Monday, January 15, 2007

A Prayer on the Sidewalks

If, today, you're looking for television footage of or about Martin Luther King, Jr., don't watch the History Channel. There's only two hours of MLK- or civil-rights-related programming on the channel today, and it already aired once this morning and again this afternoon. Just for a comparison, there's a full two-hour documentary about Harry Houdini that's also airing twice today, including in prime time. They spend more time covering The Da Vinci Code in a given week than they have ever spent on the civil rights movement or African-American history in a year, including February.

Last year, there was no King-related coverage on the holiday at all. My wife and I will never watch the History Channel, A&E, or Biography ever again.

PBS, by contrast, is a salvation. I don't know what they're broadcasting on any given channel, but you don't need to go anywhere on the web besides the PBS site for Eyes on the Prize, the seminal documentary on the civil rights movement. The original documentary aired in two parts in the late 1980s, and finally rebroadcast this fall. For years Eyes on the Prize had been held up due to copyright issues on the extensive archive footage used. Now it's finally available on DVD, but for nearly $400. To me at least, It's a clear case of copyright abuse. If you can get your local academic or public library to buy it, it's well worth watching. I hear it's surprisingly (and deliberately) widely available on filesharing networks too.

The Eyes on the Prize site is a genuine treasure. It features video clips from each of the 26 sections of the documentary, primary textual documents written by and about both major and minor historical figures and ordinary people (the letter from freedom rider John Dolan's father shows you just how far outside the mainstream the civil rights movement was held to be), and snappy profiles of a slew of the major figures featured in the documentary. As an example, here's a chunk of the profile of Ronald Reagan, who according to a horrifying Discovery Channel/AOL poll, beats both King and Abraham Lincoln as "the greatest American":

As governor of California (1967-1975), Reagan clashed with activists like the Black Panthers in Oakland, and encouraged the firing of University of California professor Angela Davis. In the presidential campaign of 1980, he invoked "states' rights" which some heard as a code phrase for racism. As America's 40th president (1981-1989), he tried to eliminate the Department of Education and cut back on loan and assistance programs that helped underprivileged students get a leg up. Throughout his political career, Reagan undercut anti-poverty programs and urban assistance while cutting taxes, widening the gap between rich and poor. In support of business, his administration failed to enforce the Community Reinvestment Act, which outlaws racial discrimination in home loans, and made many federal contractors exempt from Affirmative Action programs.

However, during his presidency, Ronald Reagan signed the bill that declared the third Monday in January a national holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

There's one video that particularly stands out to me. It's from Albany, Georgia, widely held to be the civil rights' movement greatest defeat, where the nonviolent tactics of desegregation failed. The local police chief refused to combat the protestors directly with outright brutality, but relegated them to prisons outside of town so his jail never filled up. He paid King and Abernathy's bail so the two leaders could avoid being flash points. The SCLC and SNCC left town without desegregating the city. In the video, the protestors weep and pray on the sidewalks before they are arrested, carried off on stretchers. At the end, they clap and sing, "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round." It is a truth machine that will not be stopped.

I got into an argument with my wife this morning over the content of my earlier post, and my feeling that most of the local events for MLK squandered the potential of a holiday devoted to a man like this. My wife's position is that the King holiday is the most important holiday we have, since it's the only nonreligious holiday where people are called on to help someone other than themselves or their families. I agree, but I'm frustrated by isolated charity, endless talk about the meaning of King's message, or empty two-block marches that only engage nostalgia, like recreations of George Washington crossing the Delaware. I'm usually the first person to get cynical about political marches or sit-ins or boycotts, but on MLK, I am ready to march anywhere, because I truly believe.

I don't like the normalization of King, or civil rights history: it's like it's been stuffed and mounted, turned into beautiful phrases that express what, it is obvious (isn't it obvious?) that we all think and believe, without having to confront the content of the message, its challenge, its not-yet. It's as though we can't bear to look at King directly, so we direct him to the out-of-town prisons of impoverished schools and afternoon television shows, carried off on the stretchers of empty tributes and hollow homages. Whether it's racial equality, crushing poverty, the deaths of scores of thousands in Iraq, civil rights for gays and lesbians, or the horrifying treatment of detainees in the war on terror, something must give. We may have left the mountaintop, but we haven't crossed Jordan yet.

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