The Past, Martin Luther King, Jr, and the Present
Posted on January 20, 2014
Along with the rest of my white classmates at DeSoto Elementary School in rural Indiana, I learned in the early 90s about the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. What I remember: MLK, Jr. lived a long time ago, when African Americans were severely mistreated by White Americans, especially in the South, where Black people couldn’t even drink from the same water fountains as White people. He was a preacher who taught that all races are equal. He promoted non-violent resistance against racists, and he made a speech about having a dream that one day everyone would be regarded as equal, no matter their skin. He was murdered, and all of America was devastated. We should honor the memory of King and his supporters for all of the ways that he helped change the world.
It’s not a bad summary. Simple enough for a kid to understand. Relevant.
It was definitely not as complex as this really excellent article about the terror of living in the South as a Black American that King was fighting.
I am so glad that I had teachers who thought it was important to teach my classmates and me about historical figures that had made a difference in the world.
Something went wrong, though. Like other White kids of the late-80s/early-90s, a subtle message became ingrained in my subconscious. I don’t know if it came from the way these lessons were presented, or the fact that I grew up in a mostly-white rural community (where we didn’t observe racism because there was so little diversity in the first place), or the active and/or passive racism of adults in my life, or some subtle combination of those factors and more, but I got the idea in my head that things are fixed now.
Things are fixed now. Martin Luther King, Jr. and some other people in the 1960s fixed racism. Hurray!
Aside from a few hate groups that were easy to view as the other, racism was a thing of the past.
By putting MLK, Jr. and the Civil Rights movement into our history classes, we learned their importance, but we also learned to associate racism with the past. I suspect this is why White people can believe that Black racism has decreased so significantly and that racism against White people is now more common than the other way around. This is why myths like “reverse racism” exist.
I don’t think any of the teachers in my life were trying to convince me that racism was over, but that’s the message I received. If there was anyone trying to show me that reality of racism as it continues to exist in America, those voices weren’t getting through.
As a high school student, I was very involved in international youth missions trips. Through travel to places like India and Nepal, I became focused on international injustices and inequalities. I knew a family in rural Nepal who couldn’t afford a doctor to treat their daughter’s burns from a grease fire. They didn’t even have any antibiotic ointment to soothe her pain. I knew another family whose youngest, a two-year-old, had a distended belly from such intense hunger, but what could they do? The child was weaned, the goat didn’t produce enough milk, and they couldn’t afford enough food.
I knew there was injustice in the world. I knew things weren’t fair for women or for people without money. I knew there were places where racism was still a big deal. It wasn’t until college, though, that I realized that inequality is not just global. It is local.
I don’t believe I can document what, specifically, changed my perspective, aside from regular exposure to history, literature, and the perspectives and voices of people that were not middle-class White American Christians like me. I am grateful for every word I read, every voice I heard, that taught me what I hadn’t yet realized: Racism is still real in America. You have benefited in every way from your race and economic background. Racism is both individual and institutional. Racist acts are not just committed by bad people, but by people who are uninformed. One cannot talk about the big issues in the world–money, faith, education, health, history, power–without also talking about race.
It’s Martin Luther King Day today, which means lots of people will be commemorating his legacy. If you’re White like I am, let’s celebrate all that King did to change America. Let’s teach our children about the Civil Rights movement and why it matters today. And while we do so, let’s talk about the reality that racism still plays both locally and globally. Let’s prevent another generation of children from growing up thinking that racism is a thing of the past. No more color-blindness. No more racism-denial. No more pushing the myth of reverse racism.
Celebrate MLK for what he has done. Look to his words for wisdom and guidance. Remember the ways he changed the world and the tragedy of his murder.
And then do everything you can to combat racism as it exists today.