If I'd awakened 50 years ago and you'd told me that Martin Luther King's birthday was a national holiday I'd have thought you daft.
During the 1960's, when King continued doing what he was doing despite his belief that he'd likely be killed for it, the FBI was obsessed not with protecting him but with trying to establish that he was an adulterer and should not be so well regarded by people. Law enforcement folks in some of the states were even less benign.
You could say he changed my life. It was the Selma to Montgomery march in March 1965, and the violent reaction to it, that led me to go South that summer as a civil rights volunteer. Whatever we did or did not accomplish for the folks we worked with, the experience opened my eyes.
That summer of 1965, we feared state law enforcement. The previous summer three civil right workers in Mississippi had been killed, with the assistance of local law enforcement personnel. I was in Fayette County, Tennessee, on the Mississippi border, in country so indistinguishable from Mississippi that we sometimes wandered across state lines on rural dirt roads. (We reassured each other that if anything really bad happened, the FBI would step in -- a faith that seems a bit naive in retrospect.
On my second or third day there, a state trooper stopped me and told me that if I planned to be in Tennessee for more than a few days I must get a Tennessee Drivers' License. We knew he meant it. They didn't want us there, and used or misused any available laws to discourage us. Another civil rights worker had had a flat tire driving an old car some folks up North had donated. It lacked a jack or a spare tire, so he pulled off the road and left it. He was charged with "Leaving the Scene of an Accident" and fined $90 and $60 court costs -- a significant chunk of cash from our limited treasury.
Therefore a few days later I went with two others to Memphis, figuring that we'd have no problem getting our licenses in the big city. Of course, we had to surrender our New York licenses. After putting mine on the desk, I suddenly realized what was going to happen: they knew what we were in Tennessee for, and they would deny us licenses. That would effectively trap us where we were, since without valid New York or Tennessee licenses, we couldn't drive back to Fayette County, or even to a hotel. I said politely that actually I wasn't sure how long I'd be in Tennessee, so maybe I'd wait. The official looked at me, and hesitated -- and I quickly scooped up my license and retreated. Mike, a college classmate of mine who had grown up driving in New York's much more hectic traffic, went for his road test. The tester looked at Mike and asked, "Does this car belong to a Nigger?" "This car belongs to a Negro," Mike replied. Immediately the man checked several boxes at random, indicating a plethora of driving mistakes, and Mike was left with no drivers' license. (I later drove to some county seat - Jackson, Tennesee, I think - and went in with some horseshit story about being in state to visit an aunt, and got my Tennessee license.)
Of course Martin Luther King eventually spoke out also against the War in Viet Nam. Despite fears that doing so would undermine his credibility with mainstream whites, he saw and said that that war was part of the same racist mind-set of U.S. leaders. I believed so too.
Our leaders saw Viet Nam as a domino, and thought many countries would "fall to Communism" if Viet Nam won its independence.
My research suggested otherwise. Throughout the 20th Century the U.S. spoke in favor of national self-determination. It was a major principle articulated at the end of World War I. Then young, Ho Chi Minh actually went to the peace conference in Versailles and suggested the principle ought to apply to his country, then a French colony. He got nowhere, of course. During World War II he and the Vietnamese resistance fought the Japanese, in alliance with the U.S.; but at the end of that war we stiffed him again, and backed the French efforts to assert continued dominance of Viet Nam. Then when the Vietnamese kicked the French out, we replaced them, for another two decades of war.
One must mourn both the young men from the U.S. who fought there and the Vietnamese who suffered through decades of war to win freedom. One must also wonder: if Viet Nam had been Poland or some other European country, and had fought for self-determination as vigorously as Viet Nam did against Chinese, Japanese, French, and U.S. soldiers, would our leaders have noticed the overwhelming evidence that the rebels wanted, above all, an independent country, without undue influence by any other country, regardless of ideology?
But my point is how distant MLK's times (and my own childhood and youth) seem. Nor was the deep racism limited to the South. When I was in high school in New York, the Dean would write or call the mothers of white girls who dated black boys -- and I later learned that the NMSU authorities did much the same thing during that era. After Tennessee, one day after a softball game, when I sat in a bar drinking beer with my teammates, a black man walked into the bar to buy cigarettes, and one of my teammates muttered "Nigger!" under his breath, too softly for the intruder to hear. When the black man left, I called my teammate on it -- and found out that everyone else on the team either shared his views or kept silent. Mainstream newspapers around the U.S. made "colored people" jokes well past the mid-century mark, apparently without concern that maybe they'd offend anyone.
Nor is that racism gone. There are still places you can get beaten up for walking into if you're black -- and others where the same response is quite possible if you're white. Some folks are still threatened by the idea that we're all equal, and that "all" has a broader and more literal meaning than the white men gave it in founding our country.
But that degree of racism, in which blacks in the South received wholly separate and inferior educations, even well after Brown v. Board of Education (1953), in which blacks could be killed or beaten up for trying to register to vote, in which a majority of states still outlawed miscegenation, or in which the wider culture's main portrayal of black folks was Amos 'n' Andy -- that's gone. The battle to eradicate racism has proceeded with a great deal less violence than might have been the case. Martin Luther King was obviously a courageous and seminal figure both in the struggle and in our commitment, most of us, to waging that struggle non-violently.
In 1968 I was working with troubled kids from New York's worst neighborhoods. On the evening of April 4, I heard the news while attending a New School class on emotionally disturbed kids and the art they create. Afterward, I walked home, in a daze, thinking about it. At some point I passed some black youths sitting on a stoop or standing nearby, smoking. Our eyes met, I nodded a greeting, and one of them beckoned for me to approach them, which I did. He put out his hand, and I put out mine to shake it, and then saw a burning cigarette and thought he was about to put it out on my palm, so I snatched my hand back -- and watched the joint he'd been trying to hand me fall to the sidewalk, almost in a sort of slow motion. Thinking about King's assassination, I had misread his action as a hostile reaction to my whiteness. I picked up the joint, smoked with them for a while, then continued walking.
I wish someone could have told MLK, with sufficient authority to compel belief, that less than half a century not only would there be a national holiday in his memory but on that day a President of mixed race would be inaugurated for a second term. But perhaps he dreamed even that.
Of course, King also said that "A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily only the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth." Had he lived, he'd have gotten to watch that contrast, which had grown a bit less glaring over several decades, widen again in our country.