I’ve been to the mountaintop, he said, and I’ve seen the promised land. Then, the very next day, he was shot dead.
For me the occasion was marked forever as I arrived at my church for choir practice on the fourth of April, 1968 to words more or less barked at me by an acquaintance in the bass section with whom I had often sparred about politics: “Well, we’ve killed that son of a bitch! What do you think of that?” Now that Dr. King is as close to being a national saint as anybody ever gets in this country, those words and the events that occasioned them stand in my memory as a poignant memento.
I lived in Durham, NC at the time. When I arrived there almost three years earlier in August, 1965, I turned on the evening news to witness a Ku Klux Klan rally in which a number of costumed hooligans were brandishing guns. This wasn’t taking place halfway across the country but just across town at a watering hole known as the Confederate Inn. Many have wondered if Dr. King foresaw his own death. He seems to speak of it in this, his last great speech. Certainly, given the violence of those years it was a pretty good bet, if not a sure one, that he would be assassinated.
And it ought to be said any time one mentions Dr. King’s death that in life he was much hated by those on the political right in this country and still is by many. Newspapers still get letters opposing the naming of public things for him. The federal holiday that honors his memory has had a mixed history. Those on the right who pretend to honor him often misrepresent his accomplishments and/or parts of his career. But my purpose isn’t to argue about Dr. King. There is something nearer to hand.
Last summer about this time I wrote about trying to explain to myself why I love my country. Part of the thrust of that essay was contained in this paragraph:
For the past several days I’ve been trying to think of something to say about why I love my country, but that immediately puts me at odds with many people I know and love who believe that the country I love, the creation of a liberal establishment, needs to be dismantled in the name of freedom and creativity. I am now to understand that greed is not only good but socially redemptive as well; to accept the destruction of the fundamental institutions of a great nation, everything from public universities to highways and bridges in the name of privatization or that will-o-the-wisp, reform; and to adjust to a public sphere in which swaggering thugs strut about brandishing assault rifles.
Similar groups of thugs have recently forestalled federal agents attempting to enforce a court order in Nevada and are now attempting to reorganize and go to Texas to “secure the border.” There was a time when groups like these militias could be dismissed as part of the political lunatic fringe, but my country has now so embraced lunacy as to confer a kind of normalcy upon them. And we are a long way past threatened destruction of the country’s great institutions. That destruction is well advanced. In my last summer’s essay I used the memory of an old Pat Boone song sounding across a lake as an image of what I love about my country. Now Pat Boone has taken to writing hate-filled media pieces about President Obama.
What I have to say about my country this summer isn’t very optimistic. It used to be possible for us Americans to absorb and transcend the horror of our political violence, even in Texas, where a large fund of right-wing bigotry and hate is presently being ramped up again by vicious pols inside and outside the state, where a humanitarian crisis involving hundreds of innocent children is being held hostage by the same logic that has shut our national government down. The Republican party failed in its last attempt at formally shutting government down but has largely succeeded informally, and it has done so by plunging the country into perpetual chaos in order to blame the president for it.
Nobody will ever convince me that the present strategy of the Republican party isn’t racist. It works in precisely the same studied manner employed by Lee Atwater in the Willie Horton attack ads against Michael Dukakis. Its designers understand that the Republican base can be aroused by appeals that give its members permission to express socially impermissible hatreds by using language that masks their real nature. But when a mob of middle class white people prevents busloads of brown-skinned children from entering a town in California, all the while chanting USA! USA!, it’s pretty clear what’s going on. And when those same children are described as disease infested, etc., at a town hall meeting, it’s pretty clear what’s going on. And when the whole sorry spectacle is hyped by wannabe’s like Sarah Palin and Rick Perry as a way to stoke hatred of the president, it’s pretty clear what’s going on.
None of this is news any more. But there’s a bit of a new twist in claims such as this one from Jeff Stone, the chairman of the Riverside County Board of Supervisors as he spoke to a crowd at a town meeting in Murrieta, California after the mob action—“Obama needs to enforce the border and stop this action of exploiting traumatized women and children for his own political gain,”—when it is Mr. Stone and others who think as he seems to think who are exploiting traumatized women and children. Such statements are beneath contempt, but they are also signs of the times in Dr. King’s promised land.