'Dissing' a Man Who Got Things Done

CLARENCE PAGE

April 06, 1993|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- In my never-ending efforts to ''stay down'' with what's happ'nin' with the boys and girls in the 'hood, I have run up against a disturbing development: It is how popular it is, in the jargon of today's youths, to ''dis Martin.''

No, children, I am not talking about Martin Lawrence, the hip-hop comedy star.

I am talking about Martin Luther King Jr., the civil-rights pioneer who was assassinated 25 years ago this week.

To ''dis'' is to disrespect and I find it most dismaying that it has become a popular thing to do among the very young folks for whose betterment King gave his life.

A lot of young folks will tell you they think King must have been some kind of sissy for lying down and taking abuse from white folks without fighting back. Some will tell you outright that they don't think King was as cool, right on, def, down or slammin' as, say, Malcolm X.

Like, how many brothers do you see wearing K's on their caps, dig?

Malcolm, by contrast, ''got down,'' they will tell you. He was tough. He refused to turn the other cheek. He even ''packed,'' kept weapons.

All of which demonstrates Page's First Law of Youth Attitudes: It is the obligation of every new generation to outrage its elders. This is the same generation, it is worth noting, that gave us 2 Live Crew, gangsta rap, Axl Rose, Ice-T, Ice Cube and various other obnoxious ices.

It also has given us a ghetto subculture so isolated from productive values that some of them actually put down academic excellence among their peers as ''selling out'' or, even more insidious, ''acting white.''

Neither Martin nor Malcolm would be pleased to hear young folks spouting that message, yet it has become a common one among kids left behind, more isolated than ever from the economic and social mainstream, while more fortunate African-Americans have taken advantage of the opportunities King's crusades helped open up.

Was King a softie? Hardly. He and Malcolm X were powerful voices, but there's a big difference between dissin' the white power structure from a soapbox in the center of mostly black Harlem as Malcolm did and facing down the police dogs, fire hoses and electric cattle prods of ''Bull'' Connor's Birmingham as King did.

''It is always amusing to me when a Negro man says that he can't demonstrate with us because if someone hit him he would fight back,'' King wrote in Ebony magazine in late 1966. ''Here is a man whose children are being plagued by rats and roaches, whose wife is robbed daily at overpriced ghetto food stores, who himself is working for about two-thirds the pay of a white person doing a similar job and with similar skills, and in spite of all this daily suffering it takes someone spitting on him or calling him a nigger to make him want to fight.''

King got things done. He understood that the real battle was for hearts and minds and he won it by seizing the moral high ground, a high ground that is not won simply by returning an eye for an eye.

Violence, even in self-defense, creates more problems than it solves, King wrote. We can see the evidence today in the ethnic feuds that rage on endlessly in Northern Ireland, the Middle East, the former Yugoslavia and countless other tribalized regions of the world.

''It is as ridiculous for a Negro to raise the question of self-defense in relation to non-violence as it is for a soldier on the battlefield to say he is not going to take any risks,'' King wrote. ''He is there because he believes that the freedom of his country is worth the risk of his life. The same is true of the non-violent demonstrator. He sees the misery of his people so clearly that he volunteers to suffer in their behalf and put an end to their plight.''

The roots in the dis-Martin movement can be found in the distaste every new generation tends to show for learning history, which each new generation defines as anything that occurred before it was born.

In place of history, we cultivate convenient myths, like the mythology that has in flated Malcolm into a black hero of Paul xTC Bunyan proportions.

I don't blame kids who, having been failed by their parents and society, turn to Malcolm X to help them feel good about themselves. I blame their elders, particularly my Baby Boomer generation, for failing to teach the full range of heroic values that made King worthy of a holiday.

It probably is an unintended consequence of the well-intentioned movement to persuade President Reagan and other King detractors to approve King Day as a national holiday that King's legacy is taught in a sanitized way, as if he never tried to question, challenge or subvert authority.

No one who reads his stirring explanation of ''Why we can't wait'' in his historic letter from Birmingham jail could honestly call him a wimp. On the contrary, he demonstrated eloquently the power of a good idea to move history.

It is a characteristic of the young to be impatient. Many members of my Baby Boomer generation were impatient of King's passive resistance. But it paid off, teaching us an important lesson many of today's youngsters need to learn if they are ever going to lead America to a better tomorrow.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

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