Monday, June 13, 2005

The MLK Memorial

Last Saturday I took my youngest sister Abby down to see the MLK end of Freedom Park. Abby had requested a chance to see the MLK memorial because she just completed sixth grade, and in sixth grade at her school they study the civil rights movement and so this year she is Very Up On That. Since I live within walking distance of where MLK was born and buried, Abby was excited to see the historic site.

I wanted to see the MLK grounds too. Not just because I love history, and Georgia history in particular, but out of professional curiosity I was interested in the MLK site. No such elaborate memorial existed when I was growing up; the memories and wounds of desegregation were too fresh then, matters still left too unsettled. We still have segregated proms here in some rural parts of the state. The MLK National Park site went up in the early 1990's as the city ramped up for the 1996 Olympics. Visitors from overseas would expect a memorial, and the Kennedy Library on the Massachusetts shore had just opened and - if JFK got such a place, shouldn't Martin? Of course he should.

But MLK's family has long been known to be disagreeable. The National Park Service took charge of a visitor center and refurbished the King birthplace, but MLK's family refused to donate important papers or the gravesite to National care. The King family said that they could not bare to have the gravesite be taken care of by the government that killed their patriarch. In truth, the family was used to using the gravesite as well as rights to King's papers as their personal piggy banks. The extent of their theft is unknown, but it was disclosed earlier this year in the Atlanta Journal-constitution that King's family pays themselves exorbitant six figure salaries while the gravesite and the buildings around it go unrepaired. Had the gravesite been annexed into federal park grounds, no such thing would have happened. I've never heard of a park ranger, no matter how long they have been with the service, being paid six figures. It's unheard of.

Before we went to see the park and birth home, Abby got a taste of Traditonal Southern opinion at my breakfast table. The husband would not go with us to the park. He believes MLK's role in history to be exaggerated, and MLK himself to be a shady character who has ended up a saint only via his martyrdom. Sometimes it's easy to forget that my husband was raised by parents the age of my grandparents, but then words like that fall out of his mouth and I remember that his parents would have been vehemently against desegregation, while I was raised by parents 15 years younger who of course think that MLK was a Really Neat Guy. The husband isn't racist - at least not in the way that his parents were - in fact, one of his college roomies was black. But scratch the surface and all those beliefs he grew up with are still there.

Abby was horrified to hear these opinions of her new brother-in-law. Not like MLK? How could you not like MLK? she asked on our way there. I explained as best I could that the civil rights movement was made up of hundreds of different people, and some of them - Thurgood Marshall, for instance - probably did more than MLK to advance the cause of a more egalitarian society. But, I pointed out, MLK's death had been such a horrifying act that he became a symbol for the whole movement. His death changed opinions, his death pushed a divided society the half that believed in segregation and the half that didn't - together for a few moments. And we all changed.

Of course MLK cheated on his wife. He attracted media attention because of his incredible good looks and his amazing ability as a speaker. MLK was made for television, and the National Park site plays on that. When you go there - and you should - you'll see a dozen or so multimedia exhibits that try to explain the civil rights movement and MLK's place within that phase of American politics. All I could think of when I saw all the exhibits about protest politics was : Once upon a time that worked. Once upon a time 40 or 50 thousand people could march and effect change.... How much we have changed. The police know how to deal with protesters these days. If MLK had encountered modern police protest tactics, would he have prevailed?

What Abby and I liked most about the National Park site was the section of Auburn Avenue that the park service has restored, including the King birth home. Dr. King was a son of privaledge, and his house reflects that. But walking through his house and hearing stories of his family made him seem more like a rounded person to me. here is where a little boy hid to get out of doing the dishes. Later he grew up to be an amazing orator, and made the world a better place.

There were hundreds of people who helped bring down segregation. Is it fair to give MLK the defacto sainthood for this cause? Of course it's fair. It is always the orators with fabulous charisma who history remembers best. MLK is sainted worldwide by now, no matter what the generation who disagreed with him says. Thomas Jefferson had his children as slaves, and no one now blinks an eye; so too will go MLK's business dealings and affairs, along with the incompetency of his heirs. My husband will be the last of his line to be infected with sympathy for segregation, for our children will grow up to ask as my sister did, "So what, exactly, was segregation?"

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