Those of us old enough to remember when Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered on April 4, 1968, also remember the controversy that roiled around him. A lot of white people hated him for claiming that black people had the same rights as whites. A lot of black people hated him because he wouldn’t agree to a more militant fight for justice. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover called him unpatriotic for saying America was the greatest perpetrator of violence in the history of the world. Today, J. Edgar Hoover is remembered as a morally corrupt man, and Martin Luther King, Jr. is revered as a man of rare moral courage.
As a southern white woman, I look back on the racism that King spotlighted with shamed astonishment. In my world, white housewives hired black women as once-a-week “maids.” Being a maid meant thoroughly cleaning the house, defrosting the refrigerator, polishing all the furniture, doing all the laundry, waxing floors, and ironing everything from dress shirts to children’s T-shirts. It also meant feeding and taking care of all the children in the house. Maids were expected to provide their own transportation — sitting on the back of the bus — and to wear white uniforms for their eight-hour service. For this they were paid about five dollars a day.
While black women were being used as cheap servants, black men were suffering even more indignities. Every white person who was a part of that time deserves to feel ashamed. And when we hear or read snippets taken out of context from one of Jeremiah Wright’s sermons in which he accuses the United States of fostering racism and violence, we need to remember that he’s a racist survivor. As Martin Luther King, Jr. did, he tells it the way he sees it, and if we are honest we have to agree that there is some truth in what he says. It’s true we have made gains toward racial equality, but it’s also true we have many ugly remnants of a racist society.
Martin Luther King, Jr. could have called for young black men to take up arms in a race war. He could have encouraged black day “maids” to smother the white babies in their care. Instead, he used his pulpit to call for both blacks and whites to rise to a higher level of moral behavior. So has Jeremiah Wright. So have countless other ministers and priests in sermons about social injustices.
It’s been 40 years since Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed for speaking truth as he saw it. On this anniversary of his murder, while reruns of a few sentences from Jeremiah Wright’s sermons continue to play — TV pundits would be out of a job if they didn’t stir the waters of controversy — I propose that we all remember where we’ve been as well as where we are now. Let’s don’t convert old shame into projected blame.