The Anniversary of Dr. King’s Death

Because I was raised absorbed in black culture, black identity, history and thought, I sometimes suffer from “blackness fatigue.” It’s not a rebuke of blackness, but a weariness of the burden, an exhaustion of the struggle, that comes with blackness in America. It’s tempting at times to desire a withdrawal into self-reflection, a cocoon of undeniableness and shutter myself from the realities. I get tired of fighting, so nowadays I pick and choose my battles. But I’ve largely been in a rut lacking inspiration.

Reflections on Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life and death reminded me that the greatest hero of the Civil and Human Rights Movements also grew weary, frustrated and disappointed. That his mind also delved in the dark recesses of his mind, embittering him with frustration. That he could be as angry as spirited and that he knew his fight would take a violent, wearing toll, eventually taking his own life.

I can’t profess to be that sort of activist. I’m a writer. I’m an artist. It is all I know how to do and it is all I can share with the world. I don’t know if could be as brave as he and the others who stood up were, answering the call and giving their heart, their soul, their bodies, their lives to the movement. Could I have been that strong? Could I have made that same, sometimes fatal commitment? I want to believe that if I was called to such a duty I would stand up, but I don’t know. No one knows until they look into the abyss and face what lies within, discovering the person inside.

King was ultimately successful in what was the first phase of the struggle. He did not live to see it, but integration did happen, black advancement did happen for some. I believe despite the problems that still exist in the black community and despite the racism that is still present in our society, he would marvel at how far we’ve come in forty years.

But he’ll also wonder, what happened? Where was the follow through?

Many of my elders have argued that the movement died with King. There was no heir apparent to take the lead after his death. Infighting grew and the same individuals who were willing to die for King’s vision would not follow command under one another. But I wouldn’t say that the movement died. I’d say that it got stuck.

Many black organizations, politicians, civil rights groups and institutions are stagnant in their methodology to facilitate progress. Boycott and march. Boycott and march. You’d think those were the only tools King used. You’d think they were the only tools that worked. You think that his ability to utilize the modern media of his day, television, to hold up a mirror to the heart of America and see what evil has wrought.

The fact that he was able to successfully lobby and build alliances with like-minded organizations and individuals, able to reach out and grab the ears of politicians and lawmakers, has been lost in a haze of self-adulation. You’d think that King moved the world with a speech in Washington, that he was a gentle, iodine figure in a photograph. That he made the towers of Jericho fall and the world adore him when he was a controversial figure to both black and white in his day.

The same individuals who are fired up to jump down the throat of Bill O’Reilly or Don Imus, ready to boycott and march over bad service in Denny’s restaurants and symbolic gathers of a million men are mum on the denigration of black women, crime and miseducation. It is easy to target “the Man,” corporations, government entities and powerful, high-profile individuals, but to challenge ourselves and our situation remains elusive.

Protest is easy when evil comes with a recognizable face.

When it comes in the form of violence or uneven justice or racially charged language, it obvious, the reaction is Pavlovian. But on issues of subprime housing loans, being half of the prison population, low high school graduation rates, poverty, mismanaged and underfunded public schools and lack of ownership in our society, heads are scratched, chins are rubbed, quizzical shrugs are given.

If it doesn’t have the world “nigger” attached to it no one knows what to do.

If someone says “nigger,” it triggers a response on a level so primal that black people are making phone calls, printing up the T-shirts and creating signs at Kinko’s in a sleepwalk. Our common enemy, overt racism, the thing that binds us together. Older revolutionaries long for the “good old days” when racists wore hoods so you knew who they were. It’s harder to fight a phantom. You know the ghost of racism is in the woodworks, but how do you prove it? How do you get people to understand?

Our institutions are suffering from malaise and inertia because of the present illusiveness of our enemy, because of the placation of the middle masses of the black community, once the life blood of the movement. I often chastize the NAACP for its ineffectiveness, its inability to maintain a coherent vision in-between the corporate donations and awards ceremonies. But strange of strange, it’s not entirely the NAACP’s fault for being near bankrupt in ideas and activities on the national level.

In Keenan Ivory Wayans first film, “I’m Gonna Git You Sucka,” a character makes a statement that is a truism for almost every organization that was part of the 1960s protest movement.

Yes, we marched on the Federal building. Five hundred of us young brothers, full of outrage. … They were hiring that day. The brothers came with guns; they left with jobs. Oh, yes, whitey is very tricky.


A byproduct of segregation, overt racism and shared suffering is a sense of urgency, an alarm ringing “We’re all in this together, we have to act because if not us, who will?” The ascension of the black middle class out of the inner cities and backwater hamlets and into the tony suburbs holding their American dreams meant all their ingenuity and education went with them. “We’r
e all in this together” turned into, “You’re on you’re own.”

These educated, advanced blacks were the ones who helped move us where we are today, but once the “urgency” passed, once they moved up in their station, there was no longer a need to join the NAACP. There was no longer a need to volunteer or protest. They’d, in a sense, “overcome.” They got theirs and walked away.

They did not fulfill WEB DuBois’ vision of the “Talented Tenth,” the educated, professional black class becoming the beacon of progress, leading us out of the darkness of self-pity and degradation. But once a few got their golden tickets out of segregation, it was easy to walk away from the notion that they were responsible for reaching back and pulling up those left behind.

The NAACP is not only suffering from an outdated model of protest, it is suffering from a lack of youthful zest, vigor and life blood to push them into the next phase of the Civil Rights Movement. They are suffering from a lack of participation. They struggle to fill their offices. They struggle in their focus. Our oldest and once most prestigious organization is irrelevant and in some ways our “success” has lead to its fading from our minds. We lost our eyes on the prize. We have become distracted. We have become complacent. We have become apathetic.

There is a disconnect between the old and young, the rich and poor, men and women. Name any part of the black diaspora and we are bleeding talent, energy and intellectual property out of our inability to act.

But despite my frustration, all is not bleak.

Many have criticized the validity of the Jena 6 sentencing considering the circumstances surrounding the crime. The same goes for the sentencing of Genarlow Wilson. But both these cases showed the power of what happens when the young, who understand how to use technology and the new media to its advantages, become invested in the art of protest. These rallies against inequities in prison sentencing were fueled by the Movement’s byproducts, the young — the number one benefactors of the Civil Rights Movement.

The press and outsiders were shocked and overwhelmed by this show of power, this show of solidarity against a very real problem in our modern, post-1960s era. This showed the potential that lies within us today. A potential that is not stagnant, that is not apathetic, that is not cynical.

Things are not perfect, and despite many saying the Jena 6 protests could be the dawn of the next phase in the Civil Rights Movement, I still believe we have some ways to go. When need to learn from the old and the old need to learn from the young. We need to learn how to strategically focus our energy and battles. And we need to be selective in our fights.

Just as the NAACP selected Rosa Parks specifically to begin what would eventually become the Montgomery Bus Boycott, we should carefully select where to fight and where to stand down.

I know that a lot of black bloggers are critical of a local NAACP chapter’s response and activist Rev. Al Sharpton’s involvement surrounding the “unfair” sentencing of teens involved in the Dunbar Village incident, a crime which involved the rape, humiliation and terrorism of a black woman and her son. It seems bizarre to use this case, with its level of depravity, as an example to hold up against unfair sentencing. Rather than arguing they should receive the same leniant sentence white teens in a similar crime received, shouldn’t we be arguing that the white children deserved a lengthy sentence? If they are guilty of what I have read, it is illogical to argue anything but that. Not all blacks caught up in the injustice of our justice systems are innocents. Why this crime and these criminals when there are so many cases of black men and women who are imprisoned on flimsy evidence or receive questionable sentencing? Why was this case such a priority over the others?

That is where lies the disconnect.

It is easy to fight a white man calling us “nigger,” but when it comes to fighting for black victims who face terror from criminals and indifference from our justice system there are only shrugs. Fighting the underlying demons of our society, the phantom, is hard. But “nigger,” white justice being uneven incites self-righteousness and cries of damnation. But where is the fight for police to protect us and come when we call for aid? To shelter us from reprisals when we choose to speak out against our tormentors? Where are the taxpayer funds to provide us with safety and legal council when we are taken advantage of?

Where is the outrage when justice is denied? Where is the outrage when women and children are abused and manipulated by both their own as well as the system? Why does the word “nigger” have to be involved to stir action?

That’s where my personal apathy comes from. People will argue against police brutality, but they don’t argue for justice for black victims. My father told me when he was young he knew of black people who killed their spouses or neighbors and were released by the police the next day. They didn’t care what we did to each other and in some parts of America they still don’t. Black life is still valued less than white life. But there’s no plan of attack for this problem. No plan of attack for AIDS. No plan of attack for the health crisis. No plan of attack for sexism. No plan of attack for inequities in education, quality of life and treatment or poverty.

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s movement wasn’t only about fighting racism. It was about human rights. It was about poverty. It was about the anti-war movement, the peace movement. It was about fighting injustice and tyranny on all fronts. Yet we stalled out after integration was accomplished. After we were able to eat in the front of a diner and go where we pleased without molestation. Now what? Where do we go form here?

I don’t profess to be any sort of expert on the movement. These are just my personal views, but here is what I think could help recharge the movement:

Networking: King didn’t fight injustice alone. Neither should we. Activists, organizations and individuals should bond with other groups sharing a common cause. These alliances could benefit all. These could be other black and minority causes as well as anti-poverty groups, churches, unions, education, peace, feminist and human rights based organizations. If our movement is endorsed by a wider net if individuals, if we
stand as part of a diverse group and voting block we stand a better chance of swaying our legislators, business leaders and government entities. What if corporate boycotts didn’t just involve blacks shunning cities and businesses, but coalitions of men, women and a bounty of like-minded groups? All sides would benefit in this togetherness.

The Barack Obama Model: Technically, this is the Howard Dean model of organization, but the Obama campaign perfected it. It is the art of using the internet and the media to communicate a vision and generate donations and interest. I hope the youth who are inspired by the Obama campaign, regardless if he wins or loses, will take that organization, that model and apply it to causes that benefit our society. That it could be applied to black organizations, sororities and fraternities, HCBU’s, the NAACP among others with great success. To channel that energy into campaigns, political power, proactive power, not passive, to push the second phase of the dream.

It sounds strange, but the “Civil Rights Movement” needs to be more broad, more than “black.” To succeed, with blacks being such a small population within the US, we need to foster strategic alliances. We need young energy. We need focus and we need the next generation to take King’s model and take it to “the promised land.”

We are only halfway up the mountain. We have to upgrade, advance our actions, our methods to make it to the top. We have to reach out to others, sharing Dr. King’s dream with all who face adversity and discrimination in our society.

I believe this year we should rededicate ourselves to the fight, to be a part of it by giving what we can give. I’m a broke, out of work journalist, so I don’t have much to give other than my time and the occasional donation. But I’m going to try. We still have a lot of work to do.

8 thoughts on “The Anniversary of Dr. King’s Death

  1. snob,you took the words right out of my mouth. Evrything you said was right.Along side your fustration I could feel a sense of urgency coming from you. I agree that if blacks began to mobilize with other groups and orginizations then we would have something VERY powerful.But if Obama does loose then how do you get the point across to the youth that that doesn’t mean the end? That in order for true change to occur you have to keep fighting and pushing foward the agenda.This post really inspired me.Keep up the good work.

  2. You mentioned the quick mobilization on behalf of the Jena 6 and Genarlow Wilson, and it made me remember the Spanish-language radio + MySpace/Facebook-fueled 2006 protests over the immigration/amnesty bill, and how “out-of-nowhere” that seemed to be to so many people not in on it (i.e. middle class white people). Here in CA it provoked the usual hyperventilating Fear of Brown Hordes among the Comfortable, kind of like what’s happening now about that Absolut-Aztlan ad. If you recall, downtown LA was almost shut down by that protest (as was Chicago, Houston, etc etc). From what I saw it was successful in that a community was able to remind itself of its own strength in numbers when united.Not sure where I was going with this but the similarities did pop out at me, both then and now.I really like your work here, and on your series re: Powell/Rice/et al on Obama. Keep it up!

  3. 1990: I am concerned that for some people the groundswell of activism around Barack Obama is all about Obama and less about progress. The biggest problem with the Civil Rights Movement was that King had become the symbol of the movement and with his death went the cohesion and sense of purpose.Of course, I can’t guarantee that if he’d lived he wouldn’t have incurred the same derision and wrath that befell other black leaders after the Civil Rights Movement. One of the benefits of being a martyr it sort of whitewashes any memories that people on both sides of the aisle actually opposed you. Sort of like the morality car wash Muhammad Ali got once he couldn’t run his mouth anymore. You’d never know that was the same guy who angered the establishment and couldn’t stay faithful to one woman.But it’s hard to get people to focus when there isn’t a “menacing” external threat. People are comfortable. They don’t want to rock the boat. Every time I think of it I strangely get visions of Sister Soldja’s “Slavery’s Back in Effect” video and Public Enemy’s video for “Can’t Truss It.”Both videos, which were shown in heavy rotation on the BOX totally scarred my little mind.keir: I was living in Bakersfield, Calfi. at the time of those immigration protests. And it did scare the pants of people, especially a healthy dose of the white ruling class (and working class, for that matter.) The fact that they were “conspiring” in plain sight scared them all the more.I had really conflicting emotions to it because while I consider myself a pretty progressive person, I do get a touch persnickety when Mexican Americans toss around the plights and problems of black Americans as yesterday’s news.A local TV broadcast interviewed some teens who argued the needs of the migrant and new immigrant were more important than that of blacks who’d “had their chance.” So I had to suppress this aneurysm where I wanted to scream that the only reason they weren’t getting attacked with dogs, sprayed with water hoses and murdered in the streets for exercising their right to peaceful protest was because we took a giant 300-year beat down for this country’s sins.But once I worked through that I could focus on how great it was that they were able to use radio and the internet to make such an impact.I know that most Americans, even blacks, have a slipshod notion of our history in this country and the facts surrounding the numerous human and civil rights struggles we spearheaded. So I chalked up the randomness of the “black people have had their chance” statements to ignorance.

  4. Great post Snob. I agree that there is a sense of urgency. Blogging is a place for me to start as well. I can lift my voice along with others and do my small part.Your post echoes what many of our generation feel. I’m frustrated as hell, but I’ve always seen myself as part of a collective.I’ve never felt that because I’ve achieved some bit of “success” that somehow all is right with black folk.It’s a level of selfishness that is truly disturbing. You’re an inspiration Snob and I’m glad whenever I visit.

  5. You are sooo right with this post. Black people of all classes beat up on each other and have no idea what battles to fight until someone says the word “Nigger.” If anything, the real “nigger calling” is in the form of the lack of Black owned businesses, the sense of hopelessness in the (still look like slavery days) dirt poor, pre-dominantly Black inner cities and yes inequalities in the justice system for VICTIMS (certainly not fighting to make sure that all offenders get shorter sentences bc Whites get shorter sentences–how embarrassing). Keep up the good work Snob. I hear ya!

  6. This is an excellent post, hitting not only on generation gaps among black Americans, but also among generations of activists. You also address class divisions, which are worsening nationwide but seem more evident among black Americans? (Or is it that this is the first time I;M hearing about them in MY adult life?)I’m curious if you see any new organizations out there that you think are models for interracial, interethnic, cross-class, etc. organizing, as well as those focused on black Americans.Color of Change comes to mind as a strong on-line model, but I’m wondering what your thoughts are.

  7. redstar: You know? That’s a real good question. I don’t know if there is any organization doing this sort of cross-networking.Is there like a for non-profits? And if not, how would one go about creating that? A sort of meetups site strictly geared for folks who love a good protest campaign would ideal. If anyone stumbles across one, do share!Oh, and there has ALWAYS been some degree of class divisions among blacks. Integration only made them much more apparent. The divide is not as stark as it is among white Americans because the bulk of blacks didn’t enter the middle class until the late 1970s and 80s so we’re talking one generation out of either the working class or in my family’s case, abject poverty.Traditionally the black middle class felt some degree of responsibility for poorer blacks, hence why a lot of the wealthy black families who’ve always existed (See your upper east coast Jack and Jill, Urban League, Links, Alpha Kappa Alpha, AKA, Delta Sigma Theta, Omega Psi Phi, Morehouse, Howard University, “Our Kind of People” set) played major roles as leaders in the NAACP, universities and as an educated class of foot soldiers, tying directly into DuBois theme of “The Talented Tenth.”Not everyone did it, but enough did to keep the major institutions (HBCUs, the NAACP, etc.) going.But after integration some of the black middle class did not feel pressed to join in the “reach back and lift a brother up” mantra of the last 250 years of black existence in America. And all the sort of tensions that already existed (the elites hatred of “philistines” and not wanting to be associated with stereotypical blackness), ballooned. I dated a guy who was a not-black-black-person (he looked more Punjabi than black even though both his parents were) and he bashed poor black people nonstop. It also popped up in high school sometimes, but not as regular as it was after I grew up.Basically, it’s easier to hate on someone when you’ve run away from your history. My great aunt, the snobbiest member of our family, won’t even admit she grew up dirt poor. This is a huge contrast from my mom, as both her and my aunt are closer in age, grew up in the same place and are college educated school teachers. My mother will happily tell you that she picked cotton and braided blades of grass for entertainment.She sees her hardscrabble roots as a badge of pride. As sort of misery inoculation. No matter how bad she might feel at times she’s never too sad as she’s lived through hell already. A bad day in an middle class suburb in North St. Louis county is nothing compared to a bad day in a four room shack you share with ten other people in the wilds of Arkansas.I don’t think anyone has written anything about the disconnect. It’s on that list of things black people don’t talk about:1) Skin color discrimination2) Interracial dating3) Gay black people4) Class divisions5) Africa bashing6) Sexism7) Acting “white”8) Nose jobsYou know — that list. Very rarely do black publications tackle these things and white publications don’t even know they exist.Maybe I should write a post on that? Top ten things black people don’t like to talk about.Anyway. I’m rambling. I hope that answered your question.

  8. I think your blog is great so I would be interested in a post on that list.A professor of mine sees a lot of potential of the kind of organizing we’re discussing in the labor movement. He works closely with SEIU especially and the folks he works with there are trying to do a lot of black-brown organizing, and immigrant-native born organizing, as well as organizing in communities of color. It’s not so easy, given existing tensions among these different groups, but that’s where he sees potential, mainly because of the amount of $$ organized labor has.I think he has a point re: labor, but we have a long way to go to turn around national opinions of labor, incl. among younger generations across race/ethnicity who’ve come to believe labor jobs are not respectable jobs.I work in and study community development, and I find too often activists and practitioners choose a class-based or a race/ethnicity-based argument, but have some trouble integrating the two.As for your answer, it was great, as I’m still learning about things like The Talented 10th, and the meaning, history, etc. of uplift in the black community.Again, great blog. I fwd’ed your post re: Naomi Campbell to a friend and told another one that she needs to be reading this site regularly.

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