Every year the kids, banks, government offices, and a few others get the day off. We do a better job, I suppose, of reflecting on the reason for this holiday than we do labor day, but I wonder how much of that is wishful thinking. How much of that is white people wanting to believe we are celebrating the end of racism in America, because we do not want to think that it is still a significant factor and some have appropriated this day to communicate that belief. We make their task so much easier, and the country so much worse, when we attempt to beatify Dr. King.
I say this knowing that Oliver Stone has bowed out of a planned biopic of the civil rights leader’s life. He wanted to show us the real King, warts and all. I know that chafes a little. We want our holy warrior and savior. The man who won equality for all the men, women, and children of color without scaring those poor confused white people who were only racist because that is how they were raised. We want the man who chastised white supremacists and black “radicals” alike by turning the other cheek. We want the nice, safe Dr. King who never did anything wrong, and certainly would never condone a black man raising his hand against a white man.
In other words, we need the fictional King. We need to forget that the man was a human being with wants and needs like the rest of us. We want to forget those times he raised his voice against gradualism and directly called out the sickness in far too many white minds, without making excuses for it. We want to forget the Dr. King who railed against the inherent injustices in capitalism. We want to forget that he could get angry, and that he had cause, and would have cause today, so we make him above emotions such as anger, and yes, lust.
King was a real human being. As he fades into history a little more each year, it becomes easier to forget that. Which means it becomes easier to ignore what he really accomplished. Were he this mythic figure white America, and yes some of his friends and family, want him to be, then the March on Washington, the Civil Rights Act, the Bus Boycott and everything else would be diminished. They would be the acts of a nigh divine being for whom they were effortless, and of course, being perfect, his work would be done.
Instead they were the victories of a man who struggled with demons, his own and others. They were the life’s work built on real sacrifice, and pain, both external and internal. An angel or a saint win little when they do what Dr. King did, but a man, who put aside his flaws and his wants, that is an entirely different matter and far more impressive.
So today we need to remember to honor the man, not the fictional super hero so many would have us celebrate. We need to remember the real, hard work he did, and how much has been left undone. We need to remember his example, and do our best to live by it, because if the last year has taught us anything, it is that the dream has yet to be realized.