Tom Finneran: MLK’s Haunted History
Friday, August 30, 2013
To read the speech is to be moved by the power of the argument for racial justice. To hear the speech is to be reminded of the power of the spoken word well delivered. To see the speech is a punch to the solar plexus of complacency. Martin Luther King’s place in American and world history is secure for as long as men and women read, look, and listen. That he had to give that speech fifty years ago, in 1963, one hundred years after President Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation, invites a lingering sadness at what took so long to get to where we are today.
I don’t suggest that we are now in a Shangri-La of post-racial bliss here in America. In fact the vastly differing reactions to the Trayvon Martin incident indicate the size of the gulf that remains between white America and black America. For generation after generation black Americans were told to “be patient”, “not now”, “we have to move slowly here”, trying to tread water under a waterfall of injustice. Is it any wonder that black America is suspicious of the goodwill and pacing of white America?
Thus the spectacular sadness of race in America... the decades of opportunities lost, the scar tissue of hatred sewn and hatred reaped, the frustration of majority indifference, all occurring in a nominally Christian nation, founded on the principle that “all men are created equal”, have combined to make black America cynically suspicious of white America.
Our age is a visual age. And as the habits of reading, writing, and conversation recede, the visual media assume a certain cultural dominance. Thus the power of “The Butler”, tops at the box office for the second week in a row. Go see it. It’s powerful stuff no matter what your racial history or your politics might be. The brutality of slavery comes alive. The violence, the fear, the degradation of fellow human beings here in America is like a punch in the face. Yet the story is tenderly told.
From the cotton fields and slave cabins of Georgia, to the White House and the Oval Office as a butler to our Presidents, it’s a story of whites versus blacks, whites protesting with blacks, old vs. young, and “patience” vs. “now”. And it’s a love story too, the love of a couple, the love of brothers, and the love of a righteous biblical cause. One little hint for those who go to see the movie... follow the Bible.
Fear permeates the film. The fear of the moods of the slavemaster, the fear of the brutality of the police, the fear of a rigged system, the fear of the students involved in the Freedom Rides to the South, the fear of angry sons doing angry things, even the fear of a mistake in “proper” table service.
For an educational trifecta, read MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech and his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”. Then go see “The Butler”. Talk about a bittersweet black experience... having travelled from the outhouse to the White House must be sweetness indeed but the bitter portion remains in what might have been, and what should have been, much sooner, than our history records. It’s a haunting history.
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