Hijacking an American icon


I am a white man with no civil rights credentials, but that won’t stop me from commenting on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 50 years ago.

My dad was a Navy man, his last duty station at the Pensacola, Fla., Naval Air Station where he retired and where I grew up. In downtown Pensacola the Walgreens “5 and 10 cent store” had a lunch counter where a “whites only” sign wasn’t needed because it was understood, but the Sears store had drinking fountains with signs “White” and “Colored.” Every time I saw them I knew they were wrong, but I was just a kid.

My senior year in high school we had our first and only black student. Some thought it was cool to torment him.

Many years later, I had on my office wall a photo of two men I admired. One was John Steinbeck and the other was Martin Luther King; I knew he was right as he dangerously agitated for Southern white people to change, pushing with the courage of his convictions.

The day King was shot, the man I worked for as a mechanic said to me as he watched news reports on the office TV, “Well, I’m glad they finally got rid of that troublemaker,” and he was diminished as a man in my view, but maybe so was I, because I was 19, without any of King’s courage and I didn’t say anything.

I remember well King’s “I have a dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, a mesmerizing event. Now it has been 50 years since that speech; I watched a little of the recent anniversary ceremony, an endless series of speeches by Democrats warning us that although we have accomplished much, there is still far to go to achieve King’s dream.

Really? Pardon my brazenly asking, but how perfect must life be for blacks before America has done enough?

I wonder what King would think of Oprah, a black female billionaire, complaining that a Zurich store clerk inflicted racism on her by implying she may not be able to afford a $38,000 purse. Poor baby.

I wonder if Oprah, and mere mortal American blacks, realize that white people put up with a lot of crap, too. Every white person I know has been insulted, snubbed, slighted, affronted, offended, treated unfairly in the workplace and maybe even discriminated against by a black person. It’s called life and sometimes it ain’t pretty.

Don’t get me wrong. King was right. Before the civil rights movement, America treated its own black citizens in egregious ways, but things have changed radically since then. Generations of Americans have internalized the lesson that racial discrimination is wrong. Much of black America has become mainstream, with blacks occupying every vocation, profession, management level and even the office of president.

There are signs we have gone too far. Human resources rules in the workplace have edged close to hostility to whites in an attempt to pave the way for minorities, morphing into not only preferential hiring of minorities but in practice protecting underperforming employees – if they are minority. Ironically, the affirmative action programs established to “bootstrap” the hiring of blacks are now widely considered wrongly discriminatory themselves, and likely soon will be softened or eliminated.

We hand out free cell phones in black communities, food stamps (EBT) are given in soaring record numbers and our food stamp workers actively recruit new applicants and are rewarded for how many they sign up.

Government programs to intervene in life on behalf of minorities abound in many flavors from welfare to disability to subsidies for this and that, programs in hideous overlap and duplication piling on the grotesque national debt while providing disincentive to work. But it is never enough, and much of the black community remains mired in uneducated poverty.

At the 50th anniversary, TV talking heads sought out “black leaders” to comment or make speeches. A common thread in pursuit of King’s dream, you see, remains the ever-pressing need for jobs in the black community, and the oppressive discrimination of a justice system that sends young black men to prison in far greater numbers than young white men.

Never mind that too many young black men are uneducated, or that they dress and speak and conduct themselves like thugs so employers would never consider them. Don’t mention statistics telling us young black men are more than 10 times as likely to commit violent crime than their white counterparts.

The speeches say we must do more in our inner-city schools where the black dropout rate is still destroying the future, but we aren’t supposed to notice that foul behavior in those schools prevents learning, or that over 70 percent of black kids are born to young single mothers, locking them into a cycle of poverty and resentment and making good parenting difficult at the very best.

My own daughter is working pretty hard in her high school junior year, carrying a load of difficult classes in pursuit of her dream. I know many black kids are similarly laboring to chase their own dreams, but too many of them are discouraged by peers calling them “Uncle Toms” or accusing them of “acting too white” with their studies.

The time has long passed for agitation on civil rights. What the black community has needed for a long time is a cultural change to “responsibility.”

What would King think of conveniently absent fathers, the disintegration of the black family since his time, and the utter failure of so many blacks to capitalize on opportunities? Consider his own words excerpted from his speech, “What is your life’s blueprint?” given at Barratt Junior High School in Philadelphia on Oct. 26, 1967, six months before he was assassinated.

“… [I]n your life’s blueprint you must have as the basic principle the determination to achieve excellence in your various fields of endeavor. You’re going to be deciding as the days, as the years, unfold what you will do in life, what your life’s work will be. Set out to do it well.

“And I say to you, my young friends, doors are opening to you, doors of opportunities that were not open to your mothers and your fathers, and the great challenge facing you is to be ready to face these doors as they open.

“Ralph Waldo Emerson, the great essayist, said in a lecture in 1871, ‘If a man can write a better book or preach a better sermon or make a better mousetrap than his neighbor, even if he builds his house in the woods, the world will make a beaten path to his door.’

“This hasn’t always been true, but it will become increasingly true, and so I would urge you to study hard, to burn the midnight oil; I would say to you, don’t drop out of school. I understand all the sociological reasons, but I urge you that in spite of your economic plight, in spite of the situation that you’re forced to live in, stay in school.

“And when you discover what you will be in your life, set out to do it as if God Almighty called you at this particular moment in history to do it. Don’t just set out to do a good job. Set out to do such a good job that the living, the dead or the unborn couldn’t do it any better.

“If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, sweep streets like Beethoven composed music, sweep streets like Leontyne Price sings before the Metropolitan Opera. Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say: Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well. If you can’t be a pine at the top of the hill, be a shrub in the valley. Be the best little shrub on the side of the hill.

“Be a bush if you can’t be a tree. If you can’t be a highway, just be a trail. If you can’t be a sun, be a star. For it isn’t by size that you win or fail. Be the best of whatever you are.”

King was an imperfect man, and I didn’t always agree with him. He was far too liberal for my politics and though I finally discovered my own courage in Vietnam, he denounced that war as immoral. But on civil rights, he was right and he was bold.

My guess is King would be proud how part of the black community has bloomed and thrived and how we live and work together, and I think he would be furious at the many millions of blacks with their hand perpetually out for more “gimmes” or advantages in a never-ending cycle of excuses, failure and focus on the color of their skin instead of the content of their character.

And so maybe you will understand why every year, on the day marking King’s birthday I have to double-check my gag reflex as politicians and race-hustlers and King’s own family of parasites wrap themselves in his virtue, joining civil rights leaders in the annual televised lament that we have not done enough to realize King’s dream, with nary a mention that the disadvantaged poor might want to take advantage of the opportunities already spread before them in a way recommended many times by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – determination, commitment to excellence and hard work.

[Terry Garlock of Peachtree City occasionally contributes a column to The Citizen. His email is terry@garlock1.com.]