By Hamden Rice, Reposted on the anniversary of the assassination of Rev. King. MB
This will be a very short diary. It will not contain any links or any scholarly references. It is about a very narrow topic, from a very personal, subjective perspective.
The topic at hand is what Martin Luther King actually did, what it was that he actually accomplished.
What most people who reference Dr. King seem not to know is how Dr. King actually changed the subjective experience of life in the United States for African Americans. And yeah, I said for African Americans, not for Americans, because his main impact was his effect on the lives of African Americans, not on Americans in general.
His main impact was not to make white people nicer or fairer. That’s why some of us who are African Americans get a bit possessive about his legacy. Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy, despite what our civil religion tells us, is not color blind.
Head below the fold to read about what Martin Luther King, Jr. actually did.
I remember that many years ago, when I was a smartass home from first year of college, I was standing in the kitchen arguing with my father. My head was full of newly discovered political ideologies and Black Nationalism, and I had just read the Autobiography of Malcolm X, probably for the second time.
A bit of context; my father was from a background, which if we were talking about Europe or Latin America, we would call, “peasant” origin, although he had risen solidly into the working-middle class. He was from rural Virginia and his parents had been tobacco farmers. I spent two weeks or so every summer on the farm of my grandmother and step-grandfather. They had no running water, no gas, a wood burning stove, no bathtubs or toilets but an outhouse, potbelly stoves for heat in the winter, a giant wood pile, a smoke house where hams and bacon hung, chickens, pigs, semi wild housecats that lived outdoors, no tractor or car, but an old plow horse and plows and other horse drawn implements, and electricity only after I was about eight-years-old.
The area did not have high schools for Blacks and my father went as far as the seventh grade in a one room schoolhouse. All four of his grandparents, whom he had known as a child, had been born slaves. It was mainly because of World War II and urbanization that my father left that life.
They lived in a valley or hollow or “holler” in which all the landowners and tenants were Black. In the morning if you wanted to talk to cousin Taft, you would walk down to behind the outhouse and yell across the valley, “Heeeyyyy Taaaaft,” and you could see him far, far in the distance, come out of his cabin and yell back.
On the one hand, this was a pleasant situation because they lived in isolation from white people. On the other hand, they did have to leave the valley to go to town where all the rigid rules of Jim Crow applied. By the time I was little, my people had been in this country for six generations (going back, according to oral rendering of our genealogy, to Africa Jones and Mama Suki), much more under slavery than under freedom, and all of it under some form of racial terrorism, which had inculcated many humiliating behavior patterns.
Anyway, that’s background. I think we were kind of typical as African Americans in the pre-civil rights era went.
So anyway, I was having this argument with my father about Martin Luther King and how his message was too conservative compared to Malcolm X’s message. My father got really angry at me. It wasn’t that he disliked Malcolm X, but his point was that Malcolm X hadn’t accomplished anything as Dr. King had.
I was kind of sarcastic and asked something like, so what did Martin Luther King accomplish other than giving his “I Have a Dream speech.”
Before I tell you what my father told me, I want to digress. Because at this point in our amnesiac national existence, my question pretty much reflects the national civic religion view of what Dr. King accomplished. He gave this great speech. Or some people say, “He marched.” I was so angry at Mrs. Clinton during the primaries when she said that Dr. King marched, but it was LBJ who delivered the Civil Rights Act.
At this point, I would like to remind everyone exactly what Martin Luther King did, and it wasn’t that he “marched” or gave a great speech.
My father told me with a sort of cold fury, ”Dr. King ended the terror of living in the South.”
Please let this sink in and take my word and the word of my late father on this. If you are a white person who has always lived in the U.S. and never under a brutal dictatorship, you probably don’t know what my father was talking about.
But this is what the great Dr. Martin Luther King accomplished. Not that he marched, nor that he gave speeches.
He ended the terror of living as a Black person, especially in the south.
I’m guessing that most of you, especially those having come fresh from seeing The Help, may not understand what this was all about. But living in the South (and in parts of the midwest and in many ghettos of the north) was living under terrorism.
It wasn’t that Black people had to use a separate drinking fountain or couldn’t sit at lunch counters, or had to sit in the back of the bus.
You really must disabuse yourself of this idea. Lunch counters and buses were crucial symbolic planes of struggle that the civil rights movement used to dramatize the issue, but the main suffering in the south did not come from our inability to drink from the same fountain, ride in the front of the bus or eat lunch at Woolworth’s.
It was that white people, mostly white men, occasionally went berserk, and grabbed random Black people, usually men, and lynched them. You all know about lynching. But you may forget or not know that white people also randomly beat Black people, and the Black people could not fight back, for fear of even worse punishment.
This constant low level dread of atavistic violence is what kept the system running. It made life miserable, stressful and terrifying for Black people.