“Civil rights freed the white southerner… It gave us grace”

Those words come from the late Phil Walden, one-time manager of the southern soul singer Otis Redding and southern blues-rock band The Allman Brothers. It was an unexpected observation Walden made to me about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during an interview a decade ago for my book, Dixie Lullaby: A Story of Music, Race and New Beginnings in a New South.

“Civil rights freed the white southerner,” Walden told me, “particularly the young white southerner. It gave us grace, it gave us an opportunity to escape the racism and politics of the Old South. We forget what a blessing Martin Luther King Jr. was to the South.”

Martin Luther King Jr. at the March on Washington, 1963

Martin Luther King Jr. at the March on Washington, 1963

On Wednesday, my wife Tarrah and I will be in Washington, D.C., for the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington. We both are beneficiaries of that monumental event in U.S. history — she, because she’s black; me, because I’m a white Southerner; both of us, because we’re a mixed-race couple who today are free to be married because of the tireless work, the name-calling, the jailings, the beatings and the lynchings that civil rights activists endured so many years ago. We all are beneficiaries of the March on Washington, and we forget the horrors those civil rights activists faced in the 1960s to our peril. We forget them, and we’re doomed to live them all over again.

The fact is, we are beginning to live them all over again. Maybe not the bombings. Maybe not the frequency of beatings and lynchings. But from the violence, hatred and discrimination against our LGBT brothers and sisters today to the recent killing of Travon Martin and the racist vitriol that followed his killer’s acquittal, we’re seeing a resistance to the goals and victories our civil rights predecessors fought and died for. And that resistance is not just chatter from the lunatic fringe. In June, the Supreme Court rolled back the clocks on the Voting Rights Act. More recently, states including North Carolina and Texas have taken measures to obstruct racial justice and voting rights among minorities and young people.

I spent time at the beach with family over the weekend and was shocked to hear a young family member ask: “Does racism really still exist in the United States?” His question would be less shocking if it weren’t for the fact that too many whites who like to think of themselves as “fairly liberal” feel this way. If they’re not experiencing racism or bigotry first-hand, if they don’t see it in their own lives or in their neighborhoods, if they don’t hear their friends talk about it, if they don’t encounter many people of color, it simply doesn’t exist for them. It’s over.

And their feelings are validated. After all, great strides have been made for undocumented immigrants. Many blacks are doing well, holding important positions in corporate America. One of them is the president of United States. And look at gays and lesbians: the future seems pretty bright for them, too. Indeed, the mainstream dominant culture in the U.S. today does seem more tolerant of “the other.” But if, as Phil Walden told me, the civil rights era “gave us an opportunity to escape the racism and politics of the Old South,” what are we currently doing  with that opportunity? Are we taking responsibility for it?

Let’s not kid ourselves: as we bask in the progress this country has made in the half-century since King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, we also are experiencing a systematic reversal of many of the civil rights victories that generations of Americans have taken for granted their entire lives. The far right wing has a plan. They want Americans to believe racism and bigotry don’t exist. They have everything to gain if they can convince us that all is OK today, and much to lose (namely, power) if they don’t convince us of it. Meanwhile, we sit idly by as that plan takes form. Many of us don’t even vote.

In 2012, I wrote a cautionary piece for the alternative weekly Creative Loafing, in Charlotte, N.C., called “Dreams’ deferred: Hearing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.” Here’s an excerpt:

When we think of Dr. King’s “dream” today, do we think only of the dazzling speech he made on the Washington mall about those “little black boys and black girls” in Alabama joining hands with “little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers”? Or do we also think about his other dreams — the more complex dreams that we haven’t yet seen?

King also dreamed of an America that doesn’t threaten other countries with its military might. He dreamed of a United States that’s more about compassion than arrogance, more about reality than delusion. Those dreams are the exact opposite of the rhetoric we’ve heard for more than a decade now from local and national personalities ranging from Mecklenburg County Commissioner Bill James to former Charlotte mayor and [then-] U.S. Rep. Sue Myrick, from ex-President George W. Bush to deranged TV talking head Glenn Beck, from [then-] GOP presidential wannabe Rick Santorum to [then-] GOP presidential wannabe Rick Perry. The words of those fundamentalist leaders come off more like the rantings of an Osama bin Laden than the measured wisdom of a Martin Luther King Jr.

“Don’t let anybody make you think that God chose America as his divine messianic force to be a sort of policeman of the whole world,” King once warned. “God has a way of standing before the nations with judgment and it seems that I can hear God saying to America, ‘You are too arrogant, and if you don’t change your ways, I will rise up and break the backbone of your power…’”

At the risk of diminishing the great strides the country has made in the 40-plus years since King was gunned down in Memphis, I believe our city, state and nation are nowhere near achieving his dreams. And for any of us to sit back and bask in the accomplishments while downplaying the very real problems we still face with regard to intolerance in our nation is to disrespect King’s legacy.

The specter of racially motivated hate is everywhere today. It’s in the faces of those hordes of citizens whose anger over the nation’s first black president is so intense that it can’t be chalked up to mere political differences. It’s in the voices of those whose rage at Spanish-speaking brown people in the U.S. is so intense that it can’t be explained away as just opposition to so-called illegal immigration. It’s in the actions of those whose animosity over a mosque in New York City is so intense that it can’t be just concern for national security.

What is national security anyway? Is it an America where everyone looks alike and thinks and believes the same things? Or is it an America that values diversity and cultural understanding? Say what you will, cover it up with whatever veil you choose, but the venom we see every single day in this city and nation is nothing short of racism and xenophobia. And this must stop or it will kill us all.

Some people don’t want to hear words like racism and xenophobia. Some say those words are overused. Some feel that we should choose less “loaded” words to describe the toxic vitriol we see and hear on TV and in the comment sections of websites... Of course, some of us also don’t much like looking into mirrors, because we fear we’ve grown too fat or too old. Mirrors tell the truth.

Toward the end of [The Allman Brothers Band song] “Dreams,” Gregg Allman wails, “Ah, help me, baby, or this will surely be the end of me.” Then he becomes calm again, his warm organ swells accompanying newfound courage in the lyrics: “Pull myself together, put on a new face. / Climb down off the hilltop, get back in the race.”

That’s what Martin Luther King Jr. taught us: persistence, courage, optimism. We can’t survive without them.

To read the full context for Phil Walden’s quote about civil rights and Martin Luther King Jr., press “Excerpt 1″ at this Simon & Schuster link.