Saturday, January 19, 2008

Alas, Dear Martin

“Yours is by no means a great nation, but you could be a great people. History is giving you the chance. Seize the time.”

-----Arundhati Roy, Riverside Memorial Church, May 13, 2003

In the four decades since Dr. King was killed the custodians of official history have administered a second assassination, converting King from an impassioned rebel to an alabaster saint. In school books Dr. King is now memorialized as a dull but important "African-American preacher" who went to college to "better himself," believed in God and his "fellow man," and won a Nobel Prize for Peace along with the admiration of "both whites and blacks" for his respectable beliefs and non-violent reminders of the U.S.A.'s essential goodness. Down Orwell's memory hole has gone his feverish intensity, tactical genius, and anguished incomprehension of a society permeated by racism, exploitation, and deceit.

The whitewashing of his public image is bad enough, but the return of apartheid schooling, the vast gulag of the U.S. prison system (with its hugely disproportionate black population), and the perpetuation of widespread poverty through neo-liberal austerity, all openly mock what Dr. King stood for. If he could return to see what his legacy has become, he would no doubt shake his head sadly and urge us to embrace whatever sacrifices are necessary to end the appalling suffering imposed by Washington's steadily declining empire. But paying one's dues has never been popular, so we continue to celebrate Dr. King's "dream" as though it were compatible with huge segregated populations mired in poverty and despair.

What has become of integration? It has been abandoned, and the early victories of the Civil Rights era have been reversed. And we should note that it died not from Klan violence but from years of what Daniel Patrick Moynihan approved as "benign neglect." Public schools that today bear the name of Dr. King are bastions of de facto segregation. Informal apartheid prevails even in racially-mixed areas where it would not require long-distance busing to achieve integrated schooling. In such areas it takes a considerable effort to maintain the unnatural practice of segregation and this effort is continually made. It appears that Dr. King took us to the mountaintop so we could beat a hasty retreat from the breathtaking view of the Promised Land and return to the suffocating isolation of the wilderness.

In his book, "Shame of the Nation," educator Jonathan Kozol reports that in a Seattle neighborhood in which half the families are Caucasian, 95% of the students at Thurgood Marshall Elementary School are black, Hispanic, Indian, or Asian. The Caucasian families have their children bussed to predominantly white schools. As in elementary schools all across the country, a wall poster at Thurgood Marshall celebrates the fact that “the dream is alive,” in spite of the racial dynamic that prevails there and elsewhere. A student Kozol spoke with who actually knew who Thurgood Marshall was and what he had tried to accomplish averred that he was “pretty sure” Thurgood Marshall Elementary was not a segregated school because there were two white children attending classes on the same floor where his classroom was. That child has learned his lesson well. Just as a drop of black blood makes a person black, so a speck of white in an ocean of black and brown makes the sea "integrated."

Here's more of what Kozol found visiting U.S. public schools four decades after passage of the Civil Rights Act. In San Diego a school named after Rosa Parks had a student body 86% black and Latino, but less than 2% white. In Los Angeles, there was a school named in honor of Dr. King which was 99% black and Latino. In Milwaukee there was a Dr. King school where black children composed 99% of the student body. Another school named after King, in Cleveland, had a 99% black student population. The graduation rate was 38%. In Philadelphia, 98% of children at a high school named after King were black. At a Boston middle school named after Dr. King, 98% of the students were black or Latino.

In New York City, a primary school named for Langston Hughes was 99% black and Latino, while a middle school named after Jackie Robinson was 96% black and Latino. A high school named after Fannie Lou Hamer had a student body 98% black or Latino. In Harlem there was a Thurgood Marshall School that was also 98% black or Latino. In the South Bronx a middle school named for Paul Robeson had a white enrollment that was less than one-half of one percent. Free at last?

Whenever poverty and racial tensions explode in violence, as they inevitably must in a segregated social order, the corporate media prove themselves ever ready to lecture public schools on Dr. King’s legacy of non-violence. But the Media Czars have inordinate difficulty in even seeing the apartheid conditions that Dr. King strove to eliminate, and never even mention his call for integrating all of society's institutions. Predictably, any reference to racial oppression, concentrated poverty, and informal segregation is dismissed as “victim thinking." Bootstrapism is the order of the day.

A junior high school student Kozol spoke with nearly a generation ago in East St. Louis, commented aptly on our habit of celebrating Dr. King's dream while steadfastly ignoring the enveloping racial nightmare we have yet to overcome. “Every year in February we are told to read the same old speech of Martin Luther King. We read it every year. ‘I have a dream . . . ‘ It does begin to seem - what is the word? Perfunctory.” Asked to explain what she meant, she added: “We have a school in East St. Louis named for Dr. King. The school is full of sewer water and the doors are locked with chains. Every student in that school is black. It’s like a terrible joke on history.”

This will not change with a black president, or indeed, with any form of symbolic representation. Only an engaged citizenry determined to overcome the crippling legacy of slavery, segregation, and the hollow rhetoric of bootstrapism, can win the day. Calling this forth from within ourselves is a lot more important than canonizing Dr. King, who never cared about the accolades anyway.

In short, the only fitting way to honor Dr. King is to create a just society.

Let's get on with it.


Jonathan Kozol, "Shame of the Nation - The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America", pp. 22-4, 27-8

Kozol, "Savage Inequalities - Children in America's Schools," pp. 34-5

--------Michael K. Smith is the author of "The Madness of King George" (Illustrations by Matt Wuerker), and "Portraits of Empire," both with Common Courage Press. He can be reached at

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