Monday, January 16, 2006

The Task Ahead for the Post-MLK Generation

As a white kid growing up in a predominantly white north Dallas suburb in the 80s, I viewed Martin Luther King Jr. as an almost mythical man, unquestionably divine but unimportant to my world. Such is the ignorance of youth. For the truth is, as part of the first generation to grow up in post-civil-rights-movement America, my life has been greatly influenced by King.

I never went to an all-white school or lived on an all-white street. I’ve never seen a whites-only drinking fountain. I’ve never received the unfair advantages of legally sanctioned segregation. The America I was born into was a more enlightened and more just nation. And this was in no small part thanks to King.

Within one generation we went from racial segregation being the accepted norm to it being an accepted wrong. That’s an amazing change. The civil rights movement did nothing less than alter the DNA of America. And while King was hardly alone in his crusade, he was the key catalyst. He deserves the unfaltering respect of all Americans.

But now, as those of us born in the 1970s progress into our 30s, it is a good time to reassess King’s message and the state of the civil rights movement. We are not a generation with firsthand knowledge of government sanctioned segregation, of widespread lynchings, of fire hoses and dogs. Our experience with racism is much more complex and the solutions harder to find.

What do we do now that overt racism has been all but expunged from our government, our businesses, our places of worship and our institutes of learning?

There are no quick fixes. But I firmly believe we must progress to a new phase of the movement. We do ourselves a great disservice when we pretend that there is still a coordinated, systematic effort to oppress minorities. We do ourselves a great disservice when we let the hyperbolic and out-dated voices of men like Al Sharpton define the debate. And we do ourselves a great disservice when we allow the choking gag of political correctness silence our most important conversations.

America is still a place of racial inequality. And yes, we as a society still have a moral obligation to end that inequality. But the causes of that inequality and the solutions we need to find have changed considerably since the 1960s. Unless we also change our outlook and approach, I fear all our future progress will be limited.

I do not know what King would tell us today. But I know what he told us back then. “With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”

Can we revive our faith in this movement? Can we leave the paths of discord on which we now stumble and cut a new course? Where will my generation, the post-King generation take us? Closer to his vision, I hope. Closer to real brotherhood.


Blogger amba said...

Just one small thing I have noticed that makes a difference: small courtesies. Addressing strangers with respectful politeness on the street: saying, "Do you know the time, please?" and "Excuse me" (when you bump into someone) and "Thank you" and "sir." Especially when you remember how southerners used to address adult black people as "boy" or worse, this micro level of discourse is reparative and healing.

Of course small courtesies are no substitute for the big things like good schools and economic justice and fair housing and employment, but don't underestimate them. Someone just recently told me about a writer, I unfortunately forget who, who said the world started going to hell when we stopped saying . . . I forget this too . . . "Yes sir" and "Yes ma'am," maybe? It reminded me of the "lifestyle crimes" campaign in New York City under Giuliani, the theory that not tolerating broken windows, litter and minor vandalism could raise the morale, and so the morality, of the whole community.

When people are polite and courteous to each other, there's a world in it. It acknowledges the other person's dignity and humanity. It's a good everyday spiritual discipline, one whose effects you can't just shut off when it comes to larger interactions. And it tends to be reciprocated.

1:20 PM  
Blogger samrocha said...

HI! Great Blog! I linked over here on a Blog search, today I posted an article on a perspective on MLK Jr. Day, check it out if you’d like… I've enjoyed reading through your archives, I’d love to establish a reciprocal link with your blog, let me know if you’re interested:

7:28 PM  

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