Monday, January 16, 2012

The Man is More Important Than the Myth

I woke up at 10:30 this morning and I turned on my ipod. I had the "Recently Added" playlist going and the introduction to Common's album "The Dreamer/The Believer" came on. I decided to listen to the whole album, and within the first twenty minutes, there were no less than ten references to Dr. King and his Dream.

I've listened to the album before, so I don't know if it was a subconscious decision to keep listening to the album when it randomly came on today, but I found it interesting that I listened to this particular album on this particular day. And since this blog takes its name from a movie that revolves around strange coincidences, or intersections, I decided to put off my post about how much I love sleeping (and if/how that interferes with my need for more time to accomplish my goals) and instead write a little about the man who has served as an inspiration to millions of people across the globe.

Everybody knows the legend of Dr. King, and everyone knows his "I Have a Dream" speech. But even if we actually take the time to watch that famous segment of the speech, or even the speech in its entirety, we still don't get a full sense of its importance. We can appreciate the video for its raw power. The words are simple yet profound. Any human being with feelings can relate to what he is saying. Even people who don't understand the words are still moved by the pure energy and emotion in his voice and delivery.

But it all seems so obvious when we look back at it now. Of course everybody should be treated equally. Obviously all little children should have the same opportunity to succeed and live happily. "I Have a Dream" posters are in every elementary school. Dr. King is a mainstream hero; no matter your race or ethnicity, class or political affiliation (most of the time), Dr. King is considered an icon. We forget that we celebrate his birthday with a national holiday and build statues of him on the National Mall because what he was saying was so groundbreaking and controversial at the time.

Think about that. "I Have a Dream" was a controversial speech. This speech was given in 1963. We may have seen the videos of the police dogs and the fire hoses, but we are all so desensitized to anything on video now, it doesn't really sink in that this was life in America less than 50 years ago.

We have come a long way. We have come so far, in fact, that now there are claims of reverse racism! Now, privileged, white millionaires are talking about how hard it is for them to make it in this country. That's... progress? Well, we do have a (half) black president. Then again, more than half of the second largest political party in the country believe that same president is Muslim, something which they equate to "evil". In fact, a quarter of those same people think he may in fact be the Anti-Christ. I love it when dreams come true!

In all seriousness, though, things have gotten better. The only dogs at our protests now are wearing clever signs about financial reform.

Hipsters just write the jokes for me!

The only segregation we face now is psychological, which is an improvement over psychological and physical segregation, at least. 

We owe these improvements to Dr. King and thousands of others like him. Everybody involved in the fight for civil rights deserves credit, but Dr. King stands out among the rest, and with good reason. Not only did he die for the cause, but he lived for the cause. His dedication, and his willingness to stare down the face of brutality with love and kindness, changed the course of this country, and arguably the world. There are only a few people throughout history that have made such an impact.

Buddha needs to keep an eye on his plate...Gandhi looks hungry.

We rightfully view Dr. King as mythical being. Sometimes, though, holding people up as icons can have negative, unintended consequences. When we think of Dr. King as some kind of holy figure, we forget that he was just a man, and like all men, he had flaws. We think of him and others like him as perfect; therefore, when we are not perfect, and we make mistakes as every human being ever is prone to do, we feel like we are incapable of greatness.Too many of us equate greatness with perfection. It's not enough to think of Pope John Paul II as a great man, we have to come up with stories about the "miracles" he performed and ordain him as a saint. Humans are not saints (especially not humans who ignore child abuse allegation for years and demonize birth control and homosexuals). It is not dangerous to confuse children with angels, but it is dangerous to confuse humans with saints.

Dr. King was a great man. We should continue to honor him for as long as this country exists (10 years or so, I'm guessing). But we shouldn't be afraid to treat his memory like that of an actual human being. We should be able to openly talk about the allegations of plagiarism in his doctoral thesis without that diminishing his legendary status as a man of integrity. We shouldn't shy away from talks of his infidelity. When we try to hide these facts about our heroes, people with an agenda can use those facts in an attempt to tarnish their legacy, or even tarnish the legacy of their causes. We should openly and honestly address all aspects of our heroes' lives. There's nothing wrong with our heroes being human.  

Ironically, when our heroes are alive, we like nothing more than watching their fall from grace. The word "hater" has become such a common term it's even used in political news articles. People make a living off of doing nothing but spitting vitriol and hate on anyone and anything popular. And oftentimes, one quote, often taken out of context, means an entire career is derailed.

Now, there are exceptions. If you are a successful athlete, you can pretty much get away with anything.

He's gonna have to win at least 3 more Super Bowl's to make up for what happened after this picture was taken.

We are so quick to tear down our (non-sports-related) heroes. Especially when it comes to people involved with social issues. John Edwards is a scum bag, but it doesn't mean he was wrong about "Two Americas", and it doesn't mean we discount any and all the solutions he was proposing.

And if Dr. King was getting a little side lovin' while his own government spied on him and supremacist groups plotted to kill him, so what? Does that change what he did for this country? If he lifted a passage or two in his doctoral thesis, does that make this letter or any of his speeches less meaningful or powerful? In his article "Something Borrowed", Malcolm Gladwell contemplates the complexity of plagiarism and questions the severity of some of the punishments that plagiarists have received. As a Composition instructor, I take plagiarism very seriously. But I also realize there are different levels of plagiarism, and I know that sometimes people simply do not cite their sources properly. I'm not making excuses for him, but copying two passages in an entire thesis is not cause enough to question the integrity of Dr. King (Boston University felt it didn't warrant a revocation of his degree). 

As far as the marital infidelity, if his wife and family stood by him through everything, and by all accounts, he was there for them, who are we to judge? Besides, he was fighting for civil rights, not claiming to champion the "sanctity of marriage." I mean, only a real piece of shit would claim to be defending the sanctity of marriage after cheating on his dying wife. That's blatant hypocrisy.

There was nothing hypocritical about King. He believed in equality for all, and he dedicated his life to achieving it, peacefully. He had flaws, but his vision did not, and he was willing to do whatever he could to make his vision a reality. Despite the overwhelming hate and prejudice he faced, his vision never wavered. His claim that "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere" made people realize that we are all part of the same community; what happens to one person should matter to all. The biggest problem he faced was the moderates; people who claimed to be for the cause but made no actions to support the cause. People who sympathized with others in need, but who were just too comfortable in their own position to do anything to disturb the status quo.

This still exists today. We are quick to verbalize our support of some cause, maybe even sign an online petition, but what do we actually do to help? People are content with how things are, or they are too cynical to believe that any action may have a positive effect. And if we finally decide to actually get involved, we are chided for being dirty and lazy

We have gone so far away from the idea of "helping others in need" and "getting involved" that it is now commonplace to actively encourage people to mind their own damn business.

People are labeled a "snitch" for just about anything. "Tattletales" have never been viewed positively, but we've pushed so far back against the idea of getting involved, that it's no wonder we hear about bullying "epidemics". Kids that might stop a bully from terrorizing a kid may not want to get involved and be labeled a snitch. I love Dan Savage's "It Get's Better" campaign because all youth, especially LGBT youth, need to know that life does improve after adolescence. But I like the "Make it Better" campaign more because it encourages kids to take a stand now, not just for yourself, but for those around you. If you see something wrong, do something about it. Yes, the bully may turn his or her attention on you. That is part of life. Are you willing to stand up for what you believe in, even if it means you get beat up by the school bully?

That's what King stood for. If you see injustice, you should say something about it, and more importantly, do something about it. Everybody makes mistakes, and no person, or movement, is perfect. Everyone and everything is flawed, but that doesn't mean you can't make a positive difference in the world. Dr. King, albeit more intelligent and compassionate than the majority of the human population, was only a man. We should celebrate the fact that a mere mortal was able to have such a positive, long-lasting impact on the entire world. 

We should honor his legacy by getting involved in our communities. As a whole, our society views community service as punishment, or, at best, something you need to do to graduate. The federal government has recently initiated the MLK Day of Service, and I think that's a step in the right direction. However, if the only time we do community service is once a year on MLK Day, we are still missing the point. 

We don't need to be serving soup to the homeless every weekend. We don't need to give all of our money to charity. We don't need to put our lives on the line for a cause, but that might be something to think about. We should at least try to make the world a better place, even if it's just a little bit. The smallest efforts from individuals turn into large group efforts. After working with a non-profit organization for a while, I can state unequivocally that the cliche is true: Every little bit helps.

We are far from perfect, but we can do better. We have to do better. The legacies of Dr. King and countless others who dedicated their lives to the Civil Rights Movement demand it.

I Love You All (sons of former slaves and sons of former slave-owners)...Class Dismissed.

1 comment:

dade said...

Very good Prof Thug! 1968 was quite a year: MLK assassinated; RK assassinated; the war in Viet Nam rages along with atrocities like My Lai; SDS takes over Columbia Univ. (your mother's Master's program is shut down); riots at the Demo. Convention in Chicago; and, Nixon beats Humphrey by 1% with George Wallace getting 13% of the vote! And, most important for you - your mother and I were married that year!! We have come a long way in race relations and social justice since 1968 but there's little doubt we can still go further.