The Undisputed King
Thoughts On The Doc
I have just finished watching the movie, Selma. I had actually planned to watch it on Sunday night - the last night of Black History Month - but did not make it too far past the first act before succumbing to the food coma that was bound to come my way after scooping the top third from a tub of former 49ers quarterback and permanent boogeyman to right-leaning white folks across the country Colin Kaepernick’s new Ben & Jerry flavour (it’s vegan!) down my gourd.
You see, lately, I have been trying to fast on Sundays. This is not really for any reason in particular; I just feel like perhaps a day without shovelling something or the other into my esophagus could do me some good. So far I have been successful in this endeavour, but that is largely due to me staying up until past midnight so I can have the first of Monday’s meals - typically something high in sugar and low in vital nutrients.
Gandhi would surely be proud of my valiant efforts. I have a feeling that he may have been a little more proud of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s valiant efforts to bring about justice for black folks through nonviolent resistance, but hey - who’s to say? Besides, he was not always known to be a huge fan of theirs.
That was then, though. This is now. Well, actually, the film mostly takes place during the 1960s, but it was released about seven years ago. I remember hearing about it when it first came out; at that time, however, I was on a real Wim Wenders kick, so this would have likely been put on the back burner behind Paris, Texas or Wings of Desire.
I am only kidding, of course. I had no idea who Wim Wenders was until I watched Buena Vista Social Club a couple of months ago.
This movie would not have done much for me back then, though. To make use of a term that has become so worn out that its track marks have track marks, I was not “woke” at the time. Well, I sort of was, in the sense that I didn’t like cops and was generally suspicious of white people, but these attitudes were not really based on anything concrete. I just didn’t like people telling me what to do (this largely explains my adolescent infatuation with libertarianism).
Maybe the cast would have reeled me in a bit, as this thing is star-studded. Common, Cuba Gooding Jr. (who had previously depicted Dr. King himself in a [fictional] major motion picture), Martin Sheen, Bunk from The Wire, Darius from Atlanta...Oprah! Every other scene, it seems as if a new A-lister has waltzed his or her way into this flick. Tim Roth does a brilliant job portraying four-term Alabama Governor and (thankfully) zero-term United States President George Wallace; that being said, I could not shake the feeling that, at any moment, he was going to trade that Southern drawl for a Cockney whine, bust out a six-shot, and holler “everybody be cool - this is a robbery!”
But, if I can just be real for a second here, people...what is wrong with America? More specifically...what is wrong with White America? When I say White America, by the way, I am not talking about white people living in the United States—most of you guys are pretty cool. I am talking about the institution of White America. You see, one thing this film does so brilliantly highlights the vitriol experienced by those advocating for a more just society. This is done quite graphically - I nearly squirted a few droplets of urine against the inner lining of my pyjama bottoms when those little girls were engulfed in the flames of that church bombing at the beginning of the film. Furthermore, we have all heard about the vicious brutality unleashed upon demonstrators, but to see it all play out (and in slow motion, no less)...let’s just say it hits a bit harder than Our Friend, Martin (no disrespect to the best classroom movie of all time, of course, as well as arguably one of the best time travel movies).
It sure hits a lot harder than a textbook, that’s for certain. In fact, this is likely the reason why many whites react with a sort of befuddlement at the suggestion that the sins perpetrated against black people in this country have not yet been addressed adequately. A cursory reading of the “Civil Rights Era” section in any secondary school textbook gives one the impression that the virulent racists who terrorized the lives of black folks in the South for decades were akin to schoolyard bullies, hurling out nasty remarks and maybe indulging in some light shoving here and there, but ultimately functioning as more of a nuisance than an actual threat. Then, of course, Rosa Parks refused to move her booty (as there was no beat to move it to, just an angry bus driver barking orders at her), resulting in a boycott, a few marches, a big speech about a dream, and then the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.
And then, of course, a black president was elected a short forty-four years later. So it’s all good, right?
Well...no, not exactly.
When it comes to an issue such as racism, in which the American character is so deeply rooted, mere legislation is not going to cut it. To anyone who believes that the Civil Rights Act was enough to solve the country’s racial woes and that, ever since, things have been just peachy for black folks, I would kindly request an explanation regarding the assassination of Malcolm X the following year and Dr. King three years after that. If the response is that those incidents were simply the result of a couple of kooks with a few screws loose who had gotten their hands on some firepower, then I will accept it only on the condition that they give me a good reason as to why, in 1985, the Philadelphia Police Department bombed a residential home in which members of the black anarchist collective MOVE were living while the Philadelphia Fire Department let the ensuing fire rage on, resulting in the destruction of nearly four city blocks, killing eleven people (including five children), and rendering two hundred and forty others homeless.
Now, sure, Lyndon B. Johnson definitely helped push things forward with the legislation he enacted, but it is not as if his intentions were the purest; much like Lincoln, he was not as concerned with the plight of black people as he was with preserving his legacy. This is made clear in the film during his conversation with George Wallace, in which he pleads with the Alabama man, asking him to think of how he will be remembered if he continues to oppose the efforts of seemingly earnest civil rights activists.
Doing good things despite not necessarily having the purest of intentions definitely isn’t unique to politicians, though. Most lawyers don’t actually care about the well-being of the clients they are paid handsomely to represent, and most doctors don’t lay awake at night thinking about the various ailments that afflict each of their patients. Hell, even plumbers aren’t coming to your house and unclogging your toilet so you can resume peaceful defecation once again; they need to pay the bills, like everyone else.
Dr. King is an example of someone who personified the converse of this phenomenon. His intentions, given all indications, were entirely pure...but he did not always do good things. It is well-known (because the FBI, under J. Edgar Hoover, was wiretapping him extensively) that Dr. King was involved in a number of adulterous relationships. He has also been accused of plagiarism. Also, I heard somebody once say that he wasn’t a very generous tipper.
You know what he was, though? A goddamn warrior for justice! When you dedicate your entire life to the advancement of a noble cause, people will always look for places you slipped up. This isn’t because they actually care about whatever it is you did wrong; they are just envious of your steadfast commitment to ideals that they, deep down, know to be righteous. They can’t help but to criticize - what else are they going to do? Put in effort? Pshhh...fuggedaboutit, mate.
I use the term “warrior” purposefully, by the way, as I feel that Dr. King has been inaccurately cast as a sort of limp-wristed, non-threatening alternative to Malcolm X. The film even plays on this during the scene in which Dr. King visits LBJ at the White House to discuss his inaction on securing voting rights for black people. After remarking that signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was the “proudest moment of [his] political career,” Johnson attempts to stoke further division amongst them, suggesting to King that he was the more “reasonable” of the two.
Dr. King was no pansy, though - far from it. He simply saw the effectiveness of utilizing nonviolent means of resistance; at no point did he ever suggest that there should be no resistance at all. Violent riots, to him, were a fantastic way to derail one’s movement while giving one’s detractors more ammo to work with. Nonviolent protests, on the other hand, exert enough pressure through disruption to result in action while simultaneously making it virtually impossible to harbour any ill will towards the protestors. Towards the climax of this film, when King essentially has LBJ by the balls on the Voting Rights Act, we really get a sense of how powerful such an approach is.
These are the kinds of divide-and-conquer tactics those in power have used to keep black people under their thumb for generations. It goes back to the idea of the house negro and the field negro (a concept that was explained brilliantly by X). As a matter of fact, it goes back even further than that - the origin of racism itself.
You see, dividing a population among racial lines inhibits them from organizing along class lines. This is where those in power reap the benefits of propagandized hatred—if you can convince poor Jeb from Arkansas that the reason he can barely afford to feed and clothe himself is that black people are out there making all these lofty demands (for basic rights and equal treatment), then he is unlikely to join hands with his black brothers and sisters in a fight against those who are truly to blame for his destitution—the oligarchs. Thus, the power structure remains intact.
Dr. King was keenly aware of this dynamic, which is what led him to broaden the movement for justice to include members of all races. He began to view his people’s struggle as part of a universal struggle, one that just about everybody is a part of in some way. As he points out during the film: “How does it help a man to be able to eat at a lunch counter if he doesn’t make enough to buy the burger?” Indeed, anyone who has ever had to forego a meal in order to finance a bus ticket back home, or sacrifice time spent with loved ones in order to work more hours because a raise just “isn’t in the company’s budget,” or wear dirty clothes because the cost of doing laundry is more than the cost of stinking for a few days (no more than three) is a part of this struggle.
This is likely why the government had him killed - he was starting to sound like one of those good-for-nothing commies. And yes, I know that this is somewhat of a controversial claim, but I have seen enough evidence that the U.S. government is completely devoid of any conscience (see the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which coincidentally also happened around this time) that my belief in its veracity remains unshaken.
In the decades that followed Dr. King’s death, the neighbourhoods to which blacks have been relegated continue to be plagued by violence. Though there have been many efforts at offsetting some of this bloodshed with various community outreach programs - many of which are detailed in the book Fist Stick Knife Gun, Geoffrey Canada’s fascinating expose on inner-city violence - it does not seem as if things are looking up these days. As Canada mentions in the foreword to this same book, even those who we point to as shining examples of what nonviolence can accomplish - Gandhi and King, for instance - were met with a violent end. This is enough to make trying to do things in a peaceful way seem...futile.
King likely knew that his time was coming. Every day, his family would receive death threats of the most repugnant calibre, and it got to the point where he couldn’t really go anywhere alone. Still, though, he did not let this discourage him. As he so eloquently put it in the film: “Today the sun is shining and I’m about to stand in its warmth alongside a lot of freedom-loving people...I may not be with them for all the sunny days to come, but as long as there is light ahead for them, it’s worth it to me.”
Respect, my man. That’s how I feel about it, too.
Here’s another bit of dialogue that I also found to be rather powerful, delivered by the pastor James Reeb prior to being savagely beaten by a couple of good ol’ boys who didn’t take too kindly to his evenly-distributed compassion, in which he describes a state where one is “flying...not on the notes...not on memory...tapped into what’s higher, what’s true” as if “God is guiding”.
God is guiding, mate. Always. I didn’t write this - well, I wrote some of it, but those were mostly the parts I ended up getting rid of, anyway. The most profound things we say in this life are the things that come out when we take off our thinking caps and allow ourselves to act as a vessel for the divine. Then, it is no longer speculation - which is all we are really capable of as humans; it’s truth.
And the truth shall set you free. It may rough you up a little bit in the process, but hey - we could all use a few scars. It makes the kisses feel even better.
Speaking of kisses, I think I still have a Hershey’s bar tucked in the fridge somewhere...