We attended the MLK Day celebration in our little burg on Monday. The town we live in is one of the poorest in Texas; not coincidentally, it’s also darker than most of Texas. As in all good Southern towns, local politics has always been dominated by whites, black and Hispanic civic life has been limited to filling service-sector jobs and starting positions on the high school football team, and the physical racial lines are drawn by the major road that passes through it.
Recently this arrangement has been under attack by black residents, who have elected representatives to the city council, the county commissioners court, and the school board. But they haven’t limited themselves to electoral and governmental politics. For instance, a group is trying to requisition a long-vacant building to use as a social/meeting space (though the white landlord is dragging his feet, probably for the obvious reasons). The point is, the new-found black activism in our town employs multiple strategies to attain its goals, and the MLK celebration, which is unusual for a town of its size, is the activists’ most outward expression of the work they do, a way to share with the community, as most of the speakers said.
As with most politics in the South, this activity is tethered to churches and works within the idiom of God and Christ. It drives me crazy of course, but I’ve learned to tolerate it when it comes at me in moderation. Compared to the previous two celebrations, this year’s went completely batshit with religion, as the first five speakers–including the keynote speaker,a fire-breathing minister who mentioned MLK only once but ranted on about morality, responsibility, and men’s place as the head of the household–were either preachers or made serial references to Jesus and God. Further, when the speakers managed to not reference God, they only invoked the state-sponsored MLK, the sanitizied “I have a dream,” harmony-and-love MLK, not the “Beyond Vietnam” MLK and not Iraq or New Orleans.
I accepted, barely, all the fire and brimstone, the banalization of MLK, but I couldn’t cotton to their nonstop chastising of kids. According to the speakers, who were all in their 50s and 60s, today’s youth all have incorrigible attitudes, continually sass their parents, and listen to degenerate music while wearing disrespectful clothes. It actually got a bit nasty at times. When I looked around at the young kids’ response these condemnations, I saw a mixture of surprise and bemusement. A couple of them seemed to wondering why they came out for this abuse.
At the end of the event, after the adults finished, the kids were given their moment. And they were great. Little ones, from age six to sixteen, thanked MLK and told us what he meant to them. Then, just as the celebration was to end, the kids, and their brilliant teacher, interrupted with a news flash: Apparently, thanks to some time-travel device, they had the opportunity to conduct a brief interview with MLK. First they asked him about today’s educational system; he lamented that it was still unequal. Then the kids let loose–the next two questions were about Iraq and Katrina. Woah! I can’t remember what “MLK’s” answers were because I was so stunned at the kids’ temerity. During the whole celebration, incredibly, no adult had mentioned these words, not one had mentioned the two most obvious recent instantiations of what MLK warned about and fought against in the last years of his life. And they were raised by the kids, the much-slandered kids.
In the end, the disrespectful kids in one brief gesture showed more respect for MLK’s legacy than the hour of heavy breathing and Bible thumping that preceded it.