Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The March On Washington And Our National Pastime Of Historical Amnesia

I’m beginning to dread anniversaries. I’m particularly dreading 50 year anniversaries. They seem to be an excuse for hazy remembrance, unjustified back slapping and putting on extra-strength rose colored glasses. The pabulum being pushed out about the March On Washington in all is sanitized and homogenized glory is particularly irksome.

I do not know how much more of this nonsense I can tolerate. The worst part of this exercise it the continued mummification of one of the truly great figures of the late 20th Century, the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. Yes, he now, like Lincoln, belongs to the ages, however the enshrinement of the man has done a great disservice not only to the man but to the nation.

Look, when the usual gang of idiots on the right side of the political spectrum can cough up the a-hisorical fur ball that Dr. King was a Republican and not be called out on that whopper of a lie, the record must be set straight.

Reverend King was no cuddly teddy bare, he was no sainted martyr preaching peace, love and granola. He was a major thorn in the side of racist, complacent and self-satisfied America. He was a radical who used the tool of non-violent civil disobedience to effect change.

And because of this he was slandered, attacked, and abused; not only by the troglodytes of Dixie but by “reasonable” people in good standing. King was denounced by the good, righteous and practical. He got grilled to no end about being a good for nothing Commie or being at least a Pinko sympathizer. He got spied upon by the Kennedys via J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. He got major flack from the other Negro leaders of the time for going too far, too fast.

If you actually listen to or read that great speech King made half a century ago you can still hear a clarion call, not for mere brotherly love and tolerance, but for radical change. It was call not merely for integration but for transformation, for a more perfect union based on economic, cultural and political justice. It was heady stuff and well outside of the mainstream of status quo America then or now. The Right had a cow, the muddled middle was aghast, and those squishy liberals of the day could barely offer even the most tepid support to the program.

For all of his life Dr. King faced the strong headwinds of what was then called the Establishment. He was at best ignored, or told he was pushing too hard too fast. At worst he was vilified, his life put in real peril. And then there was the attempted blackmail by J Edgar, a black a day in the history of democratic governance as any. The powers that be wanted King gone, they wanted his movement dead and gone. Eventually they got their wish thanks to a racist nobody and scum of the earth whose name will not grace these pages.

So when you read some happy-clappy bit of drivel about The March On Washington, on how much “progress” we have made since then, go back and read the real history, not the mawkish, Disneyfied pseudohistory that has been spoon-fed to you by the usual suspects. Read about the real man and the real philosophy of that man. Read about the challenges he faced and the ever-present danger that was part and parcel not only of his life but every civil rights activist. And yes, read about the all too human foibles and failures of the man; how the high moral tone did not match the sexual appetite. Get the whole narrative, warts and all, because it is only in understanding the temper of the times and the challenges faced does one understand why the March On Washington deserves its iconic status.

It is only then too that we, as a nation, can reclaim our history, the true history, from the sanitized and homogenized fable that has been handed down to us. Real risks were run gentile reader, real danger lurked, real-- neigh ferocious-- opposition, internal as well as external, was faced down and overcome. People where beaten down, some out-right killed in protests similar to this pivotal moment. D.C., lest anyone forget, was very much part of the deep south as Mississippi or Georgia. The message being put out was scandalous, it was dangerous, it challenged the entirety of the status quo, not just Jim Crow. It was not just about little black boys playing with little white girls.The vision of racial, social, and economic justice was the the reason for the final coda of King’s speech. When final justice was achieved, only then could the people, all the people, finally sing “free at last” because only then would they be finally free of all oppression. Only then would they achieve full and meaningful liberation.

If there is anything you take away from this date in history is should be not how far we have gone but the work that still needs doing. Jim Crow, legalized segregation, is dead but his bastard son Jimmy Crow, is thriving:  in gerrymandered congressional districts, voter ID laws, safety net cuts, birtherism and in a thousand other bits of toxic sludge sloshing around the political landscape. Jimmy Crow is ever-present even on the airwaves, actually especially on the airwaves maned by Fox News and the other usual suspects of the WingNut right. The back-patting we are indulging in on this anniversary is way too premature. Time to remember the real call to action. Time to get busy again.
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