Image Is NOT Everything.
“Dream”-sick is what a lot of folks get around this time of year.
And maybe a little bit “Promised Land”-paralyzed.
I am effectively “How-Long”-ed out, and my brain fairly aches from desperate, clutchy tales of “I Marched With Him...” and “ I Met Him When...”.
This is the time when lazy news directors scuffle for an angle and invariably blow the dust and spider webbing off that old theme tucked in its usual spot—fourth row, fourth book—and bid their newsreaders and...“personalities” to dimly ask if a “dream has been realized” or what one man would think of today had institutionalized American racism not cut him down like some southern tree on which nooses had hung not terribly long before.
It is “4/4 Time”. Ironically enough, the time signature for “marching” music, but also signifying a certain time of year—4/4 as in April 4th. The date and month when America badly for the most part—notes the passing...oh, passing sounds so damned pass-ive, let's call it exactly what it was...the violent assassination of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Those in a position to inform and educate on grand levels seem to invariably fail at doing so when it comes to handling the message and legacy of what Martin Luther King was about in deed. For years I thought this was done out of an inability to grasp his message and actions. That was equal parts cop-out and myopia on my part. I guess I didn't want to see and when it was visible—couldn't see. I didn't realize until many years of frustration and denial that the cathode ray and transisitor stitched, wall-hung homilies were fully intentional attempts to sand away the skin-catching rough edges of what Dr. Martin Luther King was all about in the time that he lived. Television station I.D.'s, the brief “packages” the network news runs, and the space-filling PSAs packing the unsold ad time in the early morning and late night gaps. The obligatory shot of King, hand outstretched over a teeming sea of people. Cut to the head-on shot of Dr. King speaking into the mic—with a bevy of white-hatted supporters at his side nodding affirmatively.
“I have a dream!” goes the public service ad.
“I have a dream!” blares the tepid news show “package”.
“I have a dream!” The Sunday paper toss-in reads as it wafts out when you open for the sales circular.
“Dream“-sick is what a lot of folks get around this time of year.
The reduction—and a reduction is exactly what it is—of Martin Luther King to mere kum-ba-ya-singing “dreamer” status is one of the more insidious bits of spin by a thought-sedating media.
Dreamers sleep. Do-ers walk the earth impacting it with every stride and deed. Dreamers don't take knives to the gut from progress-fearing xenophobes bent on stopping a man actively re-weaving a country's social fabric. Dreamers don't get the FBI stalking their every move and setting out to destroy them with scurrilous innuendo and family-wrecking blackmail.
Dreamers...don't take fatal sniper bullets in the neck for leading a growing multitude of Americans in a battle for fairness, equality and justice.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King was NOT a dreamer. He was a do-er.
But you'd never know that from the obfuscations and gossamer shrouding his decidedly radical doings have been tangled up in that you saw on your television the last few days. You saw the usual tripe, but this year—the 40th anniversary of his being shot down like some beats to be feared, there was an additional angle injected into the mix. The politics of a presidential election—one steeped in all the ironies one could muster in dealing with this day as the would-be next presidents all spoke publicly on the anniversary and its meaning.
In a rainy, dreary Memphis this past April 4th...
You had a White female Democratic candidate—Senator Hillary Clinton, who grew up a “Goldwater Girl” but would find herself in adulthood fighting for many of the things Dr. King espoused—better education for all, equal access to health care, and many elements of his civil rights program. Her husband a former Commander-in-Chief himself, would be lionized by some (in a hopeful bit of over-projection) as “The First Black President”, and these two people—him first during his two terms, and now her during her run for the job desperately fighting for that Black vote. And when that vote did not come in the proportion hoped for, they would lapse into clumsy over-reaching and destructive, and in the minds of too many to ignore, borderline race-based (as opposed to rac-ist) under-cutting to rectify “the problem”. The Friday Memphis photo op was as necessary as it was sincere and maybe moreso based on the dilemma her campaign finds itself tangled up in. You go where the heartstrings when plucked hard, resonate the loudest.
And you had a conservative Republican candidate, a Vietnam veteran whose stated public policies fly in the face of everything Martin Luther King stood for standing in that rain trying to fix a racism-busted past when it came to things “King”. King's life was forcefully ended just as he came out hard against the war that Sen. John McCain still lionizes and slurs the Vietnamese over. “Gooks” he calls them proudly. That poisonous and still inexplicable war is a badge of honor for McCain as it remains a moral blight for a plurality of Americans in general. And McCain still unblinkingly snuggles up to the racists and dividers who giddily hated Dr. King and all he stood for while professing him to be a bucking “Maverick” who doesn't kow-tow to their bigoted ways. The same “Maverick” who tucked close to the bosom of Ronald Reagan, a man who proudly spent time “McCarthyizing” King with communist epithets. The same “Maverick” who unabashedly voted AGAINST a Martin Luther King holiday.
But in Indiana, the American mid-west's hub of Ku Klux Klan operations we saw perhaps the most viscerally pointed image of all.
A Black man, Barack Obama—who most improbably is the leading Democratic candidate for the presidency, and in many polls the leading candidate to ascend to the office of President of the United States. Forty years to the day of Dr. King's assassination this candidate...who is only now being taken 100% seriously as the person who would be, is being likened to the late Dr. King. A disturbingly unfair comparison that diminishes both men on their merits—cheaply filtering the multi-disciplined and many-triumphed King down to a “great speaker” who drew crowds, and senselessly uplifting Obama to King's impossibly stratospheric level in terms of social actual impact based on the most superficial considerations of those doing the media's short-hand boosterism. But nonetheless, this candidate again—some forty years after Dr. King's assassination for daring to push for equality now finds himself on the verge of a loud, but incremental move towards the America King pushed so hard to get to, and so many of us still hesitate thinking to be possible.
That's right. Still hesitate thinking to be possible. In the two score years since that bloody day, in spite of what progress has come, a deep well of trepidation remains. It's a pavlovian response. Not a proper response. But one burned into the circuit board of our psyches still in a new century thanks to the cause-and-effect training from the previous one. Where final vote be damned, the possibility of something potentially unheard of occurring, the emotion of pride is mixed with equal parts of palpitations.
Obama didn't go to Memphis to speak. Quite honestly, Im glad he didn't. There are those for whom the pilgrimage on that day can be a photo-op and whether it works for them or not, read “4/4 Time” Memphis differently at a gut level than those who live that day while toting a different set of baggage about. Baggage experienced. Baggage handed down like some heirloom you don't want but cannot not accept and you tote it along till you forget it's there dangling off your shoulder. Until you do think of it, that is. You feel its leaden weight and its hard dig into your body and soul. I've unpacked abit of it publicly several times before...
When I was around five years old, Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated. I remember the day. I was home on a half-day from school and I can recall the TV bulletin, then a frantic rush around the house by my mom to a radio, and then a breakneck flipping between different radio and TV stations and the phone then ringing off the hook seemingly every 20 seconds. I remember my mama ashen faced, sometimes sobbing into the phone, other times consoling someone on the end of the line and then sometimes silent, shaking her head with her hand over her mouth, just going “Mmmmmmmmhhhh-Mmmmmmh” into the receiver.
Just then, I heard what sounded like a lunatic shouting in the courtyard.
“F*ck this sh*t!”
“F*ck this sh*t!”
“F*CK THIS SH*T!”
It wasn’t the usual screaming freak from the area—Mr. Douglass, who’d caterwaul over a stray CreamSicle wrapper on his stoop. This was fresh crazy, a new voice just out of the incubator of wild sh*t a’ goin’ down in the world outside.
Mere minutes later, my mom had my siblings and I prepped for an odd, unexpected early evening nap. As she hustled my brothers and sister off to bed, I paused by the hall window of our fifth floor walkup on W. 115th St. in Harlem. I always looked out that window, daydreaming, watching the sun play off the terra-cotta building tops and occasionally pushing a stray baby shoe or box of tissues off the ledge, just to hear the distant “poonch!” as it landed five floors down. Next thing I knew, I was swept up into my mom’s arms, given half a cup of warm milk and then off to the land of nod.
I awoke a couple of hours later, supremely groggy and stumbled to the kitchen where the door was closed and all I could hear was my mom’s slippers “pap, pap, pap” across the linoleum as my father exasperatedly sighed “Baby…please stop pacing.” I walked back to my window perch, to look out on my little stretch of the world and the view was a horror. Plumes of smoke as far as the eye could see from buildings galore, flames licking here and there, Five-O's sirens swirling from every direction, People throwing sh*t off rooftops and howling in pain. The comfortable little spot I liked to look out on the world from was now a twisted crazy thing unrecognizable from mere hours before. What the f*ck had happened?
It's a bottomless satchel for me though. Full of memories and images.
I remember killing time in Memphis one weekend about 10 years ago, goofing 'round at Graceland, making my pilgrimage to the abandoned lot that was wherer Stax Records stood on West McLemore—and then...I went to the National Civil Rights Museum which incorporates the Lorraine Motel where Dr. King was killed. I wandered through the displays, feeling the hair go up on my neck. There was an actual lunch counter from a diner where you saw sit-in folks viciously beaten down the old newsreels.
There was a “Freedom Riders” bus—with it's back end—charred and blown out like an exploding cigar from being bombed by racists in the mid-60's.
And most disturbingly, was a yellowed Ku Klux Klan robe and hat displayed under glass on a wall. I remember getting a tension headache that spread from the base of my neck, and into the base of my skull from my muscles binding up while looking at it. My forearms hurt from clenching my fists. And then, at my left was a little White girl—about 8 or 9 years old, looking up at the evil, patina-ed hate-frock. I wondered who she was with, and then her dad appeared, a sandy-haired fella in a plaid shirt.
And she plaintively asked him, looking up at the robe as he neared her left shoulder “What is that daddy?”
I didn't hear him go “Uh..uh...”,
I could feel it. Almost with him. That question from his daughter linked us invisibly, five feet apart. The air caught in his throat, and I could feel it catch as the answers swirled in his head, formed en masse, rushed to his throat and log-jammed there. From the corner of my eye, I could see him blinking—trying to sift through the pile of answers—none of 'em that wouldn't lead down a path of a day's worth of questions about race that in spite of his good intentions in being there at that museum, he was not ready to answer. I walked away—figuring if I gave him some space and wasn't there as a living check and balance to his answer, he'd find enough gumption to say what had to be said. I ran into him later in the gift shop, His wife had his daughter off to the side, and he actually said to me “That was uncomfortable.”
“I'm sure it was.”, I replied.
“I mean...what do you say to a kid about that?”, he wondered aloud.
“S'gotta be the truth. There's a way to say it to a kid.”
“How?” he almost pleaded.
“That's for you to figure out. It's not just about her. it's about you, too.
He turned and walked away muttering under his breath, “Ah...mygodmygodmygodmygodmygod...” as he trailed off.
There was more to that day. Unexpected and jarring things. Wandering upstairs from the exhibit I came cross a tableau that leadened my feet and sank my heart. Behind a plexiglass barrier was the opened hotel room—#306—that Dr. Martin Luther King stayed in on 4/4/68. The very room behind that infamous balcony everybody pointed from as a mortally wounded King lay sprawled at their feet. There was a neat bed, and an old TV Guide nearby with some strewn papers here and there. I remember seeing a set of cufflinks and a pack of cigarettes. A plate some food had been eaten from and a small container of milk or juice. And of course, that window looking outward, onto the balcony towards for him, that day...infinity.
I found myself later in the motel's parking lot downstairs where vintage cars from '68 sat parked in a time-locked open-air diorama of sorts. A local woman pointed for me—pointing is something one seems to do on impulse when at the Lorraine—to a short brick wall in the distance, a scattering of small trees and a boarded up building where Ray supposedly shot King from. Eyes darting from sniper's nest to target area. Imagining the crack of the Remington 30.06 caliber rifle. The distance a short one, a couple of hundred feet perhaps. And blinking back the image of the fallen King and the pointing co-horts. That room, in those odd 60's pastels—seafoam and beiges. The last place he willingly lay.
It would be days before my mood would brighten after being there.
And it pained me on this past Friday seeing how people took advantage of that day to paint it s something entirely other than what it was. You would think from the gauzy language and safe visuals and sanitized memories conjured that King had simply laid down that day and fell asleep, expiring quietly as he rested.
This was violence. Terrorism in fact. And no matter how many of those gauzy words, safe visuals and sanitized memories foisted upon us, the truth of the matter is that King's assassination was not the collective weepfest the historical re-imaginers would have you conveniently believe. This nation was so racially polarized that this man who never raised a hand to anyone during his protests saw not a few million twisted Americans accept his murder with a smile on their faces and if not a song in their hearts, barely a care in the world—as described via Keith Olbermann on Countdown on March 18th:
“My grandfather, a fire fighter. Put himself in danger to save people, didn't care who they were. His parents were immigrants to this country and they came to New York in the late 1800's theyre so naive they told him 'Don't touch a Black person, the color will come off on your hands'. And one night I was nine years old my parents were out to dinner he was babysitting me, television's on and you know the middle of Hawaii 50 or Ironside or whatever the show was, on comes the news bulletion from Memphis: Martin Luther King Assassinated. And my grandfather who was a good man says 'Why did they interrupt my show to tell me about some n-word getting shot'.”
It was a time when King was still referred to publicly as “Martin Luther Coon” by elected officials.
When Ronald Reagan when asked about the factors leading up to King's death said: (It's a) “great tragedy that began when we began compromising with law and order, and people started choosing which laws they’d break.”
He was no mere dewy-eyed “dreamer” of a better day. He was an increasingly hard-nosed opponent of injustice in America—a trench-fighter for equality who faced some of the most vicious opposition to his quest for equality for all not in the deep south that is so easy to pillory, but in the northern, supposedly civilized environs of Illinois—Cicero, Illinois to be specific, where he found himself having to step back southward to regroup in the face of caustic, blatant bigotry. Bullets fired overhead as he marched through catcall and epithet-filled streets. But again...it was more than his stance against racism that began to set the die against his living for long. It was his holistic position against injustice—nationally and internationally that helped hasten his end.
It's become a TV ritual: Every year on April 4, as Americans commemorate Martin Luther King's death, we get perfunctory network news reports about “the slain civil rights leader.”
The remarkable thing about these reviews of King's life is that several years —his last years—are totally missing, as if flushed down a memory hole.
What TV viewers see is a closed loop of familiar file footage: King battling desegregation in Birmingham (1963); reciting his dream of racial harmony at the rally in Washington (1963); marching for voting rights in Selma, Alabama (1965); and finally, lying dead on the motel balcony in Memphis (1968).
An alert viewer might notice that the chronology jumps from 1965 to 1968. Yet King didn't take a sabbatical near the end of his life. In fact, he was speaking and organizing as diligently as ever.
Almost all of those speeches were filmed or taped. But they're not shown today on TV.
It's because national news media have never come to terms with what Martin Luther King Jr. stood for during his final years.
In the early 1960s, when King focused his challenge on legalized racial discrimination in the South, most major media were his allies. Network TV and national publications graphically showed the police dogs and bullwhips and cattle prods used against Southern blacks who sought the right to vote or to eat at a public lunch counter.
But after passage of civil rights acts in 1964 and 1965, King began challenging the nation's fundamental priorities. He maintained that civil rights laws were empty without “human rights”—including economic rights. For people too poor to eat at a restaurant or afford a decent home, King said, anti-discrimination laws were hollow.
Noting that a majority of Americans below the poverty line were white, King developed a class perspective. He decried the huge income gaps between rich and poor, and called for “radical changes in the structure of our society” to redistribute wealth and power.
“True compassion,” King declared, “is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
By 1967, King had also become the country's most prominent opponent of the Vietnam War, and a staunch critic of overall U.S. foreign policy, which he deemed militaristic. In his “Beyond Vietnam” speech delivered at New York's Riverside Church on April 4, 1967 –– a year to the day before he was murdered —King called the United States “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”
From Vietnam to South Africa to Latin America, King said, the U.S. was “on the wrong side of a world revolution.” King questioned “our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America,” and asked why the U.S. was suppressing revolutions “of the shirtless and barefoot people” in the Third World, instead of supporting them.
In foreign policy, King also offered an economic critique, complaining about “capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries.”
You haven't heard the “Beyond Vietnam” speech on network news retrospectives, but national media heard it loud and clear back in 1967 - and loudly denounced it. Time magazine called it “demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi.” The Washington Post patronized that “King has diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people.”
That is the “4/4 Time” Dr. King lived in. On April 4th of 1967 he delivered that infamous “Beyond Vietnam” speech. One year later to the day—April 4th 1968 is when he fell before a sniper's bullet.
And on the day that The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. died, he spent some of it working on a sermon to be delivered the following Sunday. I didn't see it amongst the effects in Room 306, but that sermon was not the treacly stuff we are led to believe King spoke of exclusively.
That sermon—little discussed by those who would spin a wan hagiography of what this country was about at that time—was brusquely titled, “Why America May Go to Hell.”
“Why America May Go to Hell.” Take that for what it's worth, folks.
That rough sentiment was on the man's mind the day a boiling over of racism wrested him from this mortal coil. Yes, people loved him.
And perhaps, just as many people hated him.
Not just then, but for the many years afterward.
Reagan bought North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms' loud and oft-shouted view that King was not just a noisy racial agitator, but had strong Communist leanings. Reagan barely finished signing the bill when he was asked whether he thought there was any merit to Helms' Communist charge against King. The Gipper couldn't resist the sly aside, “We'll know in about thirty-five years.” Reagan referred to the voluminous FBI surveillance tapes on King that a court had ordered sealed until 2027.
And then there's the dangerously flawed Senator John Sidney McCain, who stood there stiffly last Friday amidst a sea of umbrellas and tried to simultaneously pander to those with a conscience about America's racial insensitivity and lie away his refusal to support a national holiday for Dr. King. as he said, “long ago”.
“We can be slow as well to give greatness its due, a mistake I made myself long ago when I voted against a federal holiday in memory of Dr. King,” McCain said. “I was wrong and eventually realized that, in time to give full support for a state holiday in Arizona. We can all be a little late sometimes in doing the right thing, and Dr. King understood this about his fellow Americans. But he knew as well that in the long term, confidence in the reasonability and good heart of America is always well placed.“
McCain has said that he knew little of King and the civil rights struggle because he was a prisoner of war in Hanoi and received only sporadic news during his five and a half years’ confinement. But his captors told him and his fellow POW’s when King was assassinated.
McCain voted against the creation of a holiday honoring King in 1983, a vote which was supported by a large number of Republicans. McCain claimed this week that he was largely unaware on the importance of King's work at the time, due to his Vietnam-era service overseas. Speaking on Thursday to reporters, he explained that his conversion occurred around 1990:
“I voted in my...first year in Congress against it and then I began to learn and I studied and people talked to me. And I not only supported it but I fought very hard in my home state of Arizona for recognition against a governor who was of my own party."
But McCain's voting record since 1990 doesn't support this explanation. In addition to voting to oppose a state holiday in 1987 (which he later supported) and a federal holiday in 1989, McCain voted in 1994 to cut funding for the commission that promoted King's holiday.
The “I wasn't aware / I was young and uninformed” excuse not only does not wash, but doesn't even wet.
I was five years old in 1968. John McCain...was a 32-year-old man. I would imagine he'd heard quite a bit about Dr. King before his imprisonment while still if not stateside, at least free as a great many American soldiers did. And in the years post his release—a decade in fact—one would think he'd maybe, possibly heard a positive thing or two about the Nobel-Prized man. Especially as McCain was then a federal legislator in Congress. That “neophyte” first year in Congress for McCain was when he was all of forty-six years old.
That vote was as much a youthful indiscretion as was Rep. Henry Hyde's “teen” wanderlust at age 41.
I remember John McCain's opposition to the King holiday quite well, it was mocked by Public Enemy in their song “By The Time I Get To Arizona”. I protested and did my small part in participating in the tourism boycott of the state of Arizona (my then-job required me to travel there—I chose not to).
All of that made the crypto-segregationist Senator's lame posturing this past “4/4 Time” that much tougher to digest...while pretty much being par for the superficial course.
“4/4 Time” is a time for those in trouble to pander. Those who have not, or can not to pretend that they will or can. It is a time for those in the media who have in their historical archives their own dismissals and vicious words against Martin Luther King Jr. to pretend to have been bastions of fairness while bleaching away the vividness of the reverend's opposition to injustice.
It becomes a time for spin and re-casting.
Turn a do-er to a dreamer. Warrior to wimp. Table-upsetter to mere talker.
How should Dr. King have been remembered that day?
Why not for what he actually was? A person who physically put himself in harm's way so that justice would eventually prevail.
As a leader who dared to grow before our very eyes. Learning, changing, and maturing as the world opened itself up to him and showed its ways to him—unprettily in many instances.
As a true multi-issue warrior against the evils of the power structure, in spite of the gross contorting of his struggle into a single-issue one.
As someone who DID things and not just some “Zelig”-esque human backdrop that the disingenuous politically “CGI” themselves into for effect.
Not as a flawless “god” to be seen in the shimmering view of a cheap 3-D roadside souvenir you'd hang on a wall in simple-minded reverence.
But as a human being—with flaws and gifts—who without argument, gave far, far more than he got and in so doing along with others, qualitatively bettered America.
So spare me this vapor-tangible talk of “Dreams” and “Mountain-tops“ and “Promised Lands” as his legacy.
I see a person who went to jail for equality. Who took a knife in the gut for freedom. Who was spied on and plotted against for forcing justice. Who was turned on by the government and media for leading on peace. And eventually killed for moving a country of 250 million people towards all of that change.
Killed, okay? Murdered.
Not for dreaming. But doing. An awful lot more than just marching...in “4/4 Time”.