Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Remembering MLK

I was just short of my 14th birthday when Martin Luther King was murdered. (This is not the occasion to get into it in any detail, but I am quite sure we do not know the full story of his death.)

So the civil rights movement happened during my formative years. I actually remember hearing a story about the freedom riders on the radio, and asking my mother to explain it to me. I don't recall that she did that very well. She seemed to imply that they were the troublemakers, rather than the white supremacists who attacked them. If you don't know the story you can read about it here. This happened in 1961, when I was in kindergarten. The Montgomery bus boycott, which brought King to prominence, happened in 1955-56, when I was an infant. So the freedom rides were the earliest events in the movement of which I have a direct memory. Whatever my mother may have thought about the freedom rides specifically, she, and my entire family, were ardent supporters of the movement. We were on the right side of history.

I was deeply inspired by King. My life turned out the way it did because I wanted to fight for the ideals he died for. But I realize now that I have lived in a protected environment, going to schools with a progressive ethos, working for community based organizations and then for Tufts and Brown. Wherever I have been, it's been an assumption that hardly needs articulating that racism, discrimination and social inequality are evils, and that the proper business of every human is to work for justice. I did not understand how far from universal those values had become.

I knew, obviously, that there were powerful racist politicians in the south: Strom Thurmond, Jesse Helms, and that crowd. And when George Wallace ran for president, he managed to turn out quite a crowd for a parade in the Massachusetts city where I lived at the time. But this was during the backlash to the civil rights movement, of course, and Wallace got no traction nationally. Later, even in this century, we had a clownish Boston city counselor at large who was an overt racist, but that's because there were eight at-large members and he only needed to finish 8th. All his votes came from South Boston, the notoriously racist Irish-American enclave. (Ironic, to be sure, since the Irish in Boston originally occupied the caste position later occupied by African Americans.) But then even Southie changed and Dapper O'Neill lost his last election.

I had thought that the culture was continuing to change in the right direction and that despite an increasingly archaic minority, the rejection of racism had become an unassailable norm. I was wrong. It was there, festering away just under the surface. And it turned out that nearly half of the electorate could go to the polls and vote for a vile, repulsive, ignorant, sexist, foul-mouthed racist pig. Well, at least we know.


Don Quixote said...

Every time someone/people tries/try to raise awareness, the conservative powers that be clamp down in a reactionary fashion, like France in 1848 and post-Obama America to name a couple of examples. But there is no going back. We know what we know. Decent people may be losing the "propaganda war," but awareness of reality is growing.

Gay Boy Bob said...

It's very hard to discuss or comment on your posts when you use the term "racism" and "racist" because it appears you mean something different every day. I've looked these terms up in a dozen dictionaries, but none of them seem to use the terms with the fluidity that you do. It seems that it's whatever you want it or need it to be when you need a weapon to paint your perceived enemies as bad people.

And since you write about racism frequently, it's be great to understand your posts better by having some solid definition of the terms.

As an academic, can you give us all a definition of how you use the terms "racism" and "racist" so that we all will know what the fuck you're talking about when you make these posts?