Community Voices: A white boy’s thoughts on Martin King

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(I originally posted this on Facebook, but that is probably not the right venue for essays.)

 

Martin Luther King. His day, so to speak?  What should a white boy think or say about this?  I was born in 1950 and remember the snarling hostility towards King. The billboards saying “Martin Luther King is a Communist.” And so on. King was hated by nany people, including my family. The FBI was interested in harassing him, not protecting him. Especially after he upped the ante by denouncing the war against the Vietnamese people.  Making the connections….

Every year around this time lots is written about King. Read this: “Most of you have no idea what Martin Luther King actually did

OK, here is a probably-rather-trivial white boy’s perspective: In the 1980s I consulted for the engineering department of a big chemical company. Their management–all white guys with a very few token exceptions–had looked at the changing demographics of the US and figured out that (1) eventually, they were going to run out of white people to staff their businesses with, and (2) more and more of their customers were going to be non-white. Looking and acting lilly-white and racist was going to become bad business. This meant the time had come for “celebrating diversity,” and lots of expensive consultants were around to explain how to do that. Among other things, it meant “honoring” Martin Luther King in meetings and discussion groups. This was no easy transition for the almost-all-white engineering workforce, many of whom had been taught to hate King and what he stood for. There was anger, confusion, and a sense of betrayal. (Of course, this was also partly an intelligent and well-educated workforce, and there was support.) On balance, the “diversity” programs probably did more good than harm; they opened up some intellectual space in the corporate culture, and exposed a horrendous amount of racial and sexual harassment hidden–at least from me–in the underbelly of a seemingly rather agreeable workplace.

I went to some of these meetings and ended up saying (more or less, it’s been a while) “I’m not sure we we should give ourselves too much credit for honoring the memory of a man 25 years safely dead, as great a man as he was. The real test for us is how we are treating the leaders who are active NOW in the struggle for justice and equality….are we honoring and supporting THEM, NOW, or are we badmouthing, and harassing, and marginalizing them, as we did King?”

I haven’t seen any reason to change this opinion. We should honor King by honoring and supporting his successors. By this I don’t mean people sitting comfortably at their computers, cooking up grant proposals properly loaded with the current politically correct rhetoric.

We should figure out who is walking the talk, taking the risks, annoying us and making us uncomfortable with hard-to-hear truths. And we should support them.

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