I chose this photo because I love the intensity in MLK's eyes. He'd seen the promised land; he was born for this work.
As we know, the good old 1950s and 60s weren’t so good for Black folks. Somebody needed to do something, and it had to be done in a way that would rally national support for kicking Jim Crow in the nuts.
By the way, ever wondered who this cat, Crow, was? I thought so.
His name was Thomas Dartmouth Rice, a.k.a “Daddy,” a.k.a. “T.D,” an actor and comedian living in New York. One day, Rice came across a crippled, slavish-looking Black dude who was singing and dancing to this song:
“Come listen all you galls and boys,
I’m going to sing a little song,
My name is Jim Crow.
Weel about and turn about and do jis so,
Eb’ry time I weel about I jump Jim Crow.”
Later, in 1828, Rice appeared on stage in blackface makeup as “Jim Crow,” an exaggerated version of the guy he saw on the street. The act became so successful that within a few years, the “Jim Crow” character was a staple in minstrel shows across the country.
So that’s how it started.
The “Jim Crow” south, however, was a different motherfucker altogether. It’s synonymous with the second most degrading part of Black American history — where folks were “free,” but were they though? I mean, really. Pools got drained if little brown toes were dipped in them. Pools … drained. Cats were superstars, and weren’t allowed to enter the front doors of their venues. Not that they needed some obscure entrance because of their stardom; they weren’t allowed in the front door.
Did Dorothy Dandridge really have to pee in a Dixie cup? Was that just a rumor…cause she was so fly…that woulda been terrible… or maybe it’s most degrading. One could certainly make the argument.
At any rate, Jim Crow laws were the manifestation of separate but
absolutely unequal with respect to racial integration. Blacks on one side, whites on the other … and never the twain shall meet. We know equality doesn’t work that way. The culture and psychology of white supremacy that made slavery an institution had been inculcated; it was part of us. There would be no possibility for separate and equal when nearly every aspect of American life reinforced the idea that Blacks were, in every way that mattered socially, inferior to whites. The psychology of equality, and thus, any real concept of equality, was absent like shit as black codes spread like wildfire across the country.
For this reason, it won’t matter at all that Rosa Parks wasn’t the first woman to be arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus. What matters is that she did. And she did that day. In fact, I’m not even sure Ms. Parks was about that protest life like that. But I imagine it was the kind of emotion like that embodied in the following photo that swelled pride in Ms. Parks’ chest, and lit her lil flame:
Not that she’s a man, of course. But that she was mankind, human being — one who gets tired, who needs to sit, and who’s value is as much as anyone else’s.
What’s beautiful about Dr. King rising to this occasion, and to the kind of timeless influence and acclaim that earned him a spot on the National Mall, is his unwavering faith in the righteousness of Civil Rights. He believed that the freedom to live out one’s boundless human potential is a gift that isn’t man-made. And neither is it a gift that man, in his arbitrary determinations of human worth, gets to take away. Dr. King was able to wrest control of national attention. He provided a mirror big enough for the world to see us, and for America to see itself — to see clearly that the Americans who frequented high society functions in New York were the same Americans bussin’ brothas upside the head in Birmingham. There wasn’t a rug anywhere big enough to hide that much dirt. We had a race problem, and let’s be honest, the world had a race problem. The difference was that the U.S. defended dignity everywhere except under its own nose. We had a race problem, and needed to be shamed into dealing with it. But if the ends justify the means, well then…
That notwithstanding, for as much as the militant side of me is militant as fuck…
….I can acknowledge that freedom, equality and all of that are universal values. They are God-given and people can find common ground there. I also can accept that you have to give folks a chance. Offer ’em a Billy Martin* and hope they
see the light get it right. Perhaps the upside to such an act of benevolence is that, remember, the myths aren’t true. So one can be sure that when he or she does need to pull the race card, shit’s warranted it. Think “teachable moments.”
Sometimes there are excellent exceptions, and folks
see the light get it right without much persuasion. The MLK monument on the Mall is one of those times. No matter his nuances, Martin Luther King, Jr. was a great American. His life changed the course of this country, and probably the course of history. The Civil Rights Movement was a force of good for the world. That’s not to say, of course, someone else might have done it if Dr. King hadn’t, or that he didn’t have an enormous supporting cast helping along the way. What can be said, however, is that Dr. King stepped into the spotlight and wore the responsibility like no one else. He knew the risks, saw the storm, and walked toward it. I salute that. Moreover, Dr. King’s effigy on the National Mall, among such American luminaries as Lincoln and FDR, makes the statement that we, as a country, salute that kind of courage.
I’m happy to have this day to reflect on how a single life can make such a profound impact on the world. To be sure, the monument to Dr. King is symbolic of progress, which is, lest we forget, a quality of American history we can all be proud of.