Monday, January 15, 2007

Martin Luther King Day.

Today is Martin Luther King day, and all over the country federal employees are enjoying a rare Monday away from work. Perhaps they will ponder the meaning of this national holiday, and reflect upon the man in whose honor it is celebrated. But probably not- especially if they are white. Because after all... what did MLK do for white people? Certainly many contemporary adults remember getting this day off of school when they were kids. And at some point (if they didn't grow up in the Deep South) they were probably taught a little something about his deeds and legacy. Maybe they can recall hearing a recording of one of his famous speeches about racial equality and civil rights... likely something having to do with a dream and the color of a child's skin. Tellingly though, the further you get from the city- the more you see locally tax-funded employees toling as if it were just another day. Like so much else in modern society, this is mostly a case of demographics.

Yet if you turn on the television or radio today (at least if you are a consumer of public broadcasting), you'll hear another take on MLK's life and work. Every year they seem to require a new spin to keep the story fresh. It appears that this year they are seizing on the labor angle. Apparently, towards the end of his tragically abbreviated life, King began to involve himself in labor disputes. He notably supported a strike of sanitation workers in Memphis, Tenneesee. If he hadn't already underscored the threat he posed to the status quo (what with civil rights and his extremely controversial early opposition to the Vietnam War), he certainly went over the top in getting involved with workers' rights. Nothing hurts more than a strike at the pocketbook. It put the AFL-CIO in a tough position. The famous labor organization needed to see a success in municipal employee organization. But because of the race issue... they were only able to muster lukewarm support for the black sanitation workers.

Really, there's much to be inspired by through an examination of MLK, regardless of your color. He bucked centuries of conflict and hatred, and preached a message on non-violence to address the ills of society. People nowadays rarely realize how significant his approach was. The Sixties were a time of dramatically-increasing black militant action. The Black Panthers and the Nation of Islam were espousing a radically different viewpoint from that of King. This was brought home to me yesterday through an odd source. And although the events I read about occurred after King's assasination... their origination began during his lifetime.

In Peter Vronsky's "Serial Killers" (2004), the author writes of an obscure inner cult of Elijah Mohammed's Nation of Islam movement. This group was called the "Death Angels", and membership was attained by killing white people. The aspiring initiate was required to kill a minimum of nine white males, five white females, or four white children. When successful, the killer would be granted his "wings", and his photograph would find an honored place on the bulletin boards of Nation of Islam centers nationwide(with hand-drawn angel wings affixed to his back). If what Vronsky writes is to be believed, the California chapter alone had fifteen full-status members.

Society-at-large learned about the Death Angels through a criminal case referred to as "The Zebra Killers". These colorfully-named characters were a group of five would-be "Angels" based out of San Francisco. They weren't as discreet as the successfully-ascended "Angels". In a period stretching between 1974 and 1975, they raped, robbed, and killed their victims in public spaces such as bus stops, telephone booths, and all-night laundries. Some unfortunates were even kidnapped and tortured. The city was terrorized until one of the five turned state's evidence- and Jesse Cook, Larry Greene, Manuel Moore, and J.C. Simon were indicted for their crimes. They were convicted and given life sentences. Although the Death Angels of California were thought to be responsible for the murders of as many as 135 men, 75 women, and 60 children... the suspected 15-20 members responsible for much of the carnage escaped indictment due to insufficient evidence.

Martin Luther King's achievements are put into perspective by comparisons with some of his contemporaries- such as the Death Angels. He was largely responsible for transforming the great and understandable rage of African-Americans into peaceable social change. It's unfortunate, given the extreme possibilities of provocation and hatred, that King was viewed as a troublemaker (or worse) by many national and state authorities. Perhaps they realized the error of their judgement when they observed the widespread rioting that spread throughout the country after King's assasination. It's not too late to absorb and apply King's great message to today's conflicts. That's what this day could be about... for everybody.


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