Thomas Norman DeWolf is the author of Inheriting the Trade: A Northern Family Confronts Its Legacy as the Largest Slave-Trading Dynasty in U.S. History. DeWolf was born in California and educated at the University of Oregon. He served as city councilor, county commissioner, and for nine years on the Oregon Arts Commission. His years of public service focused on literacy, children's issues, and restorative justice. A member of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association, he lives with his wife in Oregon. He is currently at work on a new book, Gather at the Table, with Sharon Morgan.
Today, April 4, 2011, is the 43rd anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee. Two years ago I attended the White Privilege Conference in Memphis. My conference roommate Michael and I, along with two students at the college where he works, drove downtown to the Lorraine Motel, now home to the National Civil Rights Museum.
After Dr. King's death the Lorraine Motel plunged into an understandable downward spiral. Much like Memphis, I suspect, the motel would understandably never be the same. Eventually, a group of Memphis citizens formed the Martin Luther King Memorial Foundation and began the work that resulted in the 1991 opening of the museum and the 1999 purchase of the properties across the street from which the shot was fired that killed Dr. King.
The tour begins with a showing of the 2009 Academy Award nominated documentary short film The Witness: From the Balcony of Room 306, the story of Reverend Samuel "Billy" Kyles, the man who stood next to Dr. King on the balcony when he was shot.
One of the most powerful experiences for me during the tour was stepping onto a bus inside the museum and seeing the cast figure of Rosa Parks sitting resolute, knowing that three other black folks in her row had left their seats so a white person could have a seat with no black people in the same row. Mrs. Parks' refusal to give up her seat was a defining moment, a turning point, in the civil rights movement.
Soon, standing behind the glass partition that has been erected between rooms 306 and 307 just a few feet from where Dr. King was shot took that horrible event from forty-one years ago and brought it powerfully into my present.
We then walked across the street to the building from which the fatal shot was fired. Looking back across the street toward the Lorraine I'm reminded of the feeling I've had at other significant historical sites.
It is all so small.
Plymouth Rock, Ford's Theater, Dealey Plaza, the Lorraine Motel; the scale is all so very human. The choice to perpetrate either harm or healing is always such a small, human one.
Another feeling I've had is that Dr. King has become an icon for racial harmony and reconciliation. "I have a dream today…"
People who, when I was a child, considered King a radical threat to national security now enjoy the day off for the MLK holiday. Most major cities now have streets named after him; even those where he once spoke against segregation and oppression against black people. Everyone loves Martin and use his name as they promote peace and racial justice (whether they believe in it or work for it or not).
Hey, I'm the first to shout from the mountain top that race relations are better now than when I was in junior high school during the Watts Race Riots. But I wonder what King would think if he were alive today. It seems to me that we have reduced the "I have a dream" man to an acceptable "pablum" symbol for pretty much everybody; particularly white people. We ignore his serious critique of the system of white supremacy in America. We ignore all that was radical about him in favor of our Kumbaya image of him. What we sacrifice as a result is the challenge of viewing ourselves in the stark mirror he held before us.
If King were alive today, I believe he would hold that mirror high and it would be quite an uncomfortable image for Americans to behold. King once said,
"A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life's roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring."
In 1967, King warned us against the "glaring contrast of poverty and wealth" that has only grown grossly wider today. So many people are being forced into poverty. Our environment is being destroyed. I suspect, no, believe, that King would be leading marches in resistance.
Today we have military troops in many countries around the world. We have initiated wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya. In 1967, King said the United States was "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world." What is different today? I have no doubt that Dr. King would oppose such oppression.
Lots of folks feel comfortable believing in King's dream of a wonderful world where the color of our skin matters less than the content of our character. Fewer are comfortable discussing King's proposition that our country was on "the wrong side of a world revolution" of oppressed peoples.
I encourage you to ponder how we can continue to blind ourselves to Dr. King's radical beliefs and still pretend to honor him. On the anniversary of his death, we honor how his life changed America.
Horror has indeed resulted in hope.
That hope remains unfulfilled.