Monday, January 18, 2016

I have seen the promised land

I usually say a few words around Martin Luther King Day. This year I went to Memphis. I've seen that hotel balcony in pictures 100 times, but there's nothing quite like walking up to it and realizing you are where it happened. The hotel, and the boarding house across the street have been turned into the Civil Rights Museum.
It begins with slavery. Those dates seem very far away. That the problem was not solved by 1776 makes it seem a little closer. But of course it doesn't end there. Martin Luther King Jr was killed in 1968. I don't remember where I was, but I was old enough to remember things. A few years earlier, police in Birmingham were macing and beating marchers who were protesting voting laws and segregation laws. Those images are shown in life size on a screen in the museum and they were broadcast across the country at the time.

They are the images that changed the course of the civil rights movement. People from the North suddenly felt it was their struggle too. When I hear speeches about freedom and equality I think, "of course, we all want that". And I think that if someone is asking for it, adjustments will be made and they will get what they ask for. I suspect people who didn't see bathrooms marked "colored" felt this way too. Even today, people will defend the Old South, saying they got along peacefully, that everyone was happy with how things were, that they were separate, but they were equal.

Getting people from different ethnic backgrounds together in one place was not necessarily the hardest thing Martin Luther King Jr. did. Pointing out that things could be better wasn't it either. That was fairly obvious. The way he spoke of that brighter future was brilliant and inspiring, no doubt. The hard part is having people do the difficult things that lead to that future. Oppression is maintained mostly by a fear that the things that need to be done for change are so bad, that it's worth leaving them as they are.

People who are free today, who were born into free societies, will fight to keep that because they know how good it is. If they were suddenly under an oppressive ruler, they would do anything to regain that freedom, even sacrifice themselves if they felt it would bring freedom to the next generation. But if you are born into oppression, you don't know that. You only know what you are allowed to know. A few are given small privileges, and in exchange for that, they aid the oppression. They are the ones who say, "it's good enough as it is, work hard and you'll get privileges like me." Talk to someone who works in a prison, they'll tell you they use these tactics. Economic systems are a way of formalizing this arrangement.

There are some other obvious examples, but I think  I'll just go listen to some Blues tonight.

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