Monday, January 21, 2008


Today is the federal holiday commemorating the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr., the great American civil rights leader, who was born in 1929 and killed by an assassin in 1968. Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, he was the man who became the symbol of the civil rights movement and whose efforts in mobilizing the conscience of the nation led directly to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Today, from a dark and bitter legacy of slavery and discrimination, black Americans have moved beyond the past to achieve much of the American dream. Today we have black doctors, black military officers and astronauts, black state governors and city mayors, black judges at every level, black police officers and college professors. In almost every area of public life, whites work for blacks and vice versa, and no one thinks about it. Race-based discrimination is illegal, and laws exist (and are frequently invoked) to combat it when it appears.

But the situation, of course, is not perfect. Discrimination still exists, if sometimes only in the mind of the individual who perceives it. Black citizens are, for many and complex reasons, overrepresented in prison populations. On average, black citizens have smaller incomes and less education than their white counterparts. Things improve every year, but every year the bar of expectation is set somewhat higher and the advances we've made in the past mean less to the citizens of today as that past recedes into distant memory.

Expectations today are different. Demonstrators aren't attacked by police dogs and water cannons as they were during the great civil rights movement of the 1960's. The rights those people fought for are now enshrined in law and taken for granted. The bar is higher, and the perceptions of discrimination and injustice take different forms.

One of the things you frequently see nowadays as an inscription on a wristband or a badge lanyard, or a note in letters, is "WWJD?" - shorthand for "what would Jesus do?" in a particular situation. Today, we might ask "WWMLKD?" - "what would Martin Luther King do?" Were he to return and observe the landscape of race relations in this country, how would he feel about the result of the campaign he fought, and for which he gave his life?

On balance, I think he'd be pleased. He'd see the advances in law, custom, and society and the degree of integration of black and white society, and think that all the striving and suffering was worth it. On the other hand, he'd see rampant drug abuse, black-on-black crime, a soaring rate of out-of-wedlock births and young men abandoning the children they've fathered, and he'd wonder what use was being made of those rights and advantages for which he fought so hard.

The great black comedian and entrepreneur Bill Cosby gave a famous speech on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Brown vs Topeka Board of Education Supreme Court decision that struck down the doctrine of "separate but equal" education and led to the racial integration of American schools. In that speech, which has become known colloquially (and crudely) as "The Ghettosburg Address," Dr Cosby took black parents to task for not providing the right role models for and oversight of their children, and black society in general for squandering the opportunities made available to them as a result of the civil rights struggles of the 60's. He spoke eloquently about soaring illegitimate births, the failure of young black men to take responsibility for their children, and the rate of crime in black communities.


Would Martin Luther King, Jr, have given the Cosby speech, were he alive today? Would he be encouraged by the advances made by black citizens, or would he be depressed by the growth of the thug culture among young blacks?

It will be said by at least some black people who may read this that I, as a middle-aged, middle-class white guy, can't possibly have anything useful to say about race relations in America. But they're wrong. We're all in this together. My perceptions of the black community are at least as important as the perceptions the black community holds of me. We need to be prepared to move ahead as a team, not argue with each other as opponents. The image I have of black America is a complicated one, ranging from admiration of the many fine black military and civic leaders I've known and worked with, to disdain for the small number of foul-mouthed, sloppily dressed and crudely-behaved louts who, unfortunately, attract most of the attention.

WWMLKD? Would he speak out against the problems about which Bill Cosby spoke, or would he enter the black defensive crouch used by so many, blaming the many problems of the black community on the nefarious whites rather than encouraging black people to rise up and solve their problems through education and hard work? I think, from a reading of his life, that Rev King would have taken the latter course. Sadly, we'll never know.

WWMLKD? It's a question worth thinking about today, whether you are black or white, because we're going to build 21st century America together.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.



Amanda said...

Good Post!

And once again, you have put into words something that I have always thought of but could never explain as concisely:

Discrimination still exists, if sometimes only in the mind of the individual who perceives it.

John said...

Very well said, my friend. As much as I truly love the area that I live in, it is a pretty "white" area with very little diversity. Old prejudices still exist in thoughts and words, though rarely in actions.

My kids have had very little exposure to other races. Of course, for me it means that there is little in the way of ethnic foods!

Jean-Luc Picard said...

I think he would castigate the thug culture that exists, regardless of colour.

Mike said...

If I ever run for president I'm going to hire you as my speech writer!
Hey! Wait a minute! Are you ghost writing for Obama?

The Mistress of the Dark said...

MLK..I would have voted for, for president...that other guy..well I'm not saying a word.