“Martin’s death then and now”
By Pastor Rasheed Z Baaith
“Hallelujah, I’m traveling down freedom’s mainline” (Freedom Song circa 1964)
It has been almost 50 years since MLK, Jr’s life seeped away on a hotel balcony in Memphis, Tenn. It happened in the month of April on a Thursday after Martin’s “Mountain Top” speech given the previous evening in which he seemed to prophesy his death. I don’t know if God let him see his death coming but death surely came and soon.
Now these years later there has indeed been change in America but it is not “Promise Land” change. Yet there are changes that cannot be denied. Mississippi, which was at one time, was a place of unmitigated horror, lynching and injustice for Black people now has more Black elected officials than any other state. During the ‘60s in particular, for a Black person to attempt to even register to vote in Mississippi was to put his/her life and livelihood at death’s door. At least until Freedom Summer in 1964.
We have a Black President, have had a Black Secretary of State, integration is taken for granted, there are Black millionaires all over the place, Black heads of multinational corporations, Oprah Winfrey is known all over the world, hip hop which was birthed in our Black neighborhoods has had a global influence on the scale of the internet. Young people from England to Korea, to Egypt and back again show their allegiance to hip hop in their fashion, music, speech and behavior. We see Black and white couples in romantic settings in the movies and on television so often we don’t even notice it anymore. So indeed much has changed.
Among those changes is the fact that young black men are not being lynched and killed on the roads of Mississippi but they are killing each other in growing numbers on the streets of Chicago and Miami, and Los Angeles. They are killing each other daily. And the adversarial relationship between Black communities and the police departments that are supposed to protect them has worsened to the point that it is a rare week that goes by without a police shooting of a young Black male somewhere in America. Ferguson, New York City, Baltimore, and Cleveland are symbols of that rupture between a too large number of Black communities and police departments. Chicago of course, is in a class all by itself when it comes to this issue and we should remember Martin said he had never seen racial hatred anywhere like he saw in Chicago.
Schools in many of our cites are still segregated and schools in a number of our neighborhoods still perform better on the athletic fields than on state wide tests, and our churches are no longer in the vanguard for social change as they were in Martin’s day. They have become more concerned with prosperity than with social change.
So the question becomes what would Martin say? Would he believe his death was worth the dying? Probably so; he was a true prophet and prophets understand the need for sacrificial death. But I think he would caution us not to believe the hype. Black people have done some significant things since King was assassinated but we’ve ignored the fact there is still so much more to do, especially with and for our children. If you don’t think so just take a look around.
We can be thankful that this generation of young Black people awakened their political and social consciousness with a roar. The Black Lives Matter Movement came at a time when it seemed there was nothing that could move this generation from being self-indulgent to becoming involved.
But the police shootings of young Black people, male and female, galvanized them to respond, determined to bring change to de facto policies that allow even encouraged these shootings. And like the movement Martin led, Black Lives Matter is a multi-ethnic, dual gender involved movement. Even more, it refuses to compromise its principled stance despite the name calling of those who feel threatened by what it does to bring attention to the issue of unnecessary police killings. Seems like 1964 all over again.
I understand the Martin Luther King, Jr holiday celebrations. The parades, the speeches, the memorials but as we observe and commemorate his death, our community would be better served if we emulated his life of dedication and service to the people.
Just think about it.