GELFAND’S WORLD - On the day that we celebrate the life and works of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the state of Florida continues to celebrate its continued resistance to teaching the truth about our racial history. Florida's governor continues to work the politics of opposing "critical race theory," although it seems unlikely that he could provide a decent debater's summary of what the term means. Florida has a law which they call the Stop Woke act which actively opposes teaching the truth to Florida students.
It's curious that the anti-civil-rights movement in this country has concentrated much of its fury on the term "woke." There is even a sort of dictionary dual going on, with the standard definition of woke simply referring to being aware or sensitive to the existence of racial bias and the country's history. The right wing, personified by Ron DeSantis, concentrates on woke as describing social activists, as if the recognition and awareness of racial bias would not ordinarily motivate people to some level of activism.
If we are going to have a holiday celebrating the work of King, let's at least insist that the country act better than it did in 1968, the year of King's murder.
What's interesting is how the right wing has concentrated its fire on the term Black Lives Matter. When George Floyd was murdered, there was a national outcry -- multiracial parades of people marched through city streets and in America's small towns. The expression "Black lives matter" doesn't seem all that difficult to comprehend, but the right wing has done its best to tie the words to all matter of political extremism and extremists. For example, there was, at the time, a brief-lived suggestion that people with mental illnesses going through personal crises might better be handled by trained social workers rather than armed police. The obvious conclusion, that some police funding might better be transferred to hiring the social workers who would take over some of the work that police were doing -- that suggestion has been taken up opportunistically by the right wing, who refer to it as the "defund the police" movement.
It's time that we respond to such arguments by asking the proponents, "Do you support racial abuse by the police? If not, then what is your suggestion for ways to improve the situation?"
Allow me to suggest that claiming there is no problem is not a credible answer.
May I suggest that being "woke" does not require that one be an extremist or a political radical, just that one recognizes the facts of our history and opposes the current reactionary movement to go back to the time when racial abuse was not only common, it was socially expected by the mass of Americans.
We can celebrate the life and victories of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. without pretending that our problems are solved, or that we can rest from the struggle. Still, we can justly celebrate those victories, even as we marvel at how bad things were. Do people remember that in the year of King's death, there were states in this country in which it was illegal for people of different races to marry? Or how about the fact that even 5 years earlier than that, there were large areas in which racial segregation was the law?
In 1963, being "woke" would have signified the wish that someday, the racial segregation laws would be overturned. Is there anybody today who will speak openly in favor of the Jim Crow era, save perhaps a few white supremacists?
Times have changed, but they have to change more.
So here's a toast to the Freedom Riders and those who fought so bravely for the rights that they owned and deserved, and should have already had, and here's a toast to the leaders, including the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
January 17, 2023 is the 26th anniversary of the murder by gunfire of Laurence Austin, in the Silent Movie Theater on Fairfax Blvd. In the few years before his death, Larry had recreated an artform that is worthy of recognition and continues to be celebrated around the world -- the collaboration of musical improvisation with the on-screen moving image. In the hands of a filmmaker such as Buster Keaton or Mary Pickford and in the musical hands of a Bob Mitchel or Stan Kann or Dean Mora, the result was like nothing we see in other forms.
On a much sadder note, there is the National Organization of Parents of Murdered Children, which serves those who have been thrust into this lifelong Hell. They can be found at this website.
(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected])