Here’s my husband Mike Knezovich with the first of his “Mondays with Mike” installments.
When Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in 1968, I was 11 years old. Turmoil was everywhere—Viet Nam war protests, drugs, rock and roll, feminism, and of course, civil rights. Every thing was nuts, but still, in my little suburban world south of Chicago I felt safe. That all was going on, but it was going on out there somewhere.
My hometown of Lansing was largely blue-collar back then with a significant mix of white collar workers. Some dads commuted to the city, others to East Chicago and Gary Indiana for work in the steel mills. My mom was one of the few working mothers on my block— Esther taught elementary school
It was the post-war lower middle class: protestants, Irish, Italian and Polish Catholics, and a lot of Dutch Reformed. I knew there was at least one Jew…my classmate Moreen. Not one single black person. Not one.
Lansing grew significantly in the 60s and 70s as a result of white flight from the South Side of Chicago, and there was a lot of bitterness and ugly racism . The n word was alive and well. The kids had horror stories about what had happened to their neighborhoods, and to them. Vivid tales of encounters with thugs—maybe some were true, but I’m sure many were fabricated or exaggerated. And in many cases, kids were simply repeating what they heard at home.
In adulthood, I learned that in all likelihood, lots of these folks in Lansing had a lot in common with black people who took their places. Redlining of neighborhoods by the government and the ensuing blockbusting by unethical real estate operators preyed on both groups.
My parents had grown up in a company coal mining town outside of Pittsburgh. They were the children of immigrants, and they had assimilated—as hard and as quickly as they could. Dad served in World War II, and went to college on the GI bill. Esther had cajoled her way into a local teachers college. They settled in Lansing by a confluence of odd circumstances.
My mom was a New Dealer, dad was just a guy who thought you should treat others well. He used the now politically incorrect term “colored.” On the other hand, the only time he ever struck me was when we ran across a black man at a local fishing hole and I made fun of the way he talked.
I don’t know and never will know what my parents were thinking or feeling about King in 1968. I think they were confused by it all.
For my part, I only sensed that Martin Luther King put people on edge. That he was some sort of troublemaker. That everyone around wished he would go away. When he did go away, I stayed up late into the night to watch special reports about MLK on TV. I learned he’d gotten himself arrested for the cause, I learned about the letter from a Birmingham jail. I learned that he was not a trouble maker. I learned that he was telling the truth to power.
I went to bed knowing lots of things—about life, about our country, about how the civil war really wasn’t over, about some of our neighbors, about my own little life—that really, I’d preferred not to know. And nothing was the same afterward. In his life and his death, King is the single public figure who has had the greatest personal impact on me. Not just about racial issues, or war–which he vigorously protested. Moreover, that we can live our lives in a certain way, and collectively create a reality where the person speaking the truth is the villain. It’s a lesson I try to keep in mind, not always successfully.
So, every MLK holiday feels to me like a double-edged sword. I see the celebrations, and I love that the history is retold, even if that history seems to take a back seat to folks getting in line to say great things about him. But I always feel like we skip the ugly parts—partly to spare ourselves. Lots of people thought of Martin Luther Kingas a hero when he was alive, but a great many thought he was the enemy. We have a tendency to take rightful pride in our country and its history, but we like to skip taking responsibility for the bad parts. And you can’t have it both ways.
My ambivalence about the holiday seemed to come to a head this year when the celebration of Martin Luther King’s birthday came on the heals of Nelson Mandela’s death, and then last week, Pete Seeger’s. I don’t equate these folks, but there is a common thread: in their day, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Pete Seeger were considered the enemy by their own governments and a great many of their fellow citizens.
They were threatening. They were communists, terrorists. They were reviled, but much of that gets lost in the media reports published after they die. So does the fact that they were not angels. They were badasses, each in his own way.
We don’t’ seem to have their likes now—and I wonder if they would survive government’s power today. Anti-terrorism laws give wide berth to prosecution and the power of surveillance revealed by the NSA scandal makes J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI and Cointelpro look like quaint hi-jinx.
We do have troublemakers—the Snowdens, the Assanges—I don’t know that they rise to King or Mandela or Seeger, but I lean toward applauding them.
Moreover, I thing that these celebrations of the people who were once reviled are necessary and important, but only if they are accompanied by us looking ourselves in the mirror and understanding that out of indifference or fear or ignorance, we’re probably getting it wrong right now about some perceived enemy among us.