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Finneran: A Savage Act

Friday, April 06, 2018

 

Even now, fifty years later, the wound lays raw, the hatred incomprehensible.

Fifty years is a very long time. Yet some wounds ulcerate for ages upon ages. Ask the Irish.

Slavery is an utterly incomprehensible institution. How does a human being ever imagine that ownership—along with brutal exploitation-- of another human being is acceptable? Slavery degrades everyone and everything.

Slavery is of course the great original sin of the United States, a permanent stain on an otherwise glorious birth. It might be history’s greatest paradox that a self-proclaimed Judeo-Christian society, itself committed to throwing off the humiliating yoke of monarchy, made a cynical accommodation to keeping certain fellow human beings in chains. It was a grotesque and evil bargain.

It is fifty years ago this week that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated by James Earl Ray, a lunatic racist who was cheered by other lunatic racists. The horror of it all remains, the hatred still incomprehensible.

Martin Luther King spoke “American” to the American people. His words were simple, his effect was profound. Words like “freedom”, “fairness”, “equality”, “dignity” and “opportunity” meant something to the American people. At some point in their lives they knew, perhaps from their ancestors, what it meant to be on the outside looking in. King borrowed liberally from Scripture and he reflected on that quintessentially American phrase “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. To any observant person of the ‘50s and ‘60s, black or white, those words would have stung.

He spoke of America’s default on its “promissory note” to the American people, black and white. The lives and liberties of black Americans were not honored, respected, or protected. He wondered whether “the bank of justice is bankrupt”.

King’s years of non-violent protest, his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, his “I Have a Dream” speech on the Washington Mall, and his steady efforts at demolishing voter registration obstacles culminated in raising the awareness of the American people that the Union Army’s victory over the Confederacy had done little to elevate black Americans from the effects of bondage and the schemes of racists. That growing awareness, along with an elementary expectation of simple justice for everyone, gave Lyndon Johnson the tools he needed to break the chains of Congressional resistance. When King, a philosopher, joined forces with Johnson, a legendary wheeler-dealer, the die was cast for serious civil rights legislation, an outcome utterly unimaginable just five years earlier. Say good-bye to the “for colored only” and “for whites only” signs.

But the removal of signs, the integration of lunch counters, and the accommodation of all people in the nation’s hotels and motels, while steps forward in the march of freedom, were small steps.

By 1968, Dr. King was focusing on the larger question of economic justice. It was that continuation of his lifelong mission which brought him to Memphis back in 1968, in support of striking sanitation workers.

His work on earth was not yet done but he was doomed to death, and to heaven, by an assassin’s bullet.

Such a savage and evil act by a savage and evil man.

And as for King’s work? There’s still unfinished business...............

Tom Finneran is the former Speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, served as the head the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, and was a longstanding radio voice in Boston radio

 

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