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On King Day: Reminders that we have a long way to go

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day, or perhaps we need to reference a more complex emotional term than just “happy.”

I didn’t recall, until I just looked it up, that the Rev. King gave his iconic 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech very close to the 100th anniversary of the date in 1863 on which President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. King actually started the speech with a reference to this fact, and to the fact that he was speaking near the Lincoln Memorial.

In the almost 55 years since then, our nation has undoubtedly made progress toward legal racial equality, but King’s dream certainly has not yet fully come true. And progress has stalled since the election of the most racially bigoted president since at least Woodrow Wilson. (Wilson tried to explain to the most prominent civil rights leader of his time that the segregation of federal agencies in his administration was a benefit to the blacks.)

Two of King’s close aides testified on at least two of the Sunday morning shows, with the nation buzzing over Trump’s recent statements characterizing a wide array of nonwhite nations as “shitholes.”

On ABC’s “This Week With George Stephanopoulos,” U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia, who took beatings from police during his years as a King lieutenant, passed his judgment on Trump: “I think he is a racist … we have to stand up, we have to speak up, and not try to sweep it under the rug.”

But on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Andrew Young, another veteran civil rights leader and King lieutenant, (who went on to serve as a congressman, a mayor, and as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations) was asked directly whether Trump was a racist. Young, replied:

I’m of the opinion that we were born in a very complex, multicultural situation. I prefer to use the term ethno-centrism. Because it goes way back and it doesn’t help to put the label on any single person. Dr. King said we were born in an unjust world. And none of us can take any virtue about being born black, white, liberal, or conservative. …

One of the things [King] said … which was quoted by the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, last night at the King dinner, was that … “nothing is more dangerous in all the world than sincere ignorance and enthusiastic stupidity.

As a former diplomat, Young managed to decline to call anyone including the current incumbent explicitly a racist, just to imply that certain individuals were sincerely ignorant and enthusiastically stupid, but he didn’t mention any names.

Finally, since I mentioned the Emancipation Proclamation above, and since I am a history nerd, and even though I am a big Lincoln admirer, I have to mention a slightly inconvenient fact, which is that the Emancipation Proclamation of 1862-63 (it was issued in November of 1862, in the middle of the Civil War, with an effective date of Jan. 1, 1863) did not end slavery in our nation and did not actually free any slaves, at least not immediately. Slavery was protected by the Constitution and a constitutional amendment was needed to really get rid of it.

The proclamation was merely an executive order, and even as such would have exceeded the president’s authority if there had not been a war on. Lincoln issued it under his commander-in-chief powers as a measure to weaken the Confederacy. It applied only to states that were in rebellion. (Several of the northernmost slave states did not secede, so it didn’t apply to them) and Lincoln delayed its application in hopes that some more slave states might end their rebellion before the effective date of the proclamation, in order to maintain slavery. None did.

In the midst of the fighting in the South, the proclamation did provide an additional incentive to slaves in the Confederate states to escape into territory held by the Union troops, since that would bring about their emancipation.

The following year, 1864, Lincoln and the Republicans who controlled Congress did push the 13th Amendment through Congress, but that still didn’t give the emancipation effect until the amendment was ratified by enough states, which didn’t occur until December of 1865, after the war ended, and after Lincoln was dead.

If you would like to use a few minutes of MLK Day to read the text of his most famous speech, it’s available here. If you’d like to watch a video of it, there’s one here, although you’ll note that a full accurate audio of the speech doesn’t match up perfectly with the stitched together video. Still, you’ll be able to follow. It takes 17 minutes.

Comments (15)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 01/15/2018 - 09:57 am.

    Historical memory

    As a Certified Old Guy, and an old, broken-down history teacher myself, I’m happy to see Eric point out that inconvenient fact about the proclamation. The chances of Confederates, whether political leaders or ordinary citizens, saying to themselves in 1862, “Well, Lincoln has freed the slaves in our Confederate states, so, despite the fact that we are fighting to preserve slavery, I guess we have to go along with him,” are something close to zero – to the nth power.

    I will also add that there have been a few times in my life when I’ve actually felt a visceral connection to the flow of history. One was in western Nebraska, retracing the Oregon Trail, another was aboard the USS Lexington, from which my Dad flew 46 combat missions in 1944, and which is now permanently moored in Corpus Christi Bay, and a third was a few years ago, standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, looking out across the reflecting pool. I could not help but think of Dr. King’s speech, from the very steps on which I was standing, and how, as a young man, I was inspired by it.

    Indeed, we still have a long way to go…

  2. Submitted by Thomas Eckhardt on 01/15/2018 - 10:10 am.

    Emancipation Proclamation did free slaves

    I’m reading Ron Chernow’s biography of U.S. Grant and it shows that there was a very immediate and important benefit derived from the Emancipation Proclamation. As you say, it encouraged slaves to try to get to union lines, but the effect went beyond that.

    Earlier in the War, Union troops were now allowed to let fugitive slaves into their camps and were required to return fugitive slaves to their owners. It also set ending slavery as one of the war aims.

    After the Emancipation Proclamation, Grant and other Union generals were able to accept the newly freed slaves into their camps and provide humanitarian aid. Grant was also a big advocate of accepting them into the Army to fight against the Confederacy. And his success in that project helped Lincoln spread that idea throughout the Army.

    Yes, the Constitution did have to be changed and indeed there were many northerners who did not want to accept blacks as full citizens, but it was an important first step.

  3. Submitted by Curtis Senker on 01/15/2018 - 12:09 pm.

    It is appropriate to observe, on his day of remembrance, that not only is MLK’s dream is farther from reality than ever, but it is the leftists that were his supposed allies that are as much to blame as anyone. That the DNC has protected and expanded identity politics as a political strategy cannot be denied.

    The ideal that we judge people by their character alone is anathema to everything the left preaches today.

    Without any snark attached, it’s sad.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 01/15/2018 - 01:34 pm.

      By their actions you shall know them

      It’s not the ‘lefties’ that are appealing to racial identity in their pursuit of power.

      • Submitted by Curtis Senker on 01/15/2018 - 02:48 pm.

        WADR, I don’t see many announcements from the GOP announcing the “first (insert gender or race) to hold (insert political office).

        If the right has benefited from racial identity politics, and I don’t deny that they have, it’s strictly a backlash against a decade of racial politics from the left.

        Judging someone by their character specifically excludes race and gender as an issue…like to see the left try that for an election cycle. Just one.

    • Submitted by Robert Lilly on 01/16/2018 - 02:43 pm.

      Identity Politics

      Whenever I hear a conservative rant about identity politics, I have to wonder, do you realize conservatives have been playing white identity politics since this country was founded? In-fact they had it enshrined in the constitution for a while.

      • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 01/16/2018 - 09:04 pm.

        “In-fact they had it enshrined in the constitution” Are you saying that conservatives wrote the Constitution?

  4. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 01/15/2018 - 12:47 pm.

    Choosing Our Memories

    Our annual commemoration of Dr. King lets the country forget–very conveniently–how very controversial he, and his goals, and his methods, all were during his lifetime. In fact, it lets us forget how controversial he remained for years after his death.

    Today, issues like banning discrimination in housing or employment sound like no-brainers, even if how those bans are enforced remain a matter of string dispute. Back in the 60s, a decade we prefer to recall as a halcyon era of Peace and Love and the Beatles, those seemingly bland goals were fought bitterly. Those who worked for them were demonized as dangerous agitators, and branded as Communists. The Communist label was one that stuck: Congressional and Presidential opposition to an MLK holiday was grounded in lingering suspicion over his alleged Marxist sympathies. The bitterness died hard.

    His methods were also unpopular. Opinion polls consistently showed that white Americans believed that sit-ins and demonstrations hurt, rather than helped, the “Negro cause.” Today, we pay lip service to the idea of peaceful protest. This lip service is often accompanied by pointed remarks about what contemporary protesters should be doing, and how they should be doing it.

    Dr. King’s most famous speech is a truly great piece of rhetoric. It expresses beautiful aspirations for us to live up to. Its fame, however, has made it into a commonplace thing. It isn’t hard to find lines in it that may be taken out of context and used to support positions that, were he alive today, Dr. King would likely oppose. Perhaps this year, the commemorative reader should move further afield. This is the year to read “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” or the more obscure speech in honor of W.E.B. DuBois. Before we make sounds about honoring a legacy, let’s see what that legacy really was.

  5. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 01/15/2018 - 02:11 pm.

    Dr. King wouldn’t have stood for the GOP’s Bargaining Chips

    The DACA issue all started before there officially was DACA with decades of inaction by both political party’s turning a blind eye to illegal immigration. Why was it allowed to happen? The DACA parents were allowed to work here because it made money, big money for companies like big Agra businesses, packing houses, and roofing companies among other companies. They hired illegal immigrants without consequences. There must be consequences for companies that hire illegal immigrants. Their consequences must outweigh the benefits they get from hiring illegal immigrants. Without the availability of jobs, the immigrants won’t come. No need for the $18,000,000,000, or more, GOP rat hole. Republicans in Congress know the wall is a bad idea. That is why the President is having a hard time getting them to fund it. The companies paid below minimum wage with zero benefits, dumped them when the work was done, and then just wiped their hands and moved on. They are modern day slaves. It was good old Republican George W. Bush that rationalized why it was okay that it was happening. He said they come and do the jobs no one else will do. He didn’t mention the conditions they worked under to do the jobs.
    Have you ever noticed how Republicans absolutely love to mess with people’s lives? They rant, they rave, they lie, they wave their arms, they use a bogus basis for their rational (i.e. Obamacare) then they reveal their cards and have nothing. Republicans are using the same process with DACA. The DACA issue should not be an issue. The DACA people were brought to the US as children, yes, by their illegal parents who were allowed, by political inaction, to come here. The kids were not part of the decision-making process to come here. The United States is the only country they have known. They were raised here, they have gone to school here, they work here, some may have families of their own, and are contributing members of our society. DACA is such a big thing now because Republicans are hung up on the word amnesty. After all, if the Republicans give in on DACA, that would be one less divisive GOP issue available to them. God help us if the GOP ever runs out of divisive issues. The GOP doesn’t have any credibility, so I guess they feel they have nothing to lose.
    Every element of our society has criminals, which has nothing to do with their ethnicity. I’m tired of the GOP’s mantra with blanket statements claiming the Hispanics are criminals. Every ethnic group in our society has them. That is why we have many layers to our justice system, from the police on up. There are criminals in big business and politics doing far more harm than Hispanic criminals. The GOP would do good to build people up rather than tearing people down as they so often do.
    A wall hasn’t worked for other countries, so why would a bad idea wall work for us? It would be like throwing $18,000,000,000 down another GOP rat hole. We all know government estimates always grow as work proceeds, so it will end up more than $18,000,000,000. Why do we even need to talk about the wall price tag? Trump’s campaign promise is the wall will be paid for by the Mexican government. If Trump doesn’t fulfil HIS promise of getting the Mexican government to pay for the wall, there is no reason I must pay for HIS wall. Trump says they will pay for it in some other form. N0, they pay for the wall or there is no wall. That some other form of payment will never happen and the American people are left holding the $18,000,000,000, or more, because of the President’s stupid campaign promise. So now Trump uses the young, undocumented, innocent immigrants, who didn’t come here of their own volition, as his HUMAN BARGAINING CHIPS. Self-proclaimed Compassionate Conservatives left the Party a long time ago. This is just more proof Republicans love to mess with people’s lives. Dr. King would not have stood for using Hispanics as GOP bargaining chips and neither should we.

  6. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 01/15/2018 - 04:04 pm.

    Unfortunately, many people have forgotten the main King’s point – to stop judging people by the color of their skin… So let’s get to the basics and honor the great man!

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 01/16/2018 - 09:28 am.

      That One Speech!

      All of Dr. King’s life and work has been condensed to a few lines in his most famous speech.

      In his later years, King turned his attention to poverty. When he was murdered, he was in Memphis to support a bitterly disputed strike by sanitation workers. The Poor People’s March, which he planned to lead, called for a guaranteed income and universal health care for all. His last book, “Where Do We Go From Here?”, also argued in favor of a guaranteed income for all.

    • Submitted by Joe Musich on 01/16/2018 - 08:19 pm.

      I would suggest ….

      this speech given one year before he was murdered to help focus better on what Dr King was focusing on very near to the end of his life. In it’s entirety it is nearly an hour long. We read and listened to The this piece as close as possible to the anniversary date of his death. I would love to see a documentary or a docudrama based on the background of his coming to give us this wisdom. These thoughts are especially important to the world we live in today. If you are not framiliar with the speech take the time to listen. Thank you. Here is the link…..

  7. Submitted by Misty Martin on 01/16/2018 - 10:32 am.

    I trust that Dr. King’s life and work has not been condensed.

    I sincerely hope and trust that Dr. King is known for more than a few lines in his most famous speech – yet, what a speech it was! The words still bring a chill to one’s spine.

    Thank you again, Eric, for enlightening some of us and reminding others of some basic facts in history – I hope I never grow tired of learning and re-learning our nation’s rich history, steeped in blood though it is.

    I was reading about William Edward Burghardt “W.E.B.” Du Bois, who lived from 2/23/1868 to 8/27/1963, and who was among other things, an American sociologist, historian, civil rights activist, author, writer and editor. Some of his writings are quite beautiful and note worthy as well.

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