Several of my online friends in Africa wished me "Happy Martin Luther King Day." And there were questions about what I would do on that day. In some way or another, I wanted to say something about why we honor Dr. King. The conversations were nice because there was no sense of embarrassment about not knowing a lot about Martin Luther King, Jr. and his life like there sometimes is with Americans.
A very accomplished professor at school told me that she never was very clear about the difference between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War in school. I don't remember the context of the conversation really, but it probably had to do with how difficult it is to arrange things in order of time and significance when trying to get certain ideas across to school students. I welcomed the opportunity to make the distinction between Martin Luther the German priest and Martin Luther King, Jr. the American Civil Rights leader, but just sorting that out made me quite aware how hard it is to convey to others Martin Luther King's importance to me.
The picture I wanted to put up was a picture of a billboard reading: Impeach Earl Warren. It's an AP photo and blogging it is probably against copyright law. I found the photo at Wired accompanying an article about permissions needed to re-release Eyes on the Prize a documentary about the Civil Rights Movement created by Henry Hampton. Copyright is a complicated issue, but fair use is enormously important to protect our ability to meaningfully discuss the nature of the world around us. So that Wired article is an interesting read and a useful antidote for the often heavy-handed moral tones used by opposite sides of the debates over copyright. Also you can see the photo of the billboard there.
It would have been Martin Luther King, Jr.'s 78th birthday this year. 1968 seems a long time ago, but not so long that I don't remember. And I remember Impeach Earl Warren signs too. It's commonplace for Republicans to shut people like me up by referring to our "pathological and irrational hatred of George Bush." I'm loathe to imagine myself as full of hatred, but I'll admit not liking President Bush's policies very much, and disliking so many of the people who make up his administration and many who constitute his biggest supporters. My dislike grows out of memory; memories like those Impeach Earl Warren signs.
A Virginia lawmaker, member of the House of Delegates, Frank Hargrove in a debate on the House floor the day after this year's King holiday said that African-Americans should "get over it" about slavery and then pondered:
"Are we going to force Jews to apologize for killing Christ?"That really hit a nerve. I've mentioned that our family moved to Greenville, South Carolina the very summer that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed. I started forth-grade that year. As a shy and vulnerable kiddo my exposure to virulently racist talk made me quite fearful. So much hate, then surely they must hate me too. Del. Frank Hargrove's words have an all too familiar ring.
When the first President Bush, George Herbert Walker Bush first sought elected office he used the support of The Civil Rights Act of 1964 of his opponent senator Ralph Yarbourgh as his main line of attack and plea for votes. According to this biography of the first president Bush, he called senator Yarbourgh an "extremist" and a "left wing demagogue." In fairness, the Wikipedia article on George H. W. Bush reports that Yarbourgh called Bush a "tool of the eastern kingmakers" and a right-wing extremist. All that may seem like ancient history now, and indeed it seems so improbable to imagine a liberal senator from Texas today.
Still, it amazes me to look back over the intervening years to see how many in public life have scaled to power using vicious racism on their ascent. Even more bizarre is the polite fiction we here in America we seem to enforce that racism never played such a vital role. Such that Vice President George Bush could vouch for president Reagan, "He hasn't a racist bone in his body" and somehow we were suppose to believe it?
When I was a kid listening to pop radio in the car was a great joy. But when Life Line would come on the air the color would drain out of me and I still remember feeling such dread. Life Line was a radio show by H. L. Hunt, a Texas oil billionaire. Among Hunt's notions was a cashocracy where the more money you had the more votes you'd get.
Obviously the road to present day conservatism headed by George Bush and Dick Cheney has it's twists and turns. Rick Pearlstein's book, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus is widely lauded. I haven't read it, but I can recommend Robert Sherrill's piece in The Nation a while back Conservatism as Phoenix. A consistent thread in all of this has been to limit public participation in electoral politics and other instruments for democracy, consistently race has been exploited by the conservative movement to do just that.
All manner of powerful corporate leaders have actively participated in the conservative ascendency. Many of them are fairly well-known to the public, for example Howard Ahmanson, Jr. and Richard Mellon Scaife. Still, its interesting how we here in America are quite comfortable saying about Bush and Cheney "our government is in the hands of the oilmen" without really having names to place with those oilmen.
The tight veil of secrecy surrounding Vice President Cheney's energy task force in 2001 has always struck me as a bit over the top. When the energy chiefs were summoned to testify in Congress in 2005, I marveled at their inability to recollect. I suppose I'm just not cynical enough to think it's okay to lie if you're rich and powerful enough; that is, my presumption is that while clearly not admitting to anything they didn't absolutely have to, I'm hard pressed to think they lied outright. Their testimony about these meetings made me realize they really were especially secret. Nonetheless, given my lingering resentments from childhood, I feel quite certain that members of the Koch family and members of the Hunt family were able to make their views known.
The "who" in the rise of the present configuration of conservatism in the USA matters because of the bodies buried, and not just in a figurative sense of the expression. The great JohnHouston playing the character Noah Cross in the film Chinatown quipped:
'Course I'm respectable. I'm old. Politicians, public buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enoughMartin Luther King was gunned down not yet forty, yet somehow we mark the anniversary of his birth for the ages, or until, our collective memory fails us. The kind of "respectability" accorded politicians, public building, and whores, or for that matter the conservative ideology presided over by President Bush today, won't suffice for Martin Luther King, Jr., if we are to truly remember his accomplishment. He was hardly "respectable" and he was hated by those whose power and wealth the kind of respectability Noah Cross knew matters the most.
On the Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday I read King's April 4, 1967 speech at a meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned at Riverside Church in New York City, Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence. I had that page open as I talked about Martin Luther King, Jr. with a Ugandan friend. King spoke about love not "as a weak and cowardly force," but and "absolute necessity" for our survival.
The radical love, love to the root, that Dr. King showed was so essential is a quality contested. That's why it's so important to impute hatred, "pathological and irrational" hatred upon those who protest the President Bush's policies. So I've admitted my long resentments of this current political movement, ideology and hubris. I'm angry too. Dr. King told us that we must act, it is absolutely imperative we do, and that we must act with love. He even said it was a "conundrum."
We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent coannihilation. We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and justice throughout the developing world, a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.So picture, if you will, my attempts to tell my Ugandan friend why Martin Luther King Day matters to me. I'm reading the speech as I talk. Rather than point my fingers outward, or to try to draw distinctions between me and other Americans; I heard Dr. Kings word directed to me.
"John, John. What will you choose? What will you do?
My answer is in a feeble voice, but such as that may be: I will create something good.
I am angry, I am very sad. I am a bit of a coward. To the extent that I can create something good, that creation will not emerge from hatred, rather emerge with love. So love is what I want to know about, love is what I aim to embody. so my Ugandan friend says to me, "He was a great man." True enough, but he called me to be great, and that's what makes my knees knock.