There are a number of MLK cartoons up for the holiday, but Bill Day captures the essential question of how things could possibly have changed so much, and yet so little.
He does it with a pair of graphics suggesting that Martin Luther King is still the same person he was in life, and a set of words showing that our stubborn ability to not get it is also unchanged. We labor to misunderstand his words as much as we labor to misunderstand the remaining crisis.
The date most of us associate with him is not his birthday but April 4, 1968. For me, it began with a visit to our campus by Bobby Kennedy in advance of the Indiana Primary, from where he flew to Muncie for another speech, and from there to Indianapolis, where he received the news of Dr. King’s death before getting off the plane, whereupon he made a speech that kept that city from bursting into the angry flames that engulfed so many more.
Easter was 10 days later, which I recall because I was at my grandfather’s and we all went to see “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner,” which I hated, in part, I’m sure, because my response to Dr. King’s murder was that it had made no sense, that killing Stokely or Huey, who preached a far more confrontational vision, while still horrific, would have at least seemed logical.
It all seemed so pointless, so cruel, so stupid, that watching a pair of liberals fall apart because their daughter was in love with a Negro just didn’t seem to me like anything to bother making a movie about.
If she’d brought home Stokely, or if her fiance had been organizing a union for sanitation workers, we’d have something to discuss, but, of course, the point of the movie was that the only thing “wrong” with this dedicated young doctor was the color of his skin, not the content of his character. I had neither time nor patience for anyone who couldn’t get past that.
His perfection, of course, was the point, and the movie was aimed at the comfortable liberals it depicted. They fawned over it and gave it awards, but I still suspected that they’d fall apart if their real-life daughters actually brought home such an almost-perfect bridegroom.
Sometime later, Sidney Poitier was asked why he always portrayed such idealized characters, and he responded that he was waiting to see black people featured in commercials for either deodorant or mouthwash — I forget which– his point being that true integration needed to include all facets of life, including that kind of fallible intimacy.
Later, we reached that point and he began to portray more flawed, realistic, challenging characters.
But now the racists are throwing that quote about color and character back in our faces, pretending that Dr. King was working to wipe out all traces of ethnicity and culture, and that, if we’d just quit using the N-word in mixed company, full equity would be achieved and there would be no need to ever mention race again.
Furthermore, as Andy Marlette (Creators) portrays it, those defenders of character-over-color are passing laws to make sure we don’t ever mention race again, at least not in front of the children.
And that we don’t stock books in school libraries that might suggest that anyone had ever even noticed the color of Dr. King’s four little children’s skin. Such as, for instance, books that might feature characters whose skin color is not, y’know, “normal.”
Thing is, while I could not abide Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn politely struggling to find fault with a man who had no faults, they at least had the (flimsy) excuse that it was half a century ago, and I’ll admit that there was, in the backs of even the most enlightened minds, the prospect of uncomfortable Thanksgiving dinners and the travails our mixed-race children would suffer.
We were wrong. I was wrong. Society adjusted, and not only do we now have commercials in which African-American characters sell deodorants and mouthwash, but we’re seeing people of all skin shades throughout society in real life as well.
Is it perfect?
The boardrooms are still resistant to changes in color and gender, and even those TV commercials that show mixed race couples seem far more likely to show white-him-black-her than vice-versa.
And if you think it’s all in the past, walk out on the street hand-in-hand with a different color hand. You’ll see. You’ll hear. You’ll know.
Those laws against bringing up racial issues in school are the last gasp of pretending there is something wrong with Katharine Houghton’s fine young doctor.
And the people who make those race-erasing laws may not say the quiet part out loud except by mistake, but somebody keeps electing them to public office.
Meanwhile, those same allegedly colorblind legislators and judges insist that David Fitzsimmons and Joe Biden are wrong, wrong, wrong to suggest that anyone is back-sliding to the days of Bull Connor and George Wallace and Jefferson Davis.
They recognize that the only problem with proposed voting rights legislation is that none of the Republicans will vote for it because we only believe in character, not skin color, these days, and, besides, lifting the filibuster for this particular issue the way we’ve lifted it for so many other specific causes in the past would destroy the beautiful atmosphere of cheerful, constructive bipartisanship that has marked our Congress for the past decade.
Ever since those bastards elected Sidney Poitiers or whoever the hell that was who they put in the White House in 2008.
Though he and his wife were only judged by the content of their character, never, never ever by the color of their skin.
Because that’s what Dr. King told us to do.
Right before we shot him.