Last week's celebration of the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (born: Michael Luther King) prompted me to reflect on the struggles and victories tied to King and his time.
As people of all races attended breakfasts, luncheons and prayer services all around America Monday, the 17th of January, my memories recalled a warm summer day in 1965. While watching the news in our Old Town garden apartment on the near North Side, I saw Stokley Carmichael, a science major, raise a clenched fist to a crowd of people in Mississippi, shouting "Black Power." Although Congressman Adam Clayton Powell was the first person to utter these words, Stokley's words were a defining moment that orchestrated a change in the civil rights movement. It was after his declaration that the civil disobedience, non-violent approach that Dr. King preached declined and the consciousness of "Black Power" crept into the everyday lives of black and white people in America.
As we approach Black History Month next week, we need to ask what happened to Black Power and Dr. King's and Malcolm X's missions and visions? At present, it's fashionable to believe that the life and death of Dr. King helped wiped out the overt racism of another era. It has not, but we need not fear it, nor deny it, just deal with it and maintain our Black dignity.
One side of Black Power and some of Dr. King's principles were well illustrated by the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall at his farewell press
conference in 1991.
"Justice Marshall, do you think black people are better off as a result of your serving on the court?" Asked one young male reporter. "I am not a black people," the justice snapped, wheezing badly. "I am an Afro-American!" the retiring justice fumed. "That is a question that has absolutely no relevance whatsoever. So are the whites! They, too, are better off."
Yes, whites, too, are better off. The lives of all Americans have improved because of Justice Marshall, Dr. King and Stokley's Black Power chants.
Dr. King's civil rights movement had a gigantic global sweep. It ignited or influenced labor struggles; the movement smashed the barriers of legal segregation for black A mericans. But no one on this planet has benefited more from the social changes that Dr. King inspired and was killed for, than black Americans. We are all better off, because the civil rights movement forced the public and legislators here in Illinois and states nationwide to take a position, one way or another, on controversial issues they would just as soon avoid.
Finally, what is the other side of Black Power? The other side is what blacks owe to each other. Clifford Kelley of talk radio station WVON states it very profoundly, calling our major issues "internal reparations," and I agree. Remember that Dr. King said, "A man who won't die for something is not fit to live." Dr. King and the others are not here, but we are. They would challenge us about our personal and national lifestyles. We are a society gone consumption-mad and the irony is that the more we acquire, the less happy and fulfilled we are, and the more we need. The fact that we can make choices about what we teach our children is important.
If we teach them that moral values and race identity are important, then it will be passed onto another generation. We should be asking the hard questions about what is important to us as individuals and what is important to us as a nation. Why are toxic wastes and debris still being dumped in black communities nationwide, especially here in Chicago on the West and South sides? Our black alderpersons as a group can pressure the mayor and his scandal-intoxicated administration, but they don't. Most are a disgrace to our black heritage, especially Ike Carothers (29th Ward), and we can just flush the toilet and let them go right down the drain before the start of Black History Month.
Internal reparations means getting our house in order, without white support. We cannot afford not to love our race; it's our heritage. We've got to start loving each other (not liking each other).
We must challenge racism whenever we find it?"in the criminal justice system, in the business world, in the government and in education. We can take a stand just as Dr. King, Justice Marshall and Stokley took a stand. We don't need a messiah to lead us. We are the messiah that we are looking for. The best that black people can do or hope to do is draw strength from King's courage, vision and dedication and fight the hardest they can against racial and economic injustice. This would be the greatest way to honor Dr. King and the other fallen black heroes during the Black History Month.