||Last Updated: Dec 4th, 2013 - 15:58:28
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Living here in Washington, DC—at the epicenter of so much impacting the country and the world—has formed in my mind a straight line from the current movie “The Butler,” to the recent 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, to President Obama calling for military strikes against Syria.
Though I generally admire “The Butler” and consider it a 180 from the Black pathology-laden films of Lee Daniels, I am irked by the film’s conclusion that the Jim Crow totalitarianism endured by African Americans—by even a Black butler who served in the White house for decades— has at its endpoint and as its salvation the election of the nation’s first Black president, Barack Hussein Obama.
This trajectory of history provided in the film is a simplistic narrative, which in many ways, surely honors the struggles of pre-civil rights generations of Black Americans and the civil rights generation too—people like my parents and their parents. And it is perfect for a movie ending. It fits neatly into the mindset of so many of us who, experiencing the racism that still exists in our society, have adopted a position of firm allegiance to Obama.
It fits neatly into the mindset of so many of us in this, the capital region, who, actually, did not participate in the first March on Washington because we were warned that, by doing so, we would endanger our government jobs and fragile economic footing.
The narrative of race progress ending with Obama’s presidency fits neatly into the mindset of those of us who have not broken out of a nationalist analysis of our well-being. It fits neatly for those of us who do not think of ourselves as linked to other human beings around the globe and, so, do not oppose war against them.
King opposed war but, just like civil rights colleagues and main stream media who deserted him when he spoke out against the Vietnam War one year before his assassination, there was little recognition of King’s anti-war legacy here on August 24 at the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, which was designed to honor him.
Of the speeches I heard, while standing in the hot sun at the Lincoln Memorial, it was not the Black leaders who made the links between—on the one hand—our country’s wars, drones and profiteering military industrial complex and—on the other hand—the lack of jobs or encroachments on our constitutionally protected rights at home.
Those who would have made those links, people like Cornel West or Harry Belafonte, were not on the program. One of the biggest cheers was for U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who earned points from the crowd for his defense of voting rights and stated opposition to stand-your-ground laws. Never mind Holder’s spying on and prosecution of activists, journalists and whistleblowers, including Edward Snowden, Bradley Manning and Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.
Just as in the Black nationalist trajectory of “The Butler,” there were speakers at the March on Washington who saw the 50th anniversary as coinciding with what they considered as the fulfillment of King’s dream—having a Black man in the White House—nevermind that this Black man has used drones or missiles to attack Pakistan, Yemen, Libya and Somalia, and now has his sights set on Syria.
Four days after the August 24 march, Obama stood audaciously on the same spot that King stood 50 years ago and gave a speech about racial progress while, at the same time, planning new strikes against Muslim countries in the Middle East.
From movies, to marching, to the murder and mayhem of war, the meaning of Martin Luther King Jr.—as well as of race and civil rights—are rituals of selective memory, selective legacy and appropriation. Thankfully, the actual historical record remains to stand the tests of time and such tampering.
This essay was first broadcast September 4, 2013 on “What’s At Stake,” co-hosted by Verna Avery-Brown and Esther Iverem, on WPFW, 89.3 FM, Pacifica Radio in Washington, DC. Visit THEPEOPLEFORWPFW.COM to support the effort to save progressive, community-run public radio.
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