To celebrate the relief of completing my last yoga assessment in Atlanta this weekend, I decided to sojourn to the King Center. I wanted to lay my eyes upon the landmark Ebenezer Baptist Church, see the King archives, and more.
I got on MARTA in Midtown, and watched the passengers shift from white to black as I transferred to the east-west lines. When I exited at King Center station, I walked into a cavernous, run-down station in a neighborhood alongside the interstate, and we know what interstates do to do neighborhoods. I’ve seen it in Buffalo, Detroit, and Milwaukee where I live now. Wealthy neighborhoods don’t have highways running through the middle of them, but they often break up working-class communities and create urban decay. In contrast to the lively, well-kept Midtown neighborhood where I was renting an apartment, the ¾ mile walk to the King Center was desolate, marked by vacant lots, houses needing some stimulus, and a mega-church.
As I experience all over the nation, the 2 people I passed on my walk, both African American, met my eyes and nodded hello. Rarely do white people do this. Instead, typically they assiduously avoid eye contact. Anyone else experience this? In my Milwaukee neighborhood, on the east side of Holton (primarily white), we don’t say hello, and on the west side of Holton (primarily black) we do: a topic for another essay.
I felt a surge of complex emotions as I spotted Ebenezer and became teary, recalling all its historic events and sermons. The entire region had been turned into a campus honoring MLK, with sculptures, a rose garden, community center, crypts for MLK and Coretta Scott King, an eternal fire, and a reflecting pool.
However, after spending an hour or so in the museum, I felt quite agitated and exasperated. It seemed that the radical message of Dr. King had been co-opted by foundations, the middle class, and the dominant culture. I sat down on a bench to jot some notes. An African American woman about my age sat down next to me, casually asking, “How are you doing?” Instead of exchanging pleasantries, I poured out my heart to her.
I shared my frustration with her and tried to briefly explain my impressions. All the exhibits were about historic racism, and largely focused on racist acts of individuals. Exhibits like these give the wrong impression that racism is part of our past, and that since Jim Crow is over, white supremacy is also over. Displaying images of hooded KKK members implies that white supremacists comprise a fringe group, and not that it’s a mainstream political/economical/educational/social/cultural system that continues to dominate our country to this day. I was angry that the language of systemic, institutional racism/white supremacy was not used at all in the Center. I felt there needed to be an exhibit of why Dr. King’s work is still necessary today, as evidenced by our failing public schools, overflowing prisons, rising poverty, unemployment, and more.
My patient benchmate listened and completely assented. Then she quickly let it go, and told me she was here with a children’s gospel choir from Savannah, who was going to sing at the capitol the next day. We went on to some pleasant small talk, and bid farewell.
The Center, in fact, was bustling with children and teenagers, many of them enjoying each other more than the exhibits, joking and goofing like normal kids. In this light I was particularly interested in a 15-minute film about the role of children in the Civil Rights Movement, a film funded by Coca-Cola. The famous opening quote about children not being judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character, had some disturbing resonances in this context.
The fact of the matter is, white children and adults are constantly judged by the color of their skin. The color of your skin makes an impression at job interviews, getting an apartment, school admissions, how authority figures like teachers and police officers perceive and treat you, and how store clerks and neighbors and others respond to you. White people routinely benefit from the color of their skin as evidenced by statistics on every measurement, from social to economic.
What King really meant was,
“May black children NOT be judged harshly for the color of their skin,”
“May race be invisible so as not to hurt my children,”
which prompts conservative whites to say,
“Now race doesn’t matter anymore, Dr. King’s message has come true,”
as a justification to cut social programs and render white privilege even more invisible.
I’m afraid Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy has become a message of color-blindness rather than a message of radical social transformation to uplift the oppressed.
Color-blindness is race-negating rather than race-affirming. Rather than celebrating our differences, people of color are literally being white-washed. This makes complete sense if we are being hurt for our differences. Although Asians are sometimes upheld as successful examples of the American dream, in reality, this is a result of strict immigration limitations, in which only doctors and professionals were given access. Now that we have more working-class Asian Americans, including refugees, our statistics more closely reflect the strains of all marginalized groups.
Recently a Filipina friend was admiring a t-shirt I was wearing. I told her I had more shirts like it that I had brought back from India, and that I would bring her one. The following week, I presented her with a half dozen shirts for her to choose from, ranging in colors and designs. She was immediately attracted to a shirt with the figure of Ganesh, the elephant god of beginnings who removes obstacles and bestows good luck. But she rejected it because the shirt was a bright, vibrant yellow.
How many times have Asian women been advised not to wear yellow because it brings out our sallow, olive skin tones? We’re supposed to look more like the dominant ideal: white and rosy. “Yellow is a beautiful color,” I told her. “It’s good to be yellow!” I insisted, feeling a little like Kermit the Frog. “Yellow skin is beautiful! Wear the yellow shirt!”
A white friend who was in the room went on to comment on her yellowish skin as well and we looked at her slightly puzzled, but she explained that next to her husband who was kind of pinkish, she was much more olive, and she seemed rather proud of herself. My Filipina friend tried on the shirt and took it after all, but not only until her skin color had been affirmed as beautiful by the white person in the room. We are still under the thumb of the dominant culture of white supremacy.
This is just a small example of how presumed colorblindness as a function of white supremacy damages us. More serious damage can be seen daily in schools, in the media, the legal system, and most recently in the shooting of Congresswoman Giffords in Tucson, Arizona.
The emphasis of the film and the exhibits at the King Center was on personal indignities, like the rude store clerk, rather than widespread, socially sanctioned oppression. It strikes me that poor whites resort to physical attacks when they have no other tools to defend white supremacy. Bankers, teachers, judges, and government officials have multiple means other than physical violence to defend the status quo. They are not morally superior to working-class whites when it comes to racism, they can just be less overt.
Later on my King Center tour, I perused the archival rooms of the Kings and Gandhi. The Kings’ room had all the marks of middle class life and high accomplishment: Dr. King’s elegant shoes, a photo of him tuxedoed and Mrs. King in a ballgown at the Nobel laureates ceremony, photos of his house.
The Gandhi room, by contrast, was marked by simplicity: images of Gandhi at the spinning wheel; his personal artifacts of wooden bowl, spoon, and sandals. Gandhi understood that as a spiritual and political leader, his power lay in his identification with the poor. He recognized the need for solidarity, and he renounced his economic and class status in order to serve the nation.
King was headed in this direction, especially in his later years, recognizing that the real problem in the nation was poverty, created by militarism, and fueled by racism. He became an increasing threat to the nation as he organized the Poor People’s March on Washington. Our government was able to contain the damage of the Civil Rights Movement to some degree, but uplifting the poor meant an attack on capitalism itself, which is as sacred as anything gets in the USA.
I’m further concerned that King’s message has been about idealizing, embracing, and uplifting a few to, the middle class, instead of dismantling the crippling system of capitalism. Certainly, better distribution of resources is central in uplifting the oppressed, but an emphasis on building wealth takes the focus from society and systems, to individual success which does not alter white supremacy. King’s message is one that particularly assuages the liberal class. Liberals can feel good that civil rights legislation passed, Jim Crow ended, and blacks and whites can go to school and work together. And white supremacy is still in place.
Personally, I believe the trajectory of King’s life indicates that he would have embraced Gandhi’s, and of course Jesus’s, principles even further, regarding the poor, had he lived beyond his 39 years. It’s up to us now, to complete the work he started. What does the Kingian legacy mean? The holiday is just a token. We need to reform our schools, make our government leaders listen to us, invest in local communities, eradicate poverty, and end wars. Are we willing, as Martin Luther King, Jr. did, to lay our lives on the line? Can we put our self-interest, careers, and comfort aside to continue his work? May we fearlessly confront systems of oppression. May we speak truth to power. May Dr. King not have died in vain.