Saturday, September 24, 2011

Our Lives Depend on MLK

On October 16th, the new Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial will be dedicated. Some might think the memorial commemorates how African Americans finally gained rights equal to whites. Others might think that the memorial represents the special interests of African Americans and their immoral claim to special rights. In contrast to these views, historians, anthropologists, and sociologists have shown that the African American struggle for rights, within which Martin Luther King, Jr. worked, created the very rights that all American citizens enjoy. The African American struggle for rights works within a social life that produces the neighborliness and community that many of us cherish in DC. Here are some of the points made by scholars:
  • In her work on DC during and after the Civil War, Northwestern University historian Kate Masur has shown that the African American fight for equality created positive rights. Most importantly, the 14th Amendment both granted citizenship to recently freed slaves and declared that all laws applied to everyone. Earlier, different people had different privileges and rights in different spaces. The 14th Amendment created nation-wide citizenship rights. At this time, the African Americans also forged parents’ rights to their children for all residents. One woman successfully took back her daughter from a white man with a form letter stating, "The wishes of the parent and child are both to be considered before those of any third party and all the rights of the family must be recognized and respected among these people the same as among the whites" (p. 76). Thus African Americans’ demands for specific, concrete rights helped the nation to move beyond the past system of special group privileges to our current system of universal rights and national citizenship.
  • American University anthropologist Brett Williams found in her study of Mt. Pleasant that residents' class cultures lead them to see and use the neighborhood in different ways. Older, mainly African American renters and homeowners develop deep, local ties on a daily basis, teaching their children "to greet and joke with shopkeepers, bus drivers, and people on the learn details, nicknames, reputations, stories, and histories" and regularly visiting the same local businesses and people. In contrast, the newer, often white homeowners have a more cosmopolitan engagement, "believing in breadth rather than density and a quest for variety rather than repetition." They take their children across the city to schools, playgrounds, soccer games, and dance classes. Many African American renters excuse the new neighbors' ignorance of local street life and appreciate their contribution of "volunteer time, money, and knowledge to neighborhood activities," but the new neighbors "for the most part do not reciprocate this goodwill; their feelings seem to vary from indifference to tolerance or compassion to vague unease or active dislike." Brett Williams advocates a politics grounded in density and repetition:
"Ultimately, many white middle-class people who want to reclaim a piece of the vibrant central city for themselves are going to have to change. They need to learn from the cultural world built by those who preceded them: they need to develop some of the same skills as they try to look inward. In the summer of 1986, after a long seclusion, I was confronted by one of the men on the street: "Where the hell have you been? You never come up here anymore; you don't even associate with the people in the neighborhood." Half joking, he was almost chiding me about what was supposed to be almost a job. If we are to preserve variety in our cities, I believe that those of us who want to live in such areas have to take on that job, which is first of all the world of culture, and then we must try to link that cultural stand to broader, but also deeper, denser, more textured, repetitive, and rooted political action."
  • In his How Racism Takes Place, UCSB sociologist George Lipsitz writes about racial segregation that we also see in Ward 6 and argues, "the actual long-term interests of whites are often damaged by spatial relations that purportedly benefit them, while Black negotiations with the constraints and confinements of racialized space often produce ways of envisioning and enacting more decent, dignified, humane, and egalitarian social relations for everyone."
The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial commemorates African American struggles over the centuries that have created our universal rights and the continuing movement to realize the vision of a more decent, dignified, humane, and egalitarian world. We all depend on this movement.


  1. Someone wrote to me:
    Great blog post. King's gift was to America, no doubt. Seems like the same could be said for the marriage equality movement now.

  2. Another person wrote:
    Great post, Johanna...I recently had a chance to hear Bobby Seale, one of the co-founders of the Black Panthers Party. It was amazing to hear a first version account of history.

  3. The marriage equality movement is definitely a similar innovative movement.

  4. "Black negotiations with the constraints and confinements of racialized space often produce ways of envisioning and enacting more decent, dignified, humane, and egalitarian social relations for everyone."

    This is an interesting argument. I have been told that the reason African-American neighborhoods are friendlier than White neighborhoods in DC has to do with the southern origins of many African-Americans here. That no doubt has an impact but Lipsitz's theory gives me a whole new perspective on this. Thanks for posting!


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