This year I offer a few thoughts of my own in commemeration of Dr. King and his legacy. Today, we often mention “progress” when the topic of racial equality is raised — this being the initial focus of Dr. King’s efforts as an advocate for the downtrodden and marginalized, and later, with the same forceful advocacy that he brought to the cause of racial equality, the great injustice that was America’s war against the Vietnamese war and the economic poverty that was, and still is, very much a staple of life in America despite willfully false portrayals by our news and popular media to the contrary. Certainly, true progress has been achieved since the days of institutionalized slavery, Jim Crow and Emmet Till. Colored-only buses and restrooms are a thing of the past. As are lynchings, at least in their most public and severe form. If one were keeping score, one might even think of the glass as being half full without the sense of guilt and pity that more often than not lead to shortsightedness and undesirable outcomes. Still one need not look too hard to see that much of what Dr. King fought against — the inequality, the senseless violence, the hate and cynicism — remains an intractable force in our society. A few blocks from where Dr. King grew up here in Atlanta sits homes and storefronts long abandoned by those who succumbed to such a force. Had Dr. King been able to see his old neighborhood and its surrounding communities in their present state, it is safe to say that “progress” is not the word that would have come to mind.
None of this, however, should be news. The “pursuit of happiness” that is a founding principle of this country necessarily implies a culture of self-absorption and inequality, where one’s key to his or her own “happiness” often comes at the expense of another’s. And blacks, in particular, have long been, and continue to be, the expendable ones in this equation. And the election of our first “black” president has done nothing to change that.
There is time yet to reverse this trend. And it takes not the writing or oratory of a great thinker or scholar to do so. Rather, the solution has been in front of our noses since time immemorial and has been posited in various forms to the general public. Joe Black, a pitcher for the legendary 1950’s Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team, did just in a university talk that was documented by Roger Kahn in his book, The Boys of Summer:
During a recent Honors Day Program at Virginia Union, a black university in Richmond, Black spoke about the responsibilities as well as the rewards of black power: “Our efforts have to be more positive than shouting, ‘Sock it to him, Soul Brother,’ or, ‘We are victims of a racist society,’ or, ‘Honkey!’ I’m in favor of black history because it makes whites realize that American blacks have done more than make cotton king. Rut I’m opposed to all-black dorms, and to violence. If the black student wants to use a loaded gun to make a point, what can we expect of uneducated blacks? By now some of you may be saying I’m a Tom, a window-dressing Negro. But I learned two things early. A minority cannot defeat a majority in physical combat and you’ve got to let some things roll off your back. Because my name is Joe Black, whites called me ‘Old Black Joe.’ After a few years of scuffling, I still hadn’t silenced all of them and throwing all those punches had made me a weary young man. Call me ‘Old Black Joe’ today and you agitate nobody except yourself.”
He makes one point to everyone. It is bigotry to exalt the so-called special language of the blacks. “What is our language?” he asked. ” ‘Foteen’ or ‘fourteen.’ ‘Pohleeze’ for ‘police.’ ‘Raht back’ for ‘right hack.’ ‘We is going.’ To me any man, white or black, who says whites must learn our language is insulting. What he’s saying is that every other ethnic group can migrate to America and master English, but we, who were born here and whose families have all lived here for more than a century, don’t have the ability to speak proper English. Wear a dashiki or an African hairdo, but in the name of common sense, learn the English language. It is your own.”
At lunch, [Joe] handed me a sheet of paper. “This is part of my philosophy,” he said. “And by the way, notice the use of English vocabulary.”
little black sambo,
Black is Beutiful.
“If that’s what you make it, Joe,” I said.
“Well,” he said. “You got the point.”