Lessons of a Birthday
I went there to shoot photos, to cover the parade for the IMC. I had never been to a Martin Luther King celebration in LA before, I hadn't even known they existed. As I walked through the assembled participants photographing marching bands, bedecked ROTC students, beauty queens and local politicians, I realized I was not the only Caucasian in LA to have missed this parade. Out of the 10,000 or so faces lining the parade route, only about 1 percent were white.
I watched as the drill teams put the finishing touches on their routines; there was determination on their young faces. I stopped to observe children climbing on the bike of a motorcycle cop, looking at him with awe and plying him with questions about his job. I wondered if years would erode that awe and turn it into well-earned distrust, bitterness and possibly hatred. I watched as mothers held their children high in the air to see the floats and local celebs as they passed. And I thought about the man in whose honor this event was held.
Had I given any thought to Dr. King before I showed up at Crenshaw and Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. to shoot the parade? No, I'm chagrined to say, I had not. Had I thought about the hundreds of years of struggle that has represented the African American experience in this country? No, I hadn't thought about that either. But as I walked down the street lined with people there to celebrate his birthday, I began to.
I saw elation I had not felt. I saw a shared sense of history I did not have. I saw the divide that we live with daily.
I was sorry the celebration was mostly limited to African Americans. I felt ashamed that a holiday to celebrate a man who had given his life for the pursuit of equal rights in this country had no draw for others. I heard his words ringing in my ears, "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." I looked at all the children's faces along the route and I realized we were not there yet. How often would these young people be profiled by the color of their skin?
I felt complicit in this continued racism. If the celebration of the battle for equal rights in this country is not my celebration and the celebration of all Americans, then how can we ever hope to achieve it? If the struggle is only a struggle for the oppressed, how will they ever win?
I drove home in silence, no radio to break my reverie. On my way, I stopped at a popular westside outdoor caf and took my tape recorder from table to table, asking people if they had known about the parade and if they had any thoughts on Dr. King. Most had not been aware of the event. One young woman said, "Yeah, it had a really dumb name. I can't remember what it was." Another patron concluded [his birthday] "should always be commemorated, I think it's a good idea." No more than a few even gave the question much consideration. I wondered how I would have responded a year ago.
I went there to take photos. I came away with the realization that Martin Luther King Jr.'s message was an American message, not just an African American message. He rose at a time when change was imperative and shook the foundation of our country. He was killed because his words went to the core of our national soul and illuminated the rot on which we were built. Unfortunately, we are still trying to stand on that decay. The rhetoric, so prevalent in our society, regarding equality and democracy is laid bare when contrasted with an unjust educational, political and judicial system.
Martin Luther King Jr's message is as relevant today as it was 38 years ago. We have progressed; our racism is now subtler and more insidious. We no longer demand that blacks sit in the back of the bus, instead, according to one study, we keep as many as one third of all young African American men under some criminal justice supervision. We shake our heads in collective disbelief when a black man is beaten and dragged behind a truck to die. We relegate prejudice to other places and other people.
I will be at the parade again next year and in the years that follow. Hopefully, I will be joined by other Americans of all races. As we relinquish our platitudes on equality, we must take responsibility not only for the actions of our past, but also for the indifference of our present. Martin Luther King Jr. took an assassin's bullet for his belief that we are all created equal. We must never let his dream die.