One thing we did right

Sep 3, 2003 at 12:00 am

The most convenient thing about saints is that they are dead and can’t contradict what you say about them. Matter of fact, if you don’t study them too closely, you can manage to ignore the embarrassing things they tend to say about our own hypocrisy and remember only the part of their message that has been safely sanitized.

Take Martin Luther King Jr., for example, the man who made the greatest speech in America in the last century, if not ever. Styles change, and today even those who loathe blacks think not allowing them to vote was wrongheaded. (There’s lots more of us whites anyway, Jeeter, except in the great ghettos of our decaying cities.) Nobody today would set police dogs on folks who wanted to eat bad food at drugstore lunch counters.

Even Alabama doesn’t do that anymore. So we can feel warm and fuzzy, and in that spirit last week we celebrated the 40th anniversary of the civil rights march on Washington, and MLK’s “I have a dream” speech, now seen as something very like the Sermon on the Mount. I remember watching it, or excerpts of it, at the home of my aunt, the only adult I knew who had a swimming pool. She looked briefly at MLK. “Give ’em an inch and they’ll take a mile,” she muttered. I am sure she would have thought lynching was bad, but that the idea of nigs moving into cheap tract houses in her St. Clair Shores neighborhood would have been worse.

Last week there were, to my pleasant surprise, lots of people, black, white and otherwise, who were actually studying the speech. True, the networks were content to play a few sanitized seconds, and stayed away from the part where MLK said America had given black America a bad check, and added, in classy but unmistakable language, that blacks were mad as hell and weren’t going to take it anymore.

“We’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and security of justice. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy,” he intoned, adding:

“Those who hoped that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.” Detroit found out just what that meant four years later.

We’ve had a long and winding road since then. Those of us whose views are at least honorable enough to be called “liberal” by the enemies of promise who cavort on Fox TV are mostly not satisfied, rightly so.

Yet we should sometimes take a measure of comfort in how far we have come. I’m not sure that MLK, up on the Lincoln Memorial, imagined he was barely a quarter-century away from a black governor of Virginia. He might have marveled at the notion that a black millionaire could live wherever he — or she — wanted, marry whomever they wanted, live wherever — without much hassle from white society.

That might have made him ecstatic — till he learned that all this progress had little or no effect on millions of black citizens who, in 2003, live hopeless squalid lives in poverty without dignity. MLK may have imagined black astronauts. I doubt that he envisioned crack, AIDS, and the destruction of the black family in the ghetto.

Whites would be uncomfortable still today with a lot of what Martin Luther King was saying then. He was in favor of nonviolence largely because he knew a violent uprising would be a wonderful excuse to crush black America like a bug. Eventually, when frustration did boil over into violence, the powers that be came up with their own uniquely American semi-final solution.

They moved away, secure behind the walls of money and demographics, and left blacks to stew in their own juice. Want the city, Coleman? Take the goddamn thing. Bye. See ya; wouldn’t want to be ya, but if you people ever get a civilized leader like Dennis Archer, we’ll let him come to brunch at the Village Club.

That’s where we are today, and while Bloomfield Hills may know uneasily that this won’t stand forever, folks there mainly don’t think about it, and when they do, they figure it will last their lifetime, and the kids can always move to Howell.

Yet someday the gasoline really will run out. By the way, MLK and his rougher-hewn brother, Michigan’s own Malcolm X, said plenty that ought to give African-Americans pause. Buried beneath the flowery language, they tell blacks over and over to straighten up and fly right; get educated, work hard, stop whining, take responsibility for your actions and beat whitey at his own game.

Martin was, by the way, also the greatest public relations genius of his time. There’s a message in that speech, by the way, more relevant in 2003 than it was in 1963. It is my favorite part, and it almost never gets played on TV.

“The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.” Couldn’t then; can’t now. On we go, and amen.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]