Partying on the Black 4th of July

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial

Martin Luther King Memorial

On July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass gave arguably his most famous speech. A group of Rochester, New York white abolitionists had asked him to help them commemorate and celebrate the July 4th. Douglass did something rather different.

The whole thing is gorgeously fierce American oratory. But these paragraphs get at the heart of it.

…Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? and am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?

Would to God, both for your sakes and ours, that an affirmative answer could be truthfully returned to these questions! Then would my task be light, and my burden easy and delightful. For who is there so cold, that a nation’s sympathy could not warm him? Who so obdurate and dead to the claims of gratitude, that would not thankfully acknowledge such priceless benefits? Who so stolid and selfish, that would not give his voice to swell the hallelujahs of a nation’s jubilee, when the chains of servitude had been torn from his limbs? I am not that man. In a case like that, the dumb might eloquently speak, and the “lame man leap as an hart.”

But such is not the state of the case. I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common.-The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth July is yours, not mine…

I think that we, as a country, still don’t know quite what to do with Martin Luther King Day. It’s a day off. It’s a day of service. It’s a time for politicians to pander for votes — or at least prove how racially sensitive they are before they race bait again. It’s a time to wince knowingly when children say King freed the slaves. We should hold the parade downtown; we should hold it on King Avenue, which is almost never downtown.

I personally have always sort of shied away from King Day. It is our most political holiday because it is our newest and because it grows out of our greatest national shame — and arguably our greatest national triumph. As a society, we’ve turned King the man, safe in his grave, into a cherubic, saintlike figure. I’m not entirely sure when that happened because it was not the case when he was alive. And I think, too often today, very cynical people use the specter of King as a rhetorical weapon against Black America, whatever that actually is.

And honestly, Fox lovers, what would you think of King if he still lived? Can you imagine what Bill O’Reilly would say today about a black leader who opposed his country’s wars of aggression, marched with strikers, and believed fervently in redistribution of wealth? Hell, you people think the black George H.W. Bush in the Oval Office today is somehow a socialist, marxist, Muslim radical of some sort. And his beautiful wife, who has done nothing but behave with class and positive energy, is an angry black woman. What would you do if confronted with a real flesh and blood radical? King would be 83 today if he hadn’t been shot. He would be an elder statesman like Jimmy Carter or Paul Volcker. How do think our media would treat him or his legacies?

The correct answer to those questions, I think, is who gives a damn?

And I have Lakeland’s black community — or at least the people who lined the MLK parade route Saturday — to thank for helping me realize that.

The wife and I took the boy to the Lakeland parade for the first time, as part of the Lakeland Montessori School delegation. I have to confess to attending more out of sense of duty to school than to community or King’s memory. And the process of actually getting to the parade staging ground was a 30 minute ordeal of closed roads and quiet cursing. As I said to Julie when I arrived, “I am having some difficulty maintaining my commitment to peace and nonviolence.”

So I was a little grumpy as we started to walk. But the LMS crew moved with a flowing white peace dove, shiny stick ribbons, and an old-time convertible Triumph — that eventually broke down — busting out Steve Miller tunes. I do love my child’s odd little school. And I started to perk up as we moved into the crowds, which of course were huge (multi thousands, I would say) and overwhelmingly black. Everywhere you looked were families with children waving, calling for candy, grills burning in people’s driveways. Old women, tiny kids. Posturing teenagers with those saggy pants that are the root of all evil. People yelled funny things back and forth. Dance music blared. This wasn’t somber recollection. It was a massive, joyful barbecue.

At one point we stopped next to a group of girls with Teneroc High basketball shirts on.

“Ya’ll have a game tonight?” I asked.

“No we played last night,” one girl answered. “We’re just representing.”

“Did you win?”

“Yep. 50-47, in overtime.”

“So you came through in the clutch?”

“That’s right.”

Before I knew it, I was having fun. More fun than I’ve had at any other Lakeland parade. Fun is not normally what I associate with King Day. Maybe that’s just my failing. In any event, why not have fun?

As we approached the turn onto MLK Blvd., someone was blaring King’s greatest speech, the “Mountaintop” speech from the night before he was murdered in Memphis.

At the end of the speech, King said simply: “And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man.”

That’s in the final paragraph of the final public statement King ever gave. He was happy before his death, not fearing any man. Why shouldn’t we honor that with our own happiness and joy? Well, of course we should. And it seems Black America, whatever that is, figured it out a long time ago. Good for it/them.

King Day celebrates victory in a struggle that lasted hundreds of years. It didn’t start with Brown v. Board or Rosa Parks in the second half of 20th century. There were slaves who resisted on ships. There was Nat Turner. There were fugitive and freedmen who fought with the Seminoles in Florida. Frederick Douglass. Civil War soldiers by the tens of thousands. Spanish American War medal of honor winners. World War I soldiers by the hundreds of thousands.

King Day celebrates Booker T. Washington, James Weldon Johnson, Walter White, and W.E.B. DuBois, who debated and prodded their country and each other at arguably the darkest moments for Black America in the late teens and 20s.

And it celebrates names no one knows, like Blanche Brookins, who is the Rosa Parks of trains, and Floridians Willie Steene and Ed Chisholm, unknown workers who died protecting Steene’s mother from vigilantes in 1926. (Shameless book plug. You can learn all about them in about a month).

Black America, whatever that actually is, fought fiercely, intelligently, and relentlessly for its full citizenship, for the right not to fear any man. King Day marks hard-won victory in that fight.

And happily not fearing any man means you dance if you want to dance; pray if you want to pray; grill chicken if you want to grill chicken; step if you want to step; serve if you want to serve.

Who knows what King Day will become as we age as a society and forget. Maybe we’ll have two Independence Days, celebrated in the winter and summer. Maybe in 100 years, King Day will just be St. Patrick’s Day. Who knows?

For now, I’d say Black America, whatever that actually is, more than any other America, has earned the right to celebrate itself in whatever way it sees fit. It earned it through toil and blood, bravery and smarts, art and persistance, violence and non-violence.

I’m grateful to Black Lakeland, whatever that actually is, for inviting me and my family and our school to your party, to your Fourth of July. We’ll see you next year and hopefully sooner.

Creative Commons License image credit: PBS NewsHour