Saturday, January 14, 2006

Reflections on Martin Luther King Day

Who would have thought 40 years ago, that someday in the United States, the schools, banks, and government offices would be closed to celebrate Martin Luther King Day? Growing up in rural central Illinois, we didn't have a race problem, we didn't think. We were blissfully isolated and blissfully ignorant.

There were no blacks in our area. The only blacks I ever saw were in the line of cars heading south on U.S. Route 45, going from Chicago to Mississippi on Friday nights of holiday weekends and heading north again on Sunday nights. In that pre-expressway era, cars would back up for a mile from the four-way stop in Arcola on holiday nights, all heading one way; south on Fridays and north on Sundays. Legend (couldn't call it an "urban legend" in a village of 2,000) had it that there was a law that blacks could not stay overnight in Arcola. I don't know why any would have wanted to, the only accommodations being a dilapidated hotel used as a flophouse by bums. Besides we were only 2-1/2 hours south of Chicago, the trip having barely gotten started on Friday nights when they came cruising through our town, and almost over on Sunday nights on the way back. I had never spoken to a black person until after I left home in 1965.

Despite growing up in a home without television, and the radio in the barn being tuned to a country music station that didn't bother with the news, we were at least dimly aware of the racial upheaval in the south. Our local weekly newspaper carried no national news, but we also received a small daily, from which a little national news seeped through the agricultural news and comics in which we were mainly interested. And we received other periodicals, like Capper's Weekly and The Reader's Digest that would occasionally have some items about the struggles in the south.

I knew enough to have opinions about Martin Luther King and civil rights laws, and I didn't think much of either. I absorbed the attitudes of the culture around me, and thought that MLK was a communist agitator, and that if blacks didn't like life in the good old U.S. of A, why they should just go back to Africa. Several years ago, I found an essay I had written in around 1963 or 1964 about civil rights laws in which I opined that although Negroes should have equal rights, things could not possibly change until hearts were changed, and laws could not do that, only Christ could do that.

Of course I was wrong, as I have frequently been over the years. The white Christians of the south (and many in the north) were quite content with the status quo. They were getting saved and reading their bibles, front to back, but all the salvation in the world was doing nothing for the plight of blacks who were not permitted to eat in white restaurants, use rest rooms marked for whites, use public swimming pools or attend schools with whites. In fact, they were reading scripture to justify segregation. Only when the laws were changed to make segregation illegal, did the plight of blacks in the south improve.

One can only speculate whether the laws would have been changed if Martin Luther King had not accepted the burden of leadership of the civil rights movement. Change was already happening before MLK became prominent. President Truman had integrated the armed forces after the Second World War. The Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 declared that segregated schools were inherently unequal and ordered public schools to be integrated. Although John F. Kennedy had proposed an equal voting rights bill, the bill was going nowhere in Congress when he was assasinated. Lyndon Johnson was a southerner, who had repeatedly pledged to fight for segregation, but even more deeply felt than his southern heritage was his desire to be a successful politician, and after he became president, he pushed through the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as a way of getting the support of the northern liberals who were suspicious of him. My own speculation is that the times were ripe for change, and that if MLK had not been available to lead the civil rights movement at the time he did, someone else would have done so. That is not to detract from his achievements. Only MLK could have preached the "I Have a Dream," speech, probably the greatest speech of the modern era, and it would be worth celebrating Martin Luther King Day for that speech alone.

My own change of heart occurred fairly rapidly. Within five years of writing my ignorant essay, I was one of the agitators, going to South Side Virginia to help organize blacks and to get them registered to vote, supporting Shirley Chisholm in her quixotic campaign for the presidency. My transformation occurred simply as a result of getting out of my isolated coccoon, reading some real newspapers to find out what was going on in the rest of the world, actually getting to know some blacks, and, frankly, the excitement of being part of a movement that was changing society.

In my law practice, I have wound up doing a lot of civil rights work. One of my first trials was an employment discrimination case against the University of Illinois in behalf of a black fireman who couldn't get promoted. His supervisor had made a comment that "I'm never going to promote that nigger." It was the first civil rights case the University had ever lost. As a result of the publicity in that case and word of mouth, I got many civil rights cases. I had some other successes, and also some defeats. Over the years, it has gotten harder and harder to win civil rights cases, as society, and the judges appointed to hear such cases have become more conservative. Richard Nixon was a conservative Republican president but on civil rights issues, he was a flaming liberal compared to The Lying Turd we have in office now, and the judges that Nixon appointed were liberals compared to the judges appointed by Clinton and TLT. It has gotten discouraging to have to turn down 99 percent of the civil rights cases that come to me because although what the potential clients experienced might have been because of their race the law has gotten so restrictive that we could never get the case even to trial.

Although I fully support setting aside a day to honor Martin Luther King, I do not attend the local MLK Day celebrations anymore. I get tired of listening to university and city and county bigshots making speeches and giving and receiving awards in the name of MLK while they preside over systems that discriminate on the basis of race every day. If we really want to transform society so that it is colorblind, then let's do something to enforce the laws. Maybe even pass some new laws. But, above all, get some judges who have a passion for justice.

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