rights era, and only because he could no longer count on the press to keep a lid on what was boiling over south of the Mason Dixon line.

If you haven't truly imagined what life was like for African-Americans living under Jim Crow, these books are endlessly revealing. You will come away filled with admiration and wonder at the moral (and physical) courage of ordinary citizens challenged to find their greatness against impossible odds.

In addition, I personally came away with disgust that such conditions were allowed to thrive in the United States well into the second half of the 20th Century. King is now hailed as a hero, but let's not forget he was denounced from the floor of the US Senate as the most dangerous man alive.

10 comments:

Kyle_From_Ottawa said...

Speaking of civil rights, here's one more civics lesson for the day:

Consitution of Canada
http://laws.justice.gc.ca/en/const/

Charter of Rights and Freedoms
http://laws.justice.gc.ca/en/const/annex_e.html#I

L-girl said...

Oh, excellent! Putting it on the reading list...

RobfromAlberta said...

Oh boy, the constitution and the charter, there's some light bathroom entertainment for you. Your constitution was written by poets and visionaries, ours was written by bureaucrats and lawyers. Enjoy!

L-girl said...

Aw geez, I must sound like an even bigger geek than I am!

I confess I was thinking of the Preamble and the Declaration of Independence, which are beautiful and stirring. This sounds more like something I'd see in the law firm where I work.

I do want to learn about Canadian history and government, but perhaps I won't start with this... :)

Linda said...

I just found your blog, and can quite understand why you're moving to Canada. I'm in Australia and would love to move to New Zealand except I have ageing parents to look after here. My reasons are the same as yours. We have a moron Prime Minister who follows the bush like a puppy on a leash, and most of the population don't seem to care about anything.

Martin Luther King was a hero and an inspiration.

Kyle_From_Ottawa said...

Our constitution definitely isn't stirring. Peace, Order, and Good Government is our motto (really!) instead of Life, Liberty, and Pursuit of Happiness.

L-girl said...

When I was younger, that word Order might have rubbed me the wrong way. These days, seeing Peace at the top of the list is so beautiful.

RobfromAlberta said...

I think one big difference between Canadians and Americans is that we lack sentimentality about ourselves and our country. That is reflected in our constitution. It is essentially a legal document. It would be nice to have stirring language and a vision for the ages, but quite frankly, if we did that, most Canadians would find it silly and pretentious. We just don't take ourselves very seriously. We are a minor nation borne of compromise and surely destined to fail at some future date, so we just try to muddle through and make the best of the hand we were dealt.

Kyle_From_Ottawa said...

That is the best part I guess. America's perception of itself as the "chosen nation" is a bad one. Rob said Canada's destined to fail, which is true. But minor nations simply appear/dissapear without shaking the world. Major nations generally also always fail, but when they do they generally crash in a spectacular fireball. Think of Rome, Russia, France, or to a lesser extent the UK (The UK itself survived, but it's legacy includes such wonders as the whole Israel/Palestine thing).

L-girl said...

Yes, when an empire crashes it takes so much with it. Most Americans would be shocked to hear anyone say that the US will capsize like all the empires that have gone before it.

You might want to post your comment above - see my most recent post. Or not. I think it's worth it.