Thank God for him, this preacher, this man of words, action, patriotism and nonviolence, this Christian who energized a movement, whose dream awakened a nation. I speak of Martin Luther King Jr. and ask that Americans do him the honor, please, please, of recognizing his accomplishment instead of pretending, as some do, that we haven’t come that far.
Yes, of course, there are still racial abuses of all kinds, but the biggest issues for minorities are different today, such very special black thinkers as Shelby Steele join in telling us. I am old enough to know what used to be. I was there as a child in a thoroughly segregated border-state town, Paducah, Ky., at a time when a major public park even had different drinking fountains for the races, as if there were a dread disease to be feared.
There was ugly viciousness, and though the talk I heard from my parents’ friends was mostly far from hateful, it was still denigrating, as if these were clearly inferior people, different from us, not really meant to mix much.
A prime exception to such talk was my mother. When I was 6 years old, she walked me to school through a black neighborhood and when I was astonished by the rundown houses, asking her why people lived like that, she answered with words I have never forgotten.
“Because white people are not fair to them,” she said.
Would that ever change? It seemed impossible. Yet here came the courageous, eloquent King, appealing to founding principles, as in the March on Washington 50 years ago. There were many others voices, too, of course, such as that of novelist James Baldwin. His 1964 book of essays, “The Fire Next Time,” helped me as nothing else to have a sense of what it meant to be black in this society, and I shuddered.
Not a little is owed, too, to a foul racist, Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor, a public safety commissioner in Birmingham, Ala., who arranged to spray fire hoses and sic dogs on demonstrators, including children. National TV showed it all. Shocked Americans then knew for sure we had to change, and President Lyndon Baines Johnson had skills and heart enough to work with Congress to give us the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the most important piece of domestic legislation in my lifetime.
“I have a hard time explaining that to myself,” said Alex Sanders, once a South Carolina Court of Appeals judge, interviewed by V.S. Naipaul for his 1989 book, “A Turn in the South.” Sanders had been asked how the South had ever accepted civil rights after a deep-down prejudice that seemed immortal.
“It is a wondrous thing,” Sanders continued. “If you had told me in the late ’50s or early ’60s that in the very near future we were going to have an integrated society, I wouldn’t have believed you. I thought then that it might have been a hundred years in coming. … But people all of a sudden saw it was wrong. And that is miraculous, for people to say that their own behavior had been morally defective. Nobody ever confesses on that scale. And here we have not only a somebody, an individual, saying that, but a whole society.”
This nation proved it can overcome, giving hope for success on other issues disproportionately affecting blacks today, such as the curse of fatherless homes that increase poverty, the likelihood of school drop-out rates, and criminal activity. But where have all the leaders gone? Al Sharpton, anyone? He seems more nearly a reverse Bull Connor than another King.
I mentioned Steele, a scholar and author who says the civil rights movement has “waned” into a “parody” of its “glory days.” Why isn’t there more focus on a black teenager a day murdering another black teenager in Chicago as the black family collapses, he asks. I think it will come. I happen to know a bright, charismatic, politically inclined black college student from some recent teaching days, and I can imagine him as part of the answer.
It will come.