Monday, January 16, 2023

The King of Civil Rights

 I’ve written in the past that my principles haven’t changed much. For the most part, I still hold the same conservative principles now that I held during the Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump presidencies. As the Republican Party changed around me, I’ve stayed pretty much the same.

Race relations is one of the areas where I have changed my opinion, largely because I’ve been exposed to new ideas and information. In years past, I would probably have fit in with people who said that the Civil War ended slavery 150 years ago and that minorities have a lot of affirmative opportunities in modern America, yet a lot of those opportunities are wasted.

King gave his most famous speech, "I Have a Dream", before the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. (Rowland Scherman/Wikimedia/Public Domain)

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That’s not untrue, but it’s also not the full story.

It took me a long time to fully appreciate that even though slavery ended in 1865, the unequal treatment of black Americans continued for more than 100 years after that. When I was a student at the University of Georgia, I often drove past a historical marker in Madison County as I crossed the Broad River. That marker tells the story of Lt. Col. Lemuel Penn, a decorated US Army veteran of World War II who made the mistake of driving through Athens in 1964, 99 years after the Confederate surrender and abolition. Doing nothing more than driving through town, Penn and two other soldiers in the car attracted the attention of several local members of the Ku Klux Klan, who then followed and attacked them several miles outside of town, killing Penn.

What happened next was just as shocking and shameful. A local white jury acquitted the klansmen, but, thanks to the recent passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, two were convicted on federal charges. (I discussed the story in more detail in my blog back in 2012.)

The site where Lemuel Penn was murdered. (David Thornton)

This incident occurred less than 20 miles from where I grew up and less than a decade from when I was born yet I grew up in an entirely different world. I didn’t know when I started school in the mid-1970s that my class was one of the first to be racially integrated in my county’s school system. I can’t help but think that some of my black classmates were not as ignorant about recent history as I was.

The point is that people are right when they say that no living black person has personal memories of American slavery. That is far different than saying that no living black American has a memory of the oppression of racial discrimination and segregation.

A great many black Americans remember segregation all too well. Even more are only one generation removed from that travesty of justice that was “separate but equal.”

Even today, I think that many black Americans are more intimately familiar with racism than most white people can either understand or admit. Even prominent black Republicans like Tim Scott will testify that they have been harassed because of their skin color. Cell phone video and police body cameras shine light on the treatment that even law-abiding black citizens can receive at the hands of police. Bull Connor may be long gone but his spirit lives on in at least some police.

Let me interject here that I am not anti-police, nor am I a part of the Defund the Police movement, but given the amount of evidence of improper behavior by the police in just the past few years, you’d have to stick your head into the sand ostrichlike to assert that there is no problem. The fact that police sometimes brutalize and kill white Americans is not an excuse either. We should not tolerate bad killings and needless brutality of Americans of any color.

Even though we still have work to do, America has changed a lot in my lifetime. When it comes to race relations, America is a much better place today than it was half a century ago. That change is due to the courage of hundreds of thousands of Americans who took small steps toward treating blacks like human beings who deserved the same respect as a white person.

But it is also due to the influence of Martin Luther King. More than any other person, King came to symbolize peaceful resistance to segregation. His use of the same Christian Bible that segregationists and white supremacists had perverted for their own ends won many whites over to the cause of civil rights. At the opposite extreme, the hatred and cruelty of people who used violence to keep blacks “in their place” pushed many away.

Growing up, I would sometimes hear critiques of King’s personal life. I’ll acknowledge that he was a human being with human failings, but regardless of his flaws, King was the right man at the right time. He was the man America needed and I believe that he was the man that God sent. Without King, the Civil Rights struggle might have been much more bloody than it was.

King died at the hands of a violent man on April 4, 1968, but his legacy lives on. Today, even though America is still far from racially perfect, King’s dream that “one day right down in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers” has come to fruition.

When I was a boy, we could be friends with black people but we were expected to keep our distance. That was progress in itself, but today my niece can date a black classmate without fearing for his life or her reputation. It wasn’t always so.

I like to think that God allowed King to have a glimpse of the flawed paradise to come before he called him home. As he said the night before he was murdered, he had “been to the mountaintop” and “seen the Promised Land.”

We may not yet be at the mountaintop, but we have gained in elevation since Martin Luther King’s day. And we are still climbing toward the Promised Land.

I don’t believe that talking about our past failures or acknowledging our current problems is anti-American as some seem to think these days. Talking about our past helps us to remember it and avoid similar problems in the future.

But I also don’t believe that we should pick at scabs that are healing and overindulge in racial navel-gazing. Part of the healing process is moving beyond the problems of the past. There’s a balance to be found there.

We should all take a moment to celebrate Martin Luther King Day and honor his memory and his sacrifice, but King’s greatest success may be that segregation, scarcely 50 years in the ashbin of history, now seems to be such an anachronism and that racism is so culturally poison that even racists try to hide their true nature.

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WICHITA LUNCH COUNTER MEMORIAL: In my travels, I’ve been to a few historical civil rights locations, but one of the neatest was in Wichita, Kansas.

On the site of a former Woolworths that had been the location of a sit-in at a segregated lunch counter (it wasn’t just a southern thing, y’all), there is now a life-size sculpture of the infamous lunch counter. I’ve visited it a couple of times, most recently in 2017 when this picture was taken. If you’re in the neighborhood and would like to check it out, here are the deets.

TWEET OF THE DAY: Even though I like and respect Martin Luther King, Boston’s new King memorial is a monstrosity. This is probably the most unflattering angle of the statue, which is based on a photograph of an embrace between King and his wife (see other angles and the original photo here), but the headless statue is still a poorly conceived idea. What’s wrong with a traditional depiction of King, complete with a head?

In a battle of competing sculptures, I’ll take the retro lunch counter.

From Racket News

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