*In the first two weeks of April, within the first ten days of this month—in 2014, the nation was challenged to face up to itself and its racial legacy with three different events..
Every April, we have to live through the memory of 46 years of the brutal killing of America’s greatest modern day civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, Jr., on April 4th, 1968.
It is a chilling day in American history that, nearly a half century later, still sends chills up our collective spines. A recent visit to the sight of the murder, the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis—now the National Civil Rights Museum—I wasn’t surprised that it was the number one stop for those who were in town for the NCAA Basketball Regional tournament. Black and white stood side by side—in silent memoriam—trying to rationalize the horrendous irrationality of the time and how one act changed the trajectory of our nation. It’s a moment in time that America still can’t talk about. Black people can’t talk about it. White people won’t talk about it.
One thing we know for share, America hasn’t overcome the killing of King.
The second event was the 40th Anniversary of the fall of a once “unbreakable” record, all I have to say is “714,” set by a mythic icon—Babe Ruth, by what should have been the rise of a new American icon, Henry “Hammerin’ Hank” Aaron. It was a monumental accomplishment.
It was an event, the proportion of which, the nation should have celebrated Hank and 715.
But it was not to be. The Commissioner of Baseball, Bowie Kuhn, didn’t even show up.
The great Hank Aaron, to this day, is still scarred by the way he was treated. Thousands of pieces of hate mail. Hundreds of death threats. Dozens of slights by advertisers and endorsers.
It was shameful.
And you know what? When Hank Aaron was voted in the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame, though he had the highest balloting percentage in the Hall’s history (97.83%), two percent of the MLB Hall voters, nine voters (406 out of 415), actually left Aaron off their ballots, in “protest” of him breaking Babe Ruth’s once thought to be “untouchable,” mythical 714 record.
Even today, Hank Aaron is not mentioned in the same breath as Babe Ruth. He (and we) have not overcome the racial realities—of the cultural reality—of breaking this record. Hank Aaron, commenting on the fortieth anniversary of his accomplishment, said, “that we are not that far removed from when I was chasing the record. If you think that, you are fooling yourself.” He used the Republicans treatment of President Barack Obama’s accomplishments as his prime example of how race still permeates the culture, comparing them to the KKK and stating that instead of hoods, they wear “neckties and starched shirts.” Aaron knows we haven’t overcome.
The last event celebrated an event fifty years ago that changed America forever. Called the greatest, and most defining legislation of the 20th Century, the Civil Rights Act, signed into law on July 2, 1964, by President Lyndon Johnson—the first Southern President in America since Andrew Johnson followed Abraham Lincoln in 1965.
On April 8th-10th, 2014, a civil rights summit was held at the Lyndon Johnson Presidential Library. In Austin, Texas. The keynote speaker for the summit was our current President of the United States, Barack H. Obama. It seems that America had truly overcome it’s race consciousness with the election of Barack Obama. Then he had to serve his now two terms.
We have witnessed, firsthand, the obstruction of Obama’s Presidency, that former President Jimmy Carter has assessed as purely racial. Race discussion in America is still distained, at worse, and avoided, at best. Yet Obama is evidence of some level of progress.
How ironic that a black President, America’s first and only African American to serve as President (that we can verify), would note the significance of the time, as a prime beneficiary of the Johnson’s defining legislation—once that caused the “Dixiecrats” to leave the party and became the Republicans we now know after electing Nixon in 1968 (and Reagan in 1980).
We know, as Obama knows, that race (and racism) is real in American culture. But can it ever be discussed beyond the realms of academia and irreverent popular culture? Is America’s racial history ever going to be taken seriously as part of the nation’s policy debate? Can social policy, such as President Johnson’s War On Poverty and it’s “Great Society” programs, be integrated into the 21st Century anti-social, anti-debate debate? Most certainly, President Obama has tried to level the “playing field” and the whole society benefits from universal health care, immigration reform and women’s wage equality reforms—as they did 50 years ago, but the racial underling of such policies remain as strong as ever. The most enduring legacy of Johnson’s Presidency were the advancements in social welfare policy that are now reviled and despised by the current policymakers of the day. America resistance these policies are direct vestiges of a time since past. A time that America suggests we’ve gotten over and refuses to rehash (relive).
There’s only one problem with that suggestion. America hasn’t gotten over its race realities—poverty, health and wealth disparities. We’re discovered one thing this April.
America has yet to “overcome.” But as King and President Johnson long lamented…
We shall overcome…somebody.
Anthony Asadullah Samad, Ph.D., is a national columnist and author of, REAL EYEZ: Race, Reality and Politics in 21 Century Popular Culture. He can be reached at www.AnthonySamad.com and on Twitter at @DrAnthonySamad.