Monday, January 17, 2005

Not Too Soon To Tell

“I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.” -- Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail

“It is imperative to abandon the unconditional non-violent concept expounded by Dr. King and adopt the position that for every Martin Luther King who falls, 10 white racists will go down with him. There is no other way -- America understands no other language,” United Black Front chairman Lincoln Lynch --1968.

“Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm. These are nice. Little Roquefort cheese morsels rolled in crushed nuts. Very tasty. Very subtle. It's the way the dry sackiness of the nuts tiptoes up against the dour savor of the cheese that is so nice, so subtle. Wonder what the Black Panthers eat here on the hors d'oeuvre trail? Do the Panthers like little Roquefort cheese morsels rolled in crushed nuts this way, and asparagus tips in mayonnaise dabs, and meatballs petites au Coq Hardi, all of which are at this very moment being offered to them on gadrooned silver platters by maids in black uniforms with hand-ironed white aprons . . . The butler will bring them their drinks . . . Deny it if you wish to, but such are the pensées métaphysiques that rush through one's head on these Radical Chic evenings just now in New York. For example, does that huge Black Panther there in the hallway, the one shaking hands with Felicia Bernstein herself, the one with the black leather coat and the dark glasses and the absolutely unbelievable Afro, Fuzzy-Wuzzy-scale, in fact—is he, a Black Panther, going on to pick up a Roquefort cheese morsel rolled in crushed nuts from off the tray, from a maid in uniform, and just pop it down the gullet without so much as missing a beat of Felicia's perfect Mary Astor voice . . .” -- Tom Wolfe, Radical Chic

Following Martin Luther King’s murder in Memphis in April 1968, and fueled by the riots that followed across the nation -- in Detroit, Chicago, Washington, D.C. -- many gave up on King’s “constructive non-violence” in favor of a different tack. For example, in 1970, composer, maestro, and painfully-relevant leftist Leonard Bernstein and his wife, Felicia, threw a fundraising party, what we would now call a “meet-and-greet,” at their Park Avenue duplex apartment for the radical Black Panthers. Attendees were reminded that donations to the Panthers were non-deductible; generous donations with no tax advantage were a measure of the donor’s sincerity and dedication to the cause. It was a sign of those raucous times.

This division within a division highlighted a key crossroads in American civil rights history. The rednecks had to retreat or entrench. Those within the civil rights movement had to determine whether they would stay King’s course, or choose the violent route. Those who had previously remained aloof from the civil rights conflicts, or had considered it an intramural conflict between leftist rabble-rousers and southern rednecks, saw in the widening, violent conflict a need to enter the debate, at least in political terms.

When asked by Richard Nixon in the 1970’s to describe the impact of the French Revolution, Red Chinese Premier Chou En Lai replied, “It is too soon to tell.” But perhaps it is not too soon to tell the effect of Martin Luther King on the American civil rights landscape.

As it turned out, the racist rednecks turned tail, like the cowards they always were, and today are viewed as almost quaint and pathetic caricatured cranks, relegated to afternoon appearances on Jerry Springer, where they react with shocked, semi-toothless silence when confronted with a daughter who is dating a young black man -- an unsanitized, dirty-fingernailed version of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”

The Panthers chose fear and the threat of violence, and tried to settle scores and give vent to their hatred and anger. Some died trying, for a while, blowing up mailboxes or robbing banks or staging courthouse hostage scenes with sawed-off shotguns duct-taped to judges' necks. Others wrote Soul on Ice screeds or rotten poetry. Some now give speeches for $15,000 a crack or are in political office or may even be settling into tenured positions, or have turned to running corporate shakedowns, to the extent they can get the time of day from Sixties-stunned reporters.

The Radical Chic, of course, we always have with us.

Those who picked up the flag from King -- the Ralph David Abernathys, the Hosea Williamses -- are mostly gone now, or old and enfeebled. To their eternal credit, they set aside disappointment and anger, and chose a principled continuation of King’s most basic philosophy, even in the face of slurs from former allies and proteges.

And the bulk of the American public -- black and white -- put aside personal disputes over their own hardships and affronts, and paused in their debates over King’s personal flaws -- his plagiarism, his marital infidelities, his association with radicals and communists -- long enough to debate in the mainstream of the political process. They made common cause, in a broad sense, in order to have an equitable peace. They have pursued, over the intervening 35 years, a generally peaceful course. It has been, and is today, by no means perfect, but we, as a society, have broadly common goals, and have a degree of racial harmony that would have seemed very unlikely in 1968. By any reasonable, objective standard, it is admirable progress less than four decades after colored-only water fountains.

In the end, these last two groups -- not the bigots, or the radicals, or the radical chic -- most clearly and intuitively understood King’s importance and greatness, and the monumental message behind his faith in the American system. What they accepted, and based their consensus on, was what King was saying all along: that the ideals and the inherent, transcendent moral strength and goodness of the American system is powerful enough to join disparate political elements of goodwill in order to acknowlege the essential value of each human life and to dwarf and render impotent powerful forces of self-interest, raw ideology, and hate.

That, in black and white, is why King really matters.


Anonymous Anonymous said...


1/17/2005 03:58:00 PM  
Blogger Hannah said...

Excellent points, all.

1/31/2005 07:28:00 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home