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The Passing of Injustice: History or Ongoing Legacy?
Besides being the poster boy for civil rights and non-violence, Martin Luther King Jr is also known for his very powerful and prolific speeches. Whether you believe they were all plagiarized or genuine, his conviction, delivery and lifestyle he was promoting and combating was unquestionable. King believed that the violence the activists faced was not a sign of overwhelming strength, but of weakness. He called it this because he thought of it as the last gasp of a generation that as about to be left in the past by the change of history, both national and worldwide. And that like any animal when it becomes trapped, becomes hyper violent and paranoid desperate to stay alive.
He refers to this as a sign of hope because he believed a better future of non-prejudice was right around the corner. Fast forward now to 2016, specifically the BET awards where artists from the Black community gathered to show appreciation of each others’ work. Actor Jesse Williams when he went up to accept his award, says with equal conviction that times have not changed. Police brutality is still a norm and racism still exists in US society.
These two beliefs separated apart by decades display the contrasts of expectations and opinions and raise the question: have we rounded that corner where white people and Black people can peacefully co-exist? And perhaps by extension, has this expectation changed?
I think we should get the obvious out of the way. Martin Luther King believed that a better world was soon to come and this hope was one of the convictions that drove him. One of the things that makes the late fifties/early sixties civil rights movement standout is that besides their protests being dominated by a non-violence agenda, there was also the also the expectation of hard resistance. Death was already a reality in the Black communities of the South for centuries. This led to an expectation that there was a good possibility that they might die fighting for their rights as well and they accepted this bill.
This mentality, besides the shared cross-racial and cross-generational burden of the cause led to changes in American society, both legal and socially. Segregation was made illegal as well as lynching. Blacks and Whites were more openly associating with each other than ever before. And the threats and violence by the status quo was failing to deter Blacks from standing up to their oppressors. This was arguably as much a war as the Vietnam was, if less conventional.
After 1968 with Martin Luther King’s assassination, there were many who thought that the policy of non-violence failed and his hope, vain. The previous generation wasn’t passing away. It was hell bent on staying right where it was and only direct force motivated by anger rather than love, would change that equation.
Despite this cynicism though, the changes remained. Not only that, they evolve past anything the civil rights leader may have expected when he wrote his letter from a Birmingham jail cell in 1963. Minorities began becoming more public and mainstream instead of shadows of American society. Society now diversified in ways no one thought possible in areas of public life, sex, media, and workplace. However this didn’t mean that utopia had arrived.
Despite all the progressive changes American society underwent, elements of the past still remained. Many today have said that racism and prejudiced never went away, it just went underground. Police brutality and profiling continued in many neighborhoods, whether it was illegal or not. Discrimination continued under the table in businesses and offices alike, such as in differences in pay for working harder, to getting a promotion or role that a White person got easily.
2016 was marred by the many deaths of Black youth by police officers. From Ferguson, Missouri to Hilton, Minnesota, Black males have seemingly become automatic candidates of the policy of ‘shoot first, ask questions later’. It is this reality that Jesse Williams was venting his fury at during his acceptance speech that year. It is not just this continuing legacy though that comes into play when asking if we have rounded a corner for equality.
The New Players
Diversity was initially thought of in the Black/White context during the 1950’s and even up until the end of the century. However, other communities also came into prominence: Native Americans, Latinos, and the LGBT community to name a few. With few exceptions like StoneWall in 1969, these groups were still in the shadow of Black/White relations.
That is no longer the case in the 21st century. Other groups’ struggle for recognition has taken its place front and center now along with Black issues. There are similarities common to all these groups regarding oppression, but the details of those obstacles are very different. In some cases, oppressed groups may take issue with their peers because they don’t share the same viewpoint on some things.
For example, in Toronto, the local Police force held a ceremony in apology for its prejudiced against the LGBT community in the past, complete with a mural to mark the occasion. The Gay community was of course in full support of this gesture, but the local Black Lives Matter activists were not. They showed up as well, protesting any celebration of the Toronto police force.
What has in effect happened is that the revolution to speak up against injustice has taken on many other facets than just Black vs. White. Other groups who have suffered are speaking up. And though there is a common enemy in the establishment, how to go combating that is enemy is issue with so many different perspectives and experiences in the mix is now the question.
So we come back to the original question implied by Martin Luther King and Jesse Williams: have we come to a point where racism and prejudice is a thing of the past, as the former hoped? Or has nothing changed, as the latter says?
I would present a third answer: things have changed, but not in the ways that were expected. I didn’t agree with William’s view that nothing changed, even with continuing police violence. I have written about this view in a previous blog. Summarized, prior to 1950, wealthy Black people gathering together to celebrate their success and openly criticizing a national institution would never have happened. That they can is in fact, change.
However a bigger sign of King’s vision of a new generation is that protests against the police are often racially-mixed. It is not just Black people in the streets but White, Asian, and Latino as well. New weapons exist that we use to shame these people like social media. Public Officials used to openly declare their racism and membership in groups like the Klu Klux Klan. Now that is a sure fire way of losing your career and livelihood, becoming marked for life. If you’re a racist, you have to play on the down low, or be very subtle how you show it.
So to answer the first question, yes a new generation is upon us.
However, the past generation’s prejudice has not wilted away as expected. It has persisted, kicking and screaming all the way into 2017. It has lost much of its power and influence, undeniably. If someone wants to be openly prejudiced, they’re going to have a fight on their hands. But those people from the civil rights era who chose to hold on to their bias are still alive and have passed it along to their children and their children after them.
Another way that King’s hopes have veered unexpectedly is that I don’t think it was a case of one generation replacing the other, to bring about change. I think it was rather multiple generations. Each generation since the sixties has extended the idea of tolerance to new parameters, and each one has had its own struggles in doing so. The thing with social change is that if it’s not happening violently, it can take multiple generations for that change to take effect.
Multiple generations are existing side by side. From the older group where basic racism was accepted, to those where open tolerance is now the norm, we all exist in the same time and place. It creates both peace and conflict. It’s a unique position that doesn’t usually happen in history and while it is a success, it also brings about many new challenges that had not been there prior. I wonder how Martin Luther King, being Christian, would have felt about LGBT rights and how we have taken his dream into directions he may not have personally agreed with?
The Bigger Picture
I think that when Martin Luther King and Jesse Williams made their speeches, they were speaking to only a part of a larger reality. The portions being limited by staying in their own cultural and historical context, and that’s not at all a bad thing. Yet the issue of prejudice is a multi-lateral one that can’t be answered by just one group eliminating the injustice relative to their own experience.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”, Martin Luther King once said.
This speaks to a larger truth that maybe he wasn’t even aware of because as you began to eliminate one injustice, another comes to light. As you bring in another oppressed group looking to be free, you encounter another set of injustices that must be dealt with and rectified. These new problems bring new angles of perception that can challenge our own. These issues are not provincial but are linked together, like trying to heal a wound. Sometimes you need to go through many layers to get to the source. The struggle for one is the struggle for all.
So there will be other corners to turn and other generations and groups that we will meet with each turn. If we continue the struggle in the name of a civilized humanity, then I do believe the day will come when that final corner is reached and we can have a true and multi-lateral justice and respect for each other that knows neither race, gender, orientation, creed, nor political persuasion.