A couple summers ago, our family spent a week in Memphis. The idea was to relax and eat a lot of local barbecue.
And we also wanted to visit the Lorraine Motel, the cite of Dr. King's murder, now the National Civil Rights Museum.
A lot of American children make pilgrimages to DC to learn of their nation's history. I certainly did. But for us, we just knew this was a pilgrimage our kids needed as well.
Despite the footnote it is given in most of our kids’ history books, the “racial” part of American history isn't a footnote to our heritage. The more deeply you read, the more you see American history and black history as inextricably linked.
American history IS black history. And vice versa.
It's important to me that my lily-white kids grow up internalizing that history and their position of privilege in society.
The museum resounds with a clear message: from the Transatlantic Slave Trade to the years after Dr. King's murder, and even to today, dignity and equal rights has never been *given* freely by those in power to give it. No, time and again, it was men and women of color demanding their rights and a state-recognized dignity from a population that was everything but willing to hand it over. The museum tells the history of countless unpopular and supposedly “extreme” moral leaders calling America to live up to its own ideals of liberty and equality for all.
King was one of those unpopular leaders. At the time of his murder, his approval rating was 32% (Gallup).
That's it. Less than one of three of our parents and grandparents seeing him as a man worthy of recognition, a moral leader worth following.
There's this strange lionization of King in our white homes now in 2018, where King is routinely recognized as a great and acceptable moral leader whose message can be summed up in just treating one another the same no matter skin color.
He's become the King that justifies color-blindness, the kumbaya-King, the holding hands in a circle King.
The safe King.
When we got back from Memphis I was telling a family member about our experience at the Lorraine Motel. I had to remind them that it was where Dr. King was killed. This family member was alive and old enough to remember when it happened.
I could tell that something about our visit to the Civil Rights Museum made this family member uncomfortable. Perhaps their forced smile and feigned interest gave it away.
Finally they said, “I think Martin Luther King was one of the good ones.”
Of course, the un-said portion of that statement could not be more clear. After all, as one of the “good ones,” King wasn't one of those liberal yahoos who presume to carry his legacy today. He wasn't the NFL players taking a knee. He wasn't one of these ungrateful, belligerent blacks that we see on TV, these entitled Black Lives Matter millennials.
Gone in our collective memory is the King who pissed off two of every three Americans at the time of his murder.
This weekend is a good time to reflect on King's legacy. The kids are off school. The banks are closed. Safe and acceptable King quotes will be plastered all over social media. A lot of white parents will even pull up the I Have A Dream speech and gather the kids around to watch it.
Can I suggest taking it a step further this year? Perhaps the best way to honor Dr. King in our white homes is to reflect and press into the things about the man and his message that made our families so mad. Press into those things he represents which continue to make us uncomfortable and (dare I say it) even those things that make us feel a little guilty as white people.
What it was about him that ticked off the majority of his country-men? What was it about him that caused his hearers to hold such animus, to see him as an extreme agitator?
After all, King didn't die of natural causes.
There's a reason for that.
And whatever reason that is, there's a good chance it still resides and lingers in the white community, and those are the things with which we still need to grapple. He wasn't killed for being safe.