Langston Hughes posed the question long before the zenith of the Civil Rights Movement.
Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?
The history of the United States is a history of racial pain and subjugation, slavery and segregation, political power games calculating the value of votes on black bodies from the evil and immoral 3/5 compromise in the original Constitution to the gerrymandering and manipulation of voting rights that’s going on this very minute.
In that long history, a very few leaders stand out as not only bold and courageous, but in fact, essential for social change and reconciliation across centuries of the original sin of slavery and ongoing racism. No, don’t look to the Founders, they are the ones who could have stopped the madness at the start — not George Washington nor Thomas Jefferson nor James Madison, all southern slave owners, all men who knew it was wrong but who could not quit slavery because of their economic interests and their desire to have power. John Adams from the north knew it was wrong, but in the compromises that forged the nation, the moral view lost, badly and to our great sorrow even today.
Abraham Lincoln stands out as one of the essential leaders for racial justice and social change, though he, too, had limits imposed by time and place and culture and political constraints. But he achieved the Emancipation Proclamation and led the Union to victory in the Civil War — a war that’s still being fought in too many places today. See: Charlottesville.
Thurgood Marshall was one of the absolutely essential leaders for racial justice and social change. We know his achievement as the first African American appointed to the Supreme Court, but even more important, he was the lawyer who led the legal team to victory in Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark school desegregation case. Without Brown, the progress of the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement might have slowed, dissipated, dissolved in more anger and despair.
Let’s pause to remember Linda Brown who died on March 25 — she was the child whose name is on the most important civil rights case in the history of our nation.
So many other names in the pantheon of great civil rights leaders: Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Malcolm X …the list is long.
But one name rises above all others, the most essential leader in the movement for civil rights: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Or does it explode?
50 years ago this week, Dr. King was assassinated on the hotel balcony in Memphis. April 4, 1968. So many articles, videos, tv shows, commentaries, marches, memorials and memories will flow in abundance for a few days. Then once more, a certain kind of silence will creep back into our national psyche on the topic of civil rights.
Silence, really? Yes. Oh, sure, there are and will continue to be loud voices, demands, programs, eloquent and profane, all in the name of advancing civil rights and Dr. King’s legacy. But something terrible has been happening in our nation, in case you haven’t noticed: a certain ebbing of willpower, a sense of frustration and feeling overwhelmed by a news cycle that is too fast and too ugly and too wicked to confront every day. Silence is a defense mechanism, let’s just go about our business and hope that the next election will fix things back to where they “used to be” — but what was that?
On the occasion of Dr. King’s birthday in January, I reflected in this blog on what might have happened had Dr. King lived. Of course, asking “what if” questions of history can be a fairly pointless exercise unless we understand the point that must be made. This is the point: Since Dr. King’s death, this nation has not had a leader for civil rights and human rights of his stature, his grace, his eloquence and his power. Yes, various politicians and leaders have had their moments, but no one has come close.
The national agenda for racial justice, civil and human rights is urgent and compelling this very minute, and it cannot subsist on memories alone. We long for a leader who can truly pick up King’s mantle and continue the march to justice.
What if King had lived?
He might have challenged in profound ways the manner in which Brown v. Board of Education was implemented in the later years, in the late 1960′ and 1970’s led to school busing and legal challenges on school funding and the eventual resegregation of schools in inner cities because of housing patterns driven by a sociology that was relentless, also known as “white flight.” He might have been a clearer voice for the moral good of integration, calling other leaders to be bolder and more urgent in their insistence on justice, not just parsing legal niceties but pushing the law to new places.
He surely would have raised his mighty voice against the forces that started to mis-appropriate the language of civil rights in the 1980’s and 1990’s and on to today to claim some kind of grievance against African Americans, to demand a retreat from progress in favor of some kind of watered-down “same-same” notion of equality that perpetrates injustice. See: all the cases around universities and affirmative action in admissions.
He would have raised a new generation of strong and visionary leaders to succeed him. He would have galvanized the emerging generation of black corporate leaders to do more than enjoy their wealth and status, to be true spokespersons for advancing civil rights. He would have pushed cities and states to address the fundamental problems of poverty and illiteracy and under-employment and violence that disproportionately affect black communities, still. He would have insisted that President Obama’s election was not some kind of deceptive “post-racial” moment, but simply a stop along the way to justice. He would have strengthened Obama’s willingness to speak of civil rights issues as more urgent than ever. He would surely have made common cause with those who are suffering discrimination and oppression at this very moment — the black men who live with increasing fear of police violence and, the immigrants and refugees who are treated with official contempt and threats, Muslims and LGBTQ persons and all those mocked and ridiculed by those now in power.
Is this too much? Could any one human being do this? Probably not, but inspiration is a powerful thing. What our current moment in American history lacks is coherent, forceful, urgent inspiration — perhaps save for the children who marched down Pennsylvania avenue two weeks ago demanding a rebalancing of this society in favor of justice, peace, safety and security that are essential for freedom to flourish.
Where are the leaders in his image?
This week, instead of watching newsreels of Washington burning, why not think about how we take the inspiration of his leadership forward. The only way this nation is going to find its way out of the current darkness is through collective and urgent and relentless leadership for the moral value of justice. We have no time to waste, let’s remember Dr. King by moving ahead with his agenda. Now.