Friday, March 28, 2008

Columns—MLK Day

Note: The first of these two columns ran in the Logan (Utah) Herald-Journal on Feb. 4, 1999.; the second, focusing on a reader’s response to the column, appeared two weeks later. Lightly updated, I like to share these with my students every year on MLK Day, which Utah called “Human Rights Day” in 1999. The holiday was finally named Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2001, but the state Legislature still starts its annual session on that Monday, which I still find disrespectful. In this 2008 campaign season when a black man is a serious contender for president, Dr. King’s dreams—some coming true, but many still distant—are worth revisiting. TP

Three decades years later, King’s dream won’t die

By Ted Pease

Normally, I am an incurable optimist. But there are times when I despair for American society—is there any hope for us? Will we ever be able to learn from our past mistakes? This week, remembering the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., is one of those times that I despair.

In spite of social conditions in the 1960s, Martin Luther King had a dream for American equality. He helped the rest of us dream it with him, and made us believe it.

That was more than four decades ago. Dr. King was young—in his 30s—black and incredibly powerful in his faith, his dream, his vision for an America that would correspond to the nation that the Constitution’s framers had also dreamed of.

The dream, said King, was that one day in America, people would be judged “not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Most of the time I truly believe that we Americans have indeed grown that much, to the point where, as a society, race really doesn’t matter, and that our view of others is not—like beauty—just skin-deep.

But I am a white man. For people who aren’t white—more than one-third of all Americans—race matters almost more than any other single thing in their lives. So what do I know?

Here in Utah, about 12 percent of the population is “minority”—that is, not white. We are the 13th whitest state in the Union. I think people here really do try to live up to moral expectations of decency and acceptance in their dealings with others, but in Utah we can’t even celebrate the memory of Martin Luther King Jr. and honor the ideals he espoused, worked for, died for. Instead, what is designated as Martin Luther King Day on the federal and national calendar is “Human Rights Day” in Utah, as if we dare not acknowledge the power and vision of a black man. (This changed in 2001. TP)

When I was a kid, my parents loaded me onto a bus and took me into Boston to “march with Martin Luther King.” I’m not sure how old I was, or how well I understood what we were doing with the masses of people moving slowly around the historic Boston Common, making new history in a city not known for its racial acceptance, and singing, over and over, “We Shall Overcome.”

But I have sharp and distinct images from that day that still move me, more than 40 years later. King was there that day, and I remember listening to him speak from the small gazebo on the Boston Common. It wasn’t the “I Have a Dream” speech for which he is most famous, of course—he made that mark on our nation’s history and our culture’s conscience during the famous “March on Washington” on Aug. 28, 1963. I don’t remember his words that day in Boston, but the dream was real in the sound of his voice. Like an unforgettable taste on my tongue, I can still feel his voice and his dream.

It’s not that I have any quarrel with Utah designating a day to honor the precepts of human rights. After all, Martin Luther King Jr., who would have been 79 now had he survived, certainly did stand for human rights for everyone. In fact, let’s declare every day “human rights day” in Utah. But why can’t we as a state honor King himself—if only once a year—and why, if we as a state believe in what King dreamed of, does the Utah Legislature pick that day to open its session and get on with business as usual? What message does that send? It’s disrespectful to King and all people who espouse his ideals.

Most of us “just don’t think about race that much,” as one of my students here at Utah State University said to me one day last fall. “Why does it matter?” she said, meaning that a person’s race shouldn’t matter.

Well, she’s right: it shouldn’t matter in the way she meant. Race shouldn’t be a barrier to opportunity, education, lifestyle, expectations, the way we live our day-to-day lives and raise our kids and interact with each other on the street or in schools or at work. But it does matter, and race still is a barrier to people who aren’t white, for whom race is “the single most defining aspect of all parts of my life,” as a black former colleague once told me.

In 2008, four decades after James Earl Ray murdered Martin Luther King, the dream is still alive, but still unfulfilled. Some think America is no less racist and divided now than it was in the 1960s, when a presidential commission said we were “two societies, one white, one black, separate and unequal.”

The reason that race matters today—and not just for people who aren’t white—goes beyond the precepts of basic human decency on which our faith and our beliefs as Americans are founded. It matters because we are still living in two (at least) separate and unequal and incommunicative societies where, as Martin Luther King pointed out a generation ago, words still seem to count more than deeds, and skin color is more important than character.


Shortly after that column ran, I received an anonymous fan letter at the newspaper, and used it as fodder for my next column.

Logan Herald-Journal, 2/18/99

Racism Right Here at Home

By Ted Pease

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream for racial equality and social peace that helped change America.

Didn’t it? That’s what we say, anyway—that we share King’s dream, that it inspired us to see our neighbors for who and what they really are, and helped give all of us an opportunity to thrive.

Two weeks ago, I wrote about Martin Luther King Jr., about how his dream helped shape mine, and about how disappointed I am that Utah can’t acknowledge King’s contribution. Not everyone agreed with me. One friend took me to task for not going far enough: what about Medgar Evars and Malcolm X and others who also gave their lives in word and deed to improve American civil rights? Others applauded. One student wanted more about Barbara Jordan, the great black American stateswoman, scholar and teacher from Texas who died during the week of King’s birthday this year.

These are good thoughts. But one Cache Valley letter writer—anonymous—offered what might be a more important insight on the health of Martin Luther King’s dream in the 1990s. We don’t always like to acknowledge that these kinds of sentiments still exist, right here where we live—that’s why this letter writer’s perspectives are important. For me, this is a powerful and sobering reminder that we have not come as far as we think—or hope.

The letter came to the Herald-Journal, handwritten in black ballpoint pen on three pages from a yellow pad. In its entirety, edited to correct grammar, it said:

“Attention to Mr. Pease. You found my button. I read your item—King shouldn’t be anonymous in Utah. I see no great man in this fellow. He had the morals of a dog—he had many women in his noisy life.
“Are any blacks denied access to any establishments? Do they have to sit in the back of any buses? Do they have to comply with the law? No.
“Rodney King would not submitt when he was arrested. He fought them (the police) and they had to subdue him. As all black lawbreakers do, they are above the law and don’t have to submit. Yes.
“Old Rodney got rich on that little bit of media.
“He has broke the law numerous times since. Blacks are above the law. How do black men treat women—black or white? They rape ’em and hammer them with their fists. That’s inborn—they’re a form of animals on two legs. If you’re a basketball player you’re so far above the law ... rapes and such don’t count.
“They’re above the law and you being an Easterner you couldn’t see it because of your liberal upbringing & blindness. I had a man tell me at a service station back East—He said I can tell a man west of the Mississippi without even saying a word. They’re just nicer and more logical—the Easterners have a cold mindset.
“It isn’t what’s fair anymore with the blacks—it’s what’s fair with the whites that’s needed. They’re walking all over us and boobs like you will never see it. Your logic just escapes me. Take off the blinders and see the real world. The blacks are still bawling about their treatment 100’s of years ago. In fact some of the biggest slave traders were black themselves.
“M. Luther King was an adulterer. He admitted it and what was his excuse?—it calmed his nerves. The blacks simply have no morality, no conscience, and bawl like cut hogs when they have to comply with the law like the rest of us. They’re the biggest law breakers in America.
“Don’t write and try to make most people believe that crap and try to stuff it down our throats. You just can’t see it. Your thinking makes me sick. Go home. Go home.”


Newspapers all over America get letters every day that they either throw away or dismiss as too far-out to publish. But I think we need to hear these voices and acknowledge that such sentiments not only exist, but fester in our communities.

Ask the Rev. George Glass, who arrived at his New Pilgrim Baptist Church in Taylorsville-Bennion on the Sunday before Martin Luther King Day and found swastikas and pictures of Klansmen on the doors and windows. Or ask the members of the two black churches in Salt Lake City where letters were sent telling them to “go back to Africa or be taken to a dump and be burned.”

The Rev. Ralph Crabbe of Trinity African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, who received one of those letters, said, “Hate is a sickness that needs healing. But while we are praying, we have to do something.”

I choose to “do something” by giving this letter writer a chance to voice his or her views, because only by exposing and airing out such thoughts can we as a society heal the sickness of hate. We all need to hear what’s being thought in the community and the country and the planet where we live. If we citizens don’t say what we think, how can we choose between what’s right and what’s wrong, and decide what we believe?

Many of the assumptions in this letter are just plain wrong, not based on fact. I could point to this and that statement as inaccurate, but that’s not the point. What this letter represents is not something that we in the media and in the community of human beings can simply dismiss. I fear that it represents a dark truth about America that we’d just as soon ignore.

This person was incensed enough by what I wrote about Martin Luther King Jr. to sit down and write and then edit a letter and put it in an envelope and address it to the newspaper and seal the flap and stamp it and mail it. Maybe this letter writer represents an attitude on race in America that is more widespread than we like to admit.

I don’t share his (or her) view and she (or he) doesn’t like mine. But that’s worth talking about openly, isn’t it?



Anonymous said...

Professor Pease!
Thumbs up on the MLK news articles, I read them and enjoyed them quite thoroughly. I read your email and couldn't help but say "Amen!" to everything you were implying about Utah being so ignorant to turn a blind eye to MLK, and the one day out of the year that we celebrate his contributions toward civil rights. I grew up in Orlando, FL - a melting pot of different races, cultures, ethnicities and religions. When I moved out here to go to college, it was such a culture shock for me. Everyone on campus looked like they stepped off a page of an Old Navy catalog....lame! This may be a negative comment to say, but everyone looks the same to me. Nobody stands out or even catches my attention really beacuse everyone is so cookie cutter. I mean it suprises me that some students think that we are not having classes on Monday because its a student/teacher holiday. Its pretty pathetic and sad because where I come from people recognize MLK Day. People in Utah that have been raised here and live here I feel are so incredibly sheltered from the real world. Some of these people have no culture and are close-minded to anything and everything that is the complete opposite of what is their own way of living. I could go on and on about the complexities that I have towards Utah people.....god and the whole Mormon not get me started on that! Anyways, sorry that you had to be the unlucky vicitm that I picked to vent to for about thirty seconds...hope you have a great weekend.

 (February 2008)

Kristi Ottley said...

What a great column, Professor. I agree with you on all counts. It is too bad that our state doesn't recognize the day for what it really is. I think that everyone should be treated equally, regardless of details, such as race, gender, education, and heritage. I apprecaite your post of the response you received to the running of this column in the Herald Journal. I know racism does still exist today, but had not realized how strongly and to what extent, especially here in Cache Valley. Thanks for sharing it with us.

Anonymous said...

I take MLK day to reflect on what civil rights mean to me and Martin Luther King has showed at taught me about human rights. There many fallen heros who have sacrificed a lot in order to get the message across. Freddie Hampton
Don Cox
William Kunstler
Huey Newton
Bobby Seale
James Chaney
Andrew Goodman
Michael Schwerner
and good countless others as well. Its pretty messed up that Utah calls it Human Rights Day. We live in a red state so that pretty much means that we live in a state full of "haters". Thats too bad.

Katy said...

I read and reread the response to your column, Professor Pease, and I have to say that it made me nauseous. I happen to have lived “east of the Mississippi” for about half of my life, but living in suburbia still sheltered me from the hateful opinions people continue harbor across the nation. I was a little embarrassed for some of my friends for not knowing more about MLK day, and I suppose I’m a little embarrassed with myself for not doing more to honor such an influential and important figure in our history on the only day of the year I’m asked to do so. I am trying to believe you when you say that everyone is entitled to their opinion, and shouldn’t it be openly discussed, but I feel that some people will only believe what they think is right despite what research and the general opinion tells us. That’s why I’m not sure his or her view deserves the right to be discussed. But then maybe you are right in that we should open our eyes to the hate we can find everyone, even where we live, in order to see the world as it is. I’m torn.

Cassie Gunnell said...

Wow! I applaud the fact that you printed a view that was so different than your own and you didn't spend time dissecting it and defending yourself. It is a very interesting to think about the differing views when it comes to racism. The response you got proves that there will always be radicals on both ends of the spectrum. I think however that the majority of America still falls in between the two radical ends. This letter does not represent a big group of people to me or even a mindset that America has, it represents the low end of the curve. I see America as a half circle curve, the highest point is the middle ground, not the hater racist extremist and not on Martin Luther King's fan list. I love these two articles, they get your mind thinking for sure. What do black rights mean to a white girl like me? A lot less than they do to a black women whose rights depended on all of those conflicts that have taken place in the past and whose rights Martin Luther King fought for. Thank you for the insight! Very introspective! Kudos again for going against the stream and printing that response to your article!