Happy birthday, Martin.
If he were still here with us in the flesh, he’d have be 93 years old Saturday. 93!
But Martin Luther King, Jr. is eternally with us in spirit. He is a civil rights champion and icon. We are very familiar with him and have managed to plaster his name on at least one street or school in every city. Some would call that progress. The rest of us...
Quick. Tell me who Frederick Douglass was and why he’s so important. Can you tell me? Do you know any other black historic figures?
Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, perhaps Sojourner Truth and Barak Obama. And now, maybe Claudette Colvin. No disrespect to King, but these have become the tried and true tired few who, with him, turn up for recognition in the shortest month of our Roman Calendar. February. Black History Month.
Do we need to learn about and honor King? Or the rest of these eight people? Heck yeah! But we shortchange ourselves and the world if we hang our hat only on them. There are a great many others worth knowing about.
That’s kind of like having four weeks a year to celebrate key figures of what we hold up as essential American history. Using recycled summaries, for 28 days, to acknowledge the lives of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Abe Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Susan B. Anthony, The Wright Brothers, Thomas Edison, and John F. Kennedy. But for sure, you could pick a different crew, right?
Can you list historic African-Americans you learned about growing up? Who were they? Where mostly did you learn about them? In school, or from TV and news programs? Or did you learn more about them from more recent broadcasts, best sellers, or movies?
Black historic figures were taught about in my high school social studies classes, but in brief. U.S. History and Civics. MLK was always regarded as the kingpin of civil rights heroes. But I've learned more about history from public TV, public radio and news stories, movies, articles, a little reading and digging of my own, and a lot of knowledge paid forward by my Detroit-born-and-raised husband who's more up on details of the civil rights movement than most people I know, black or white.
You know what's funny? I can’t tell you how many times folks have come to our house, passed through our dining room – where a photo portrait of Harriet Tubman and a poster portrait of Frederick Douglass hang on perpendicular walls – and asked whether or not they were family members of mine. Because my skin is brown and my husband’s is not.
I guess it would be funny if it weren’t sad. It's 2022, we put people on the moon in the last century, and I probably wouldn't I'd mistake a portrait of Teddy Roosevelt for a friend's grandad or great-uncle. If there’s an irony here, it’s that those portraits were given by my cinnamon brown self, as gifts, to my white husband, because they were and have long been, his personal heroes.
As for King, Gloria Richardson once said, in all seriousness, that Martin didn't make the movment; the movement made Martin. There would be no freeing of the slaves without Douglass and no success for King without Bayard Rustin and Whitney Young. It's sad but, as a nation, we excise a lot of critical history and gentrify what remains, for the comfort of the victors who presume to control the telling of it. King was a luminary, yes, but he was one of so very many foot soldiers in the battle for civil rights that we can't afford any longer to just tip our hats at him and gloss over the rest.