A Time to Remember
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AS WE APPROACH the second national commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King Gr. 's birthday, it is imperative to understand that we pay homage to him not solely because he was assassinated, as so many Americans wrongly assume. In times scarred by the senseless bigotry of the Howard Beach incident, by a President eager to orchestrate the deracination of the legislative gains of the 1960s, and by self-serving Black conservative academicians who plead for cessation of all civil rights activity, our nation must look back in time to King's accomplishments and his vision.
On the eve of his death King acknowledged that he had been "to the mountaintop" and had seen "the promised land." As he predicted that night, he did not get there with us, nor have we, as a nation arrived there either. The present confirms this and illustrates how dangerous it is to ignore the past.
Ronald Reagan asserts that race no longer divides America, yet incidents at the Citadel, Smith College, Swarthmore College, and the University of Massachusetts-Amherst prove him wrong. Occurring on college campuses, which formerly produced the very civil rights activists that helped ignite the movement of the 1960s, these incidents reveal the extent to which America remains ignorant of where it has been and what King hoped it could become.
CERTAINLY, we honor Martin Luther King for concrete reasons. Although many individuals were responsible for the great victories of the 1960s, it was King to whom the nation looked during the successful reformist phase of the movement. The Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Birmingham Protest, the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were all major accomplishments for King, as he coordinated the downfall of Jim Crow segregation.
Those were battles marked by violence and death. They cannot be forgotten. The blood-stained ground on which civil rights workers walked must never be cleansed. If it fades from memory, our nation will find itself fulfilling George Santayana's prophecy of having to repeat history because we ignored it. In celebrating King's victories, we keep the past alive and by so doing educate our nation about the high cost of freedom.
Yet, we must remember King's failure as well. He was not content to settle for legislative gains alone. Pressing on to the Northern cities, he attempted to harness the diverse energies and philosophies of an increasingly militant movement to redress inequities extant in America's ghettoes. That the task was much more difficult and that he did not succeed are also part of American history.
THE IMPEDIMENTS to true equality remain. This aspect of King's legacy must also be recalled. We cannot, as middle class Black conservatives propose, turn our backs to the Black poor by abandoning renewed calls for civil rights and equal opportunity. In a nation where the rate of Black unemployment is three times that of whites and where the federal government advocates retrenchment in welfare and affirmative action programs, it is to King's ideas that we must return.
His Poor People's Campaign was precisely the type of coalition that could pressure federal, state, and local governments to act. His death spelled doom for that crusade, yet his idea should carry on, reminding us all that economic and educational opportunity are not equal for all Americans, but that they should be.
Finally, and most significantly, we need to remember King for his vision. He dreamed of a society free of racism and intolerance. He hoped that the struggles of the 1960s would demonstrate the moral turpitude of prejudice. By witnessing the violent white reaction to his non-violent demonstrations, Americans, King surmised, would learn from history and would renounce racism. For a brief time during the exuberant days of civil rights triumphs, it appeared that his dream could be realized.
Sadly, this has not been the case. Although today many Americans believe that racism is no longer a problem, that it was "abolished by the movement," it continues to run rampant across the face of America. From jewelers in Washington, D.C. who refuse to admit Black teenagers to their stores because they associate color with crime, to white college students who don sheets to scare off their Black peers, to a white community that tolerates the murder of a Black man because he was "caught" in their neighborhood, we see that bigotry flourishes. If we look to our past, to King's legacy, we cannot but understand how great a leap backward this is.
Almost two and a half decades ago, in the sweltering afternoon heat of our nation's capital, Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed of the day when "little Black boys and Black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers." If we hope to fulfill his dream, if we want to counteract the conservative backlash that threatens our nation today, we must remember what King has taught us and follow his lead. Failure to recall his struggles and his vision will cause us to plummet inexorably to the base of the mountain, which next time we will have to ascend without his guidance.
Professor Marshall Hyatt is a member of the Afro-American Studies Department where he teaches a conference course on Martin Luther King Jr., as well as courses on civil rights and race relations in America. His publications include a book on Black images in film and articles on civil rights and race theory. He has recently completed a new book, Franz Boas and the Study of Man: The Dynamics of Ethnicity. Hyatt will leave Harvard next fall to become a Professor of Afro-American History and the Director of the Center for Afro-American Studies at Wesleyan University.