Americans don’t cotton much to memory. Maybe that’s the defining trait–everything is always new. Ask any kid what’s their -least- favourite class? History. When you hear talk about reforming education? There’s never talk of ‘history’. And perhaps that’s why we seem to make the same mistakes over and over every few years.
I mention this because it’s Dr. King’s birthday and I wonder how many people really dig what he accomplished. Because I’m not sure the average person accepts how truly crappy things were for black people in America until -real- recently.
You ask the average person when slavery ended and they’ll say, you know… 1860 something. Rubbish. The civil war didn’t end until something like… what 1965?
I’ve heard a lot of people talk about ‘hyperbole’ with regard to civil rights but that’s another failure of memory. I went to high school with LOTS of kids who wore rebel flag clothing and used ‘the N word’ as freely as ‘like’ and ‘ya know’. And not behind close doors either. Right out front. In Detroit. In Chicago. In NYC. Everywhere.
Ya know what’s cool about Germany (there’s a point here). They -get- guilt. They have a national guilt about WWII. They don’t resent it. They acknowledge it. But without obsessing. Because they don’t feel ‘special’. It coulda happened anywhere.
And it has happened anywhere. It happened -here-. We inflicted as much pain and suffering on as many people as did Hitler. AS HITLER. We brutalised MILLIONS of people for HUNDREDS of years. And we woulda kept right on doing it if the South hadn’t seceded. But after our war, we didn’t say ‘sorry’ and reboot. Not -really-. We just found a thousand ways to keep things going. Kinda like a Wall Street broker adjusting to a few new accounting rules.
It’s taken a hundred years of the most agonizing slow-band-aid-pull-off in history to attain -some- measure of equity. Not -reparations-, just something approaching -equity-. Like ‘mulligan’ in golf.
But let’s be honest, we’d much rather forget the whole business than acknowledge that the whole business had no nobility whatever. The entire peculiar institution was just plain evil. As evil as the whole SS mythology. It makes no difference that Washington and Jefferson were great men. They committed and propagated (in our constitution) horrible crimes that they well knew to be wrong.
Think how tough it is to change hearts and minds on -anything- these days? Yet Dr. King was able to do just that. He was able to not only help change laws to promote equality, but also to make a LOT of people see the world differently. For that alone, he gets a holiday in my book.
But again, to really understand how big a deal that is, you have to take a good look at how things -really- were in America in, say 1955. Or even 1975 I don’t mean somewhere far from you with dogs and firehoses. I mean in -your- town. In your parents hearts. In -your- heart.
If America really -has- largely gotten past race, it’s important to realise that more has happened to effect that change since King started preaching than in the prior 100 years after the end of the Civil War.
Happy Birthday, Dr. King