Sunday, April 29, 2018

Dead Icons

April is the month where we recognize two significant events in the history of the American Civil Rights movement, one positive, the other devastating:

On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson made his first appearance with the Brooklyn Dodgers, marking the end of the enforced segregation in major league baseball.

On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King was assassinated.

I noticed something interesting on both April 4th and April 15th this month. Not surprisingly, on those two days, many folks took to social media to honor the two American icons. Among those posts were comments that considering their source, seemed a trifle ironic.

On the morning of April 4th, President Trump tweeted the following:
Today we honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the 50th anniversary of his assassination. Earlier this year I spoke about Dr. King’s legacy of justice and peace, and his impact on uniting Americans. Proclamation: 
Accompanying the tweet is a brief video of Trump espousing King's contributions to this country, summarizing the words of his official proclamation recognizing the anniversary of King's assassination as a day to "honor Dr. King's legacy" (whatever that means). In the words of the proclamation, Trump speaks of the injustice of racial inequality and division:
We must learn to live together as brothers and sisters lest we perish together as fools... As a united people, we must see Dr. King’s life mission through and denounce racism, inhumanity, and all those things that seek to divide us.
If not original, those words are all well and good, they're hard to argue with, yet they seem to run counter to just about everything Donald Trump has said and done as president. Say what you will about whether the man is a bigot or not, but it's no secret that a good number of his supporters are dyed-in-the-wool racists, and proud of it. It's also no secret that Donald Trump will bend over backwards to avoid offending that reliable, but less than admirable base.

Despite that, Trump has had numerous opportunities as president to bring this country together in terms of race, When the issue of removing Confederate monuments in the South came up, the president could have made a very reasonable argument that while he was not particularly in favor of removing monuments that have stood in place for over a century, he undertood the concerns African American people have about their communities memorializing the people who led the battle to enslave their ancestors. Trump then could and should have urged both sides to get together and compromise. Instead, he took a rigid stance against the removal of the statues while completely failing to even acknowledge the argument of the other side.

When Nazis. Klansmen and other white supremacist groups descended upon Charlottesville to protest the removal of one of those monuments, and incited the violence that led to the death of a young woman, the president could have done what any reasonable leader would have done and what the Governor of Virginia did do, denounce in no uncertain terms those hate groups, Instead Trump punted, insisting that "both sides" were wrong for what took place in Thomas Jefferson's home town.

Then just last week, a white mass murderer walked into a Nashville retaurant and killed four African American people, before being subdued by an un-armed man who saved countless lives. Despite going out of his way to publicly display sympathy for the victims of a truck attack in Toronto that happened the following day, the President of the United States remained silent about the tragic loss of four of his fellow countrymen, and the indesputable heroism of another.

One could argue these are sins of omission, in no way displaying any real intent to divide the country along racial lines or express any animous to African American people. To that I would bring up Trump's famous stance against African American football players who chose to kneel during the national anthem out of protest for numerous police killings of African American men in this country. Again, like the issue of the Confederate statues, Trump could have easily formed a nuanced response saying that while he didn't apporve of players not standing for the anthem, he understood their concerns and would work to help address the issue they were protesting against. Or he could have simply left the issue alone as at the time only a small handful of athletes participated in the protest and were it not for him, the issue would have been all but forgotten.
Instead, at a rally in Huntsville, Alabama in front of a bunch of hootin' and hollerin' supporters, Trump of his own free will chose to say this: "fire those sonsofbitches!"

All of that makes Donald Trump's words in praise of Dr. King. and his bemoaning of the division of this country, sound quite hollow.

Trump wasn't alone among Americans not particularly known for their concern about civil rights, to pay lip service to Martin Luther King and Jackie Robinson this month. I read numerous posts from folks who are openly hostile toward current day activist groups and leaders, particularly the Black lives Matter movement and the kneeling NFL players, who couldn't say enough good things about Robinson and Dr. King. When pressed about the seeming contradiction of prasing those two dead icons while condemning living people fighting exactly the same battles today, these folks insist that King and Robinson would not approve of today's crop of activists. One commentator, responding to the question what would  MLK think of the current president's zealous concern about protecting our borders at the expense of human rights, said this: "Dr. King fought for the rights of American citizens, not for those who were here illegally."


As for Jackie Robinson, I read countless posts speculating about how horrified Robinson, himself a WWII veteran, would feel about football players kneeling during the anthem. Well in fact, Robinson told us exactly how he'd feel in his autobiography:
There I was, the black grandson of a slave, the son of a black sharecropper, part of a historic occasion, a symbolic hero to my people. The air was sparkling. The sunlight was warm. The band struck up the national anthem. The flag billowed in the wind. It should have been a glorious moment for me as the stirring words of the national anthem poured from the stands. Perhaps, it was, but then again, perhaps, the anthem could be called the theme song for a drama called The Noble Experiment. Today, as I look back on that opening game of my first World Series, I must tell you that it was Mr. Rickey’s drama and that I was only a principal actor. As I write this twenty years later, I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world.
I have a very strong feeling that if  Dr. King and Jackie Robinson were still alive, many of the people who wrote so eloquently about them this month would despise them today, much as they and their ancestors did when they were alive. One could say that it is the height of hypocrisy to praise dead icons while condemning the living who follow in their footsteps. Then again, one could say it is human nature that compels us to do so. After all, April is also the month that we recognize a momentous event in the life of another controversial figure who was despised in life and revered in death far more than King and Robinson combined.

Like King and Robinson, his followers today, make him in their own image so to speak, as an advocate for what they believe to be right, all the while forgetting his life was devoted to challenging their beliefs, and especially their self-righteousness. When Jesus of Nazareth told a wealthy young man who was interested in follwoing him to sell all his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor., the man walked away dejected. This led to the comment, "it's harder for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle." The funny thing is, you seldom hear well-off white, evangelical Christians relate that story, just as you won't find many liberal, pacifist, Beatitude reciting Christians relating this quote:
Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.
When Jesus turned over the tables of the merchants in the Temple in Jerusalem, even his own people truned against him. In much the same way, during their own lives. Jackie Robinson as I wrote here, and Martin Luther King, as I wrote here, were also rejected by members of their own community.

The fact is, trouble makers like Jesus, Jackie Robinson and Martin Luther King, are seldom appreciated in life when they constantly remind us of our own shortcomings.

Once they're killed off and can no longer threaten us, they become convenient symbols of our self righteousness and vanity. In the case of Martin Luther King, lavishing praise upon him without truly understanding what he stood for, is a convenient way of saying hey, I'm ok, I'm not a racist. It's the modern day equivalent of the statement: "some of my best friends are Negros."

Michael Harriot wrote this scathing article called "What to Say When 'WYPIPO' (White young people of influence, privledge and opportunity) Bring Up MLK." His contention is that we white folks:
have managed to whitewash (King's) legacy and transform him from a revolutionary willing to bleed and die for what he believed in, to a meek, milquetoast orator who fits their narrative of the sweet, submissive hero who begged them for a seat at the table.
The truth is, the real Martin Luther King was so radical in his beliefs and his actions, that by comparison, today's leaders of the civil rights movement look like Reagan Republicans. 

Unless we're willing to to stand up and support groups like Black Lives Matter, and take a knee during the anthem in protest of police violence, if we white folks really want to honor Dr. King's legacy, perhaps the best thing we can do is not mention his name at all.

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