Fifty years ago, America's iconic civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr, was slain in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4.
In the United States, King's following words are famous to the point of being clichéd, but they bear repeating nonetheless: “I have a dream that little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.”
It seems like a terrible thing to say, but a part of me is relieved King is not alive today.
While his death anniversary has been marked with considerable fanfare across the country, it's hard to avoid some harsh, inconvenient facts, and I think King would be appalled.
The current occupant of the White House's sordid history of race-baiting includes impugning America's first African American president's character with a fake “birther” scandal, claiming former US President Barack Obama was not born in the country.
One of the great achievements of King's civil rights movement, the enfranchisement of African Americans, has been undermined by recent efforts in—surprise!—what used to be the confederate South under stricter voter registration laws. Not coincidentally, this is the same region that fought a civil war to keep slavery (do not for a moment pay heed to whining, mendacious Southern excuses that the war was about states' rights, the Southern way of life, in fact, every darn thing under the sun except slavery).
A slew of murders—it's hard to call it anything else, judicial niceties be damned—of African Americans by law enforcement officers, often captured in graphic detail in today's multimedia-savvy age, has African Americans seething, leading to the Black Lives Matter movement. The fact that pretty much most law enforcement officers have gone scot-free has added fuel to the fire.
I live in Atlanta, which was the epicentre of King's civil rights movement. Atlanta's egregious racist laws were triggered after the 1906 race riots. All public parks became whites-only, restaurants were segregated, African Americans were obliged to sit in the back of streetcars. Housing was segregated. According to racial protocol. African Americans were obliged to address all whites as “sir” and pay obeisance—and even minor breaches could result in violent reprisals.
In 1939, 300,000 people filled the streets of Atlanta on an ice-cold night to mark the premiere of Gone with the Wind, based on Atlanta resident Margaret Mitchell's eponymous novel. On hand were Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh and Olivia de Havilland. Notably absent were African American actors like Hattie McDaniel (who later won an Oscar). In fact, blacks were barred from the premiere as well as from appearing on the souvenir.
Today's Atlanta has changed beyond recognition, thank goodness. From the poshest hotels to ordinary drugstores, in corporate boardrooms and elsewhere, African Americans are no longer pariahs.
Yet take a closer look beyond the facade of racial amity, and you will discover the dark shadow of racial disparity.
In the US today, African Americans make less money, are twice as likely to be unemployed and twice as likely to live in poverty than their white counterparts. School segregation is still common and white family wealth is nearly seven times that of African American family wealth. More people go to prison in the US today and African Americans suffer the most.
The one sliver of hope in all this despairing news is changing demographics. As whites become a demographic minority, younger Americans growing up in a more diverse population are jettisoning some of the more egregious racial stereotypes. Yet King's dream is still very far from reality.
One wonders if becoming a national icon has been a curse for King. His legacy and the history of the civil rights movement have been butchered to create a more anodyne, sanitised version more palatable to the broader public.
King was controversial during his time. What's remarkable about King's movement was not only what he achieved, but also how much resentment he generated. One ugly fact is that despite the perfectly legitimate demands for enfranchisement of African Americans, end of discriminatory laws, (white) Americans overwhelmingly resented him. A 1966 survey showed three out of four Americans did not agree with him. The depth of white racial animus is evident in the South, where all states turned Republican after Democratic President Lyndon B Johnson backed civil rights and passed landmark legislation in the mid-1960s.
King's political values have been airbrushed. King expanded his battle for justice to transcend racial discrimination. He was vociferously against the Vietnam War, and he saw capitalism as a system that exploited the poor. His stands were controversial during his time, to put it mildly. Many moderate black civil rights activists refused to accept his anti-Vietnam stand and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People distanced itself. His positions would likely make him a target of bitter criticism even today. One shudders what today's Fox News would do to King.
What much of America has done today—airbrushing King's political and social message, and leaching meaning out of it to concoct a spurious, watered-down persona to serve a self-serving paean to American exceptionalism—is a disservice to King.
Jesse Jackson, Jr, former aide of King wrote in the New York Times: “We owe it to Dr King—and to our children and grandchildren—to commemorate the man in full: a radical, ecumenical, antiwar, pro-immigrant and scholarly champion of the poor who spent much more time marching and going to jail for liberation and justice than he ever spent dreaming about it.”
Ashfaque Swapan is a contributing editor for Siliconeer, a monthly periodical for South Asians in the United States.