Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I can't help but think of the sacrifice of those who fought to bring the potential of the American dream to all people. I'm not talking about the people who made headlines, I'm talking about the people who made sacrifices small and great and who are for the most part forgotten by history. The leaders of the civil rights struggle are rightfully venerated by the masses, but I think we overlook the majority of those who made it possible for civil rights to become a reality. From the housewife who donated her time and energy to the cause to the bus driver who spent all his free time handing out pamphlets to the student who put his education on hold so that he take part in a march to the bus boy who risked not only his job, but his life as well as he took part in a sit in at a segregated restaurant. I hope that at this time when we remember the ultimate sacrifice that MLK made that we also remember the faceless nameless masses who also contributed mightily to the ultimately successful attempt to fulfill the promise that was made in the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal".
The reason that I think of those regular people who made those sacrifices is that I'm not sure that the debt that is owed to those individuals can ever be repaid. How does one pay back what so many suffered to gain with their blood, sweat and tears?The election of Barack Obama and the elevation of many African Americans to positions of power and influence has led some to declare the battle for equality at an end. It is said that if we can elect a black president then blacks have certainly achieved all that they set out to accomplish during the civil rights struggle. In my view, that is certainly not the case, but I can understand how some could have that opinion. However, my question is, was the only goal of the civil rights struggle to create a climate so that a few could reach exalted heights. Did those factory workers, maids, students, housewives, sacrifice all so much in order to elevate the few?
I ask the question because I have struggled often with the thought of living an ordinary life. I have had all the advantages that a middle class life could offer. I went to good schools, graduated from college, got a scholarship to go to graduate school, graduated and became a working member of society. The problem with an ordinary life is that I feel the pressure to be extraordinary. Having lived an "ordinary" life, I can't help but feel that I have somehow failed the generation who suffered so much in order to give me the opportunity to be more than "ordinary".
American society seems to only pay attention to either the best or the worst of black society. Criminals, welfare cheats, drug addicts, prison inmates who happen to be black are consistently highlighted on the news and in popular culture. There are those who would ascribe the negative qualities of the worst of those individuals to all African-Americans. I could offer many real life examples of this, but suffice it say that this is not limited to only those narrow minded individuals that we call bigots.
American society will also heap inordinate praise on those who have been able to reach the heights of popularity or power. Athletes, entertainers, politicians, business leaders. Of course if one of those who reach those heights were to commit a transgression of some type, then all the negative stereotypes are immediately brought to bear. They are no longer one of the "good ones", they immediately become "just like the rest of them".
Given our "post racial" society, the question remains, what is required of the descendants of the greatest generation. Is being ordinary, enough? Does being ordinary fulfill the desire of those who made so many sacrifices given the almost schizophrenic attitude that society has toward African Americans? It is easy to argue that the goal of the ordinary people who were the engine of the civil rights movement was that they and their descendants be allowed the same opportunity to fail or succeed as the rest of the America. The fought for the right to be treated as individuals. They fought for the right for their fortunes to be tied to their own strengths and weaknesses.
So do I honor that generation with the life I lead? I'm not sure. I suppose on one level I do, I suppose on one level America does as well. They just happen to be different levels. We as a country have advanced enough to elect a black man as our president and yet we still manage to vilify people because of the color of their skin. Those ordinary people who suffered might say that they did it so that I could live the as I do, but I'm sure they would also be disappointed in the attitudes that still exist. The promised land is not having a black person reach the presidency, on the contrary, the promised land is being treated as an equal regardless of your level of achievement. The battle for that ultimate goal rages on. It rages on even though some would like to put the ugliest of episodes behind us.
I can honor those bravest of Americans by talking and writing about how much they sacrificed. I am not sure that I can honor them by the life I lead. The battle for Civil Rights continues today as it probably will for the foreseeable future. The battle continues throughout the country and it continues inside me as I'm sure it does inside many who happen to share my pigmentation. Is being ordinary a fulfillment of the legacy of all of those who came before me or a betrayal of it? I wish I had the answer to that.