By Richard E. Bleil, Ph.D.
Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. With recent developments, I have been reflecting on his work, and his words. In his speech “I have a dream”, he said, “I have a dream that one day my four little children will live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” The date was August 28, 1963.
More than half a century later, I stop to reflect if any progress has been made, and in what direction the progress is moving.
Yesterday, three separate groups met in capital hill, a group of Native Americans, a group of students present for a March for Life, and a group of minorities calling themselves “Hebrew Israelites”. The Hebrew Israelites were reportedly shouting obscenities at everybody, including both the Native Americans and the students, and apparently the students began singing their school fight song with permission of their adult chaperon. The Native Americans were chanting and playing their drums, moving, they say, to try to reach the Washington Monument.
Many of the students were wearing “MAGA” hats, and some began chanting along with the Native Americans, and making the “Indian Chop”, a gesture that many Native American find offensive. The controversy surrounding this gesture is well-known, and I find it difficult to imagine that those participating in this gesture were unaware of the offensiveness this would cause.
One of the students stood in front of the elder of the Native Americans, blocking the progression. The Native Americans never did reach their end goal. The individual who stood in front of the Native Americans claims that they were moving towards the “Hebrew Israelites”, and he was trying to defuse the situation. But let’s analyze this.
The “Hebrew Israelites” were spewing offensive speech, but from all accounts, were not making threatening gestures or calling to incite violence, both of which are illegal. None the less, they were demonstrating bigotry in their statements that were clearly passing judgment on people that they did not know. I do not know their intended purpose, but it certainly didn’t help the situation.
The students were indeed escalating the situation as many of them were acting offensively. What’s more, the simple presence of the MAGA hat today is a symbol of hatred and bigotry. Whether the president intended this or not, these highly visible articles of clothing have been worn by perpetrators of violence and racist acts for the past couple of years.
The individual blocking the path of the Native Americans claims he was smiling to prove that he was not going to be intimidated, which I believe. However, his behavior was passive aggressive, blocking the path of peaceful demonstrators. It is true that neither he nor the Native American moved to go around the other (it would have been interesting to see what would have happened if the Native Americans did move to go around him), but this student had the audacity to stand in the way of the march.
My question becomes what ever happened to the “adult chaperon”, who allowed all of this to transpire. If violence had broken out, the student would have been caught in the middle. Wasn’t it the job of the chaperon to protect the students?
All of this reminds me of an old song from the sixties, the lyrics of which included the line “nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong.” But, the truly sad part is that, on the day before celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr., this standoff clearly demonstrates that we have so very far yet to go.
On a popular social media, I posted something about this controversy in our nation’s capital, an article that likened the problems with MLK. My friend commented that it has no connection, arguing that things are much better today because, in part, nobody was lynched.
We made progress, this is true, but it is a dangerous mindset to assume that the struggle has ever ended. Yesterday we have a strong indication that people are, indeed, still being judged based on the color of their skin, their culture, their traditions and their history. Politically, we have cases of unabashed voter suppression, clearly targeting people based on their skin color. We have a Supreme Court that is leaning so heavily towards a proclivity of undoing many of the laws accomplished by MLK.
If we hope to progress, we must all fight the regression. We must stop seeing each other as races. We must stand up against voices of oppression. If we made any progress at all, let it be that we have learned to fight against suppression together.