On this Martin Luther King, Jr. day of remembrance there are many who are going deeper into what he taught, and others who are rededicating their efforts to continue his work. I want to go in another direction and remember in a different way.
Civil rights was a confusing issue to me, and to most of those I knew. The movement was just gaining traction when I began my professional career. What was happening in the South was a confusing mystery in a foreign country. So it seemed to a Minnesota boy who had never been in the South. It was manifested in Minneapolis and St. Paul by unrest that occasionally broke out in violence, but as close as that was, it was a city problem unrelated to our town that was then on the outskirts of the metropolitan area. It took a while for me to recognize the unrestrained bigotry that had been there all along, hidden because nothing ever happened to give it a good shaking. It was a bigotry embedded in unquestioned cultural values that explained the way things were because that’s the way things were. There was nothing mean spirited about it. It’s just the way things were.
A few years later, when MLK was at the height of his influence, I was working for the State of Minnesota. I remember a meeting with a top public safety official to go over plans for reorganizing his department. He had another agenda. Pounding his desk, turning red in the face, lower lip trembling, he went on a tirade against that communist agitator King who should be tried for treason and locked up forever. I had no idea what brought that on since MLK had never been in the state as far as I knew. What he had written, what he had taught, what he was doing, it was all subsumed under paranoia about race riots and anti-war protests going on around the University. As for me, I was trying to untangle the mess one strand at a time without letting it interfere with my work and life. Untangling took a lot of work. Understanding came slowly. I envied those of my friends who were convinced about things I struggled with.
Jump ahead a few more years. The various civil rights bills had been signed into law. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated. The war was an even bigger issue. Riots of one kind or another were common place. I had begun what would become a long career in a hodgepodge of management consulting, lobbying, policy analysis, stuff like that, and was in Alabama for a week of meetings with young executives who wanted to improve their management skills. In our social time together I began to learn about the New South from the point of view of young, well educated, southern white men who saw their implied inheritance of unquestioned position and authority slipping out of their hands. Oddly enough, to me, they seemed to accept it as inevitable and ultimately right, but with apprehension over the abilities and intentions of the newly emboldened black leaders. Maybe they were the exception. I’ll never know. They didn’t like King, or any of the civil rights leaders, but they respected their courage and ability to make things happen. It was the psychology of certainty in full play.
That was something few in the North ever had to face. There never was a moment when the full force of federal legislation and law suits catastrophically disrupted the way things were. I think that made it easier for Northerners to hang onto their prejudices by hiding them a little deeper, but I digress. Here we are with a half century behind us. Martin Luther King, Jr. has become an icon of Christian virtue, a touchstone for moral theology, and a revered member of the American pantheon. Times have changed, but icons and touchstones can sometimes be relegated to the fireplace mantel as little more than decorative trophies. The American pantheon can be just another museum where busts are trotted out once a year to be dusted off. Too much blood has been spilled, and too many red faced table pounders have been put in their place, for us to allow that to happen. Something of the turmoil needs to continue because without that pressure it’s too easy to quit untangling the mess one strand at a time as we seek understanding.