Martin Luther King: Recent Ancient History

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 3.618% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

They taught me about Martin Luther King in fifth grade. I would have been ten years old.
Funny thing is, normally they never would have mentioned Martin Luther King.  History was all old things, like Washington and Lincoln; I don’t think I heard the words “Vietnam War” in school until I was in tenth grade, minimum.  But MLK had woken a lot of people to the concepts of prejudice and equality, so they shoehorned him in.
Which was weird.  Because they talked a lot about Martin Luther King, and how he made the world safe for black people, in that reduced blend of facts and mythology we always hand out to young kids.  And they talked about how great he was, and all the work he did…
But fifth grade, for me, was 1979.
Martin Luther King got shot in 1968.
And what the teachers never made clear was that he’d been shot the year before I was born.  The echo of that shot was still ringing through our lifetime. Things hadn’t been solved.
But because MLK had been slotted in, MLK acquired the patina of all the other historical figures we talked about, like Washington and Lincoln, these ancient struggles that we won.  We won the war for American Independence, and we won the Civil War, and we won the war for equality – these distant, dusty struggles we should be grateful are now over.
Nobody made it clear that people who’d marched in the Civil Rights Movement were, in many cases, younger than my teacher.
And I wonder how much of the Black Lives Matter movement is an extension of that weird-ass historical shading.  The teachers meant well.  But they made it sound like MLK was some ancient event, not something ripped from yesterday’s headlines, and as a result they taught us the inadvertent lesson that the whole prejudice thing had been fixed.
I think a lot of white people my age today are so upset over Ferguson and the Black Lives Matter movement because they got taught that Martin Luther King fixed this shit.  And to them, going back and discussing it again is kind of like fighting England all over again for independence, we did it, don’t these people realize we won?
And what the teachers didn’t, perhaps couldn’t, perhaps didn’t want to say, is that MLK’s blood was still drying on the pavement while we were in class, and the ramifications were still spilling outward, ever outward, and things were never as closed as we would have liked to believe.
But we like to believe in closure. And we sure like to believe that MLK shut a door that we never have to open again.  We like to believe that a lot.

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