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Saturday, January 25, 2014

January 25-26, 2014: Crowd-sourced Civil Rights

[Following up my MLK Day post, the week’s series has focused on some of the crucial complexities of the Civil Rights movement and related histories and stories. This crowd-sourced post is drawn from the responses and connections of fellow AmericanStudiers—add yours in comments, please!]

Following up Monday’s MLK Day post, Roland Gibson writes, “I have to admit that with all the talk and media emphasis this time of year surrounding MLK Jr. and his positive influence in our country, I was very interested and intrigued to read your blog perspective - calling his "I Have A Dream" speech kind of OVER-RATED. In my thoughts and response, I wanted to take this opportunity to talk about MLK's work - similar to the way we talked about W.E.B. Du Bois in the Major Authors course this past semester - in that they both used many different approaches; different genres, in effect - in an attempt to achieve the goal of racial justice and harmony in this country. I think if we choose to ask ourselves - in hindsight - and also to try to answer the question: "What exactly was MLK trying to accomplish in his brief “I Have A Dream speech"? (taken in the larger context of his many other works and his action) I personally would say he did a pretty damn good job. What stood out most for me in MLK Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech was two key points:
Point #1 - The powerful and carefully-crafted IMAGERY MLK Jr. used to communicate the country's deplorable social conditions, as far as the Negro is concerned: "...America has given the Negro people a BAD CHECK, a check which has come back marked 'insufficient funds.'" "But we refuse to believe the bank of justice is BANKRUPT." "NOW is the time to make real the PROMISES of DEMOCRACY. NOW is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial JUSTICE...to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of BROTHERHOOD." Who taught this guy to write and speak so vividly like that? Was it his father... also a minister? This man was WAY ahead of his time, in my opinion.
Point #2 - He was clearly speaking and advocating FOR the American Negro, but - in the final analysis - he wasn't really speaking AGAINST anybody; which is as surprising to me as it is refreshing. MLK JR's DREAM was to include: "...all God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics..."  This message of WHOLENESS is exactly what the country needed to hear at the time, and the message is just as fitting and appropriate today.
Summing up: I would agree that this work of MLK Jr.'s has to be taken in literary context to truly understand the man, and I further think that there is definitely some necessary OVER-SIMPLIFICATION present in his speech text, but I don't think I would have then concluded by calling it kind of OVER-RATED.”
Roland also shares this piece, on a local (Mass.) Civil Rights activist.
Following up Tuesday’s Rosa Parks piece, Matt Cogswell writes, “An older student of mine from Salter fondly recalls meeting Ms. Parks in Montgomery when he was a child. I can't remember the context other than his living in Alabama and meeting her. But, what will always stay with me is the reverence in which he spoke of her. In that moment, she was not just an icon or a name but a person, plain and simple. I always believed that was the point Ms. Parks was trying to make anyway, that she was just a person, no more or less worthy of special rights than anyone else but to be considered a person, a human. The student was a black man, which I suppose shouldn't matter, but it did make that memory all the more poignant for me. He is also a veteran. I don't know much about veterans outside of their service who have ‘advanced history,’ but I'm sure there's some prominent figures there who ought to be remembered.”
Following up Wednesday’s Mississippi murders post, Ian Wilkins writes, “Your assertions about the communal nature of that which precipitates such things is very important and so often overlooked (I think because it is more complex, and in difficult times we seek easy answers like pointing the finger at a few instead of understanding the tacit [or not-so-tacit[ participation of the many). To my mind one of the works which best presents this facet of these kinds of issues is Bob Dylan's "Only A Pawn in Their Game" from the 1964 album The Times They Are A'Changin', a song in response to the murder of Medgar Evers. While this song specifically deals with the power structure in the South and the ways in which it manipulated the overall political and cultural climate there, it also suggests that the specific identity of the man whose ‘finger fired the trigger’ is unimportant in terms of assessing the situation, that it was a system, a community of sorts, which put whatever it was in the killer's brain that urged him to commit such an act. This way of broadly contextualizing something so tragic and painful is not the easy response, but it is important and holds much truth.”
Following up Thursday’s George Wallace post, my colleague Joe Moser writes, “I'm reminded of the great Drive-By Truckers album SOUTHERN ROCK OPERA. ‘The Southern Thing,’ ‘Birmingham,’ and the spoken-word track ‘Three Great Alabama Icons’ offer similarly nuanced takes on George Wallace and that era. It's all about ‘the duality of the Southern thing.’”
Some other relevant pieces:
Rebecca Onion on MLK on strategies for bus boycotts;
Rick Perlstein on the Santa-Clausification of MLK; and also on the hate mail received by Illinois Senators when King came to Chicago.
Gwendolyn Simmons and Lucas Johnson on Deromanticizing the Civil Rights Movement;
Super Bowl series starts Monday,
Ben
PS. What do you think?

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