"How far we have not come ..."
- from an interview with actor Samuel L. Jackson.
Jackson portrays Dr. Martin Luther King (Jan. 15, 1929 - April 4, 1968) in the play The Mountain Top by young playwright Katori Hall, now being performed in New York. The play depicts Dr. King's imagined last moments in the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, hours away from his death, in dialogue with a worker at the motel, played by the distinguished African American actress Angela Bassett.
This is not an attempt to assess the play but rather, a reflection on its main character and his influence, thoughts which arise for me every January 15, when all that oratory about Dr. King fills the airwaves.
"Around 1968," Jackson says, "my parents were working at pretty good jobs, in a factory. Now there are no more jobs. What would Dr. King think of that?"
Unlike young playwright Hall, I was there. I recall the sounds of the struggle. The momentum. The grand speech at the Washington Monument in 1963. It was - as I saw it - the deciding moment for America, 100 years after President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. A moment of rejoicing for all of us who fought in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam-War movements, but a moment that would not last.
He is gone from you now ...
As the playwright declares in an interview on the Charlie Rose Show, "We must all be Dr. Kings now" - in effect, revolutionaries to carry forth his legacy.
"Dr. King was a man of flesh, not of stone" - President Obama's words at the dedication of the Martin Luther King memorial on the National Mall in Washington D.C.
That grand sculpture must come alive for us out of its stone and must become us.
How could I have lived the life of the Prophet of America? I am sure Dr. King must have asked himself such a question in his solitary moments, moments of fear and doubt he faced in his own Gethsemane.
The conservative apologists of today would have us believe "things are better" because Dr. King, the man, African American, lived and led a movement for change. Yet these same men would have reviled King while he lived. It is so convenient now for the Face-of-Janus right wingers to shed their alligator tears for the man whom so many hated for disrupting their world - a revolutionary, who would change America of the white man 180 degrees. In the words of the song the British sang during the American Revolution, "... and the world turned upside down!"
So it was in 1963, although sung not by British imperialists but by white racists in America, conservatives who fought to keep America in its stranglehold of the status quo which denied African Americans their rights, their history and their historical identity.
Black Studies came to birth with the blood of the Phoenix, with Dr. King's death by an assassin's bullet at the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968.
At Stanford University, where I later served as assistant to the Afro-American Studies Program's founder, renowned African American scholar Dr. St. Clair Drake, the Black Student Union rose in revolt on the news of Dr. King's passing. They - I and other committed white professors and students among them - stormed the citadel of the university president's office, shouting revolutionary slogans and presenting demands to the trustees. The BSU's spokesman shouted through a megaphone: "You have murdered your last hope for White America. We hold you all responsible. You will now meet our demands or else. You will establish a Black Studies Department at Stanford in honor of the man your people killed, or we as black people, tired of your lies, will tear this place apart piece by piece!"
Their cries and summons still ring in my ears more than 40 years later.
As to the conditions of black Americans in Anno Domini 2012? They have definitely declined. Since Dr. King's time, affirmative action is constantly being repressed if not overturned. Black American families are prime targets for foreclosure by the banks. Black families join Latinos and white Americans at the food banks. Mortality rates among African Americans are up. Diabetes and heart disease ravage families who have no real access to health care in low-income communities. Young African American males join the military to be deployed in Afghanistan and return home in body bags. Millions that could improve African American communities are spent on the war there. The percentage of black students dropping out of high school continues to rise.
And yes, by some miracle there is the first man of color - Barack Obama - to be president of the U.S. in well over 200 years of its history. Now President Obama, too, is subject to a campaign of hate by the right wingers, tea partyers, Republicans and their ilk. I knew this would happen. They were just waiting in the wings for the moment President Obama took the oath of office.
The character assassins continue their lies and smears.
As the young playwright, Ms. Katori Hall, says, "We must all now be Dr. Kings."
Photo: President Lyndon Johnson shakes hands with the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., after handing him one of the pens used in signing the Civil Rights Act of July 2, 1964 at the White House in Washington. King posthumously received the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding, presented by the Government of India, for 1966. U.S. Embassy in New Delhi