Martin Luther King Jr. died 50 years ago, on April 4, 1968, but he is not dead to me, not in what he did, not in what he achieved. While he hardly made it go away, he took the dread of American racism, and, out of his Christian love, his patriotism, his inspired leadership, he helped change it into something wondrously lessened.
Here was one of the great Americans of my lifetime.
Because of fresh, often justified anger and lingering, hurtful issues, it is apparently easy for some to forget how terrible things were before King and how much better they were after him. It is obviously easy as well for some to embrace his opposites, and now I am talking about people like Ta-Nehisi Coates. He is a gifted man, an African-American writer of exceptional talent and sharpness of intellect, but also someone who, in my view, will only make things worse.
Considered by some as America's foremost public intellectual, Coates is a regular writer for the prestigious, liberal Atlantic magazine and the author of a much-praised book, "Between the World and Me." It focuses on white oppression while simultaneously insisting blacks are in no way responsible for what goes wrong in their lives. If they kill each other in frightening numbers, that is because whites designed things that way.
Conciliation of a King kind? No, what he likes is infuriated confrontation of the kind his father had exhibited as a Black Panther.
Coates says a chief focus of Western civilization has been to dehumanize blacks for the advantage of whites, who seem unlikely to him to ever reform. Some of the worst cruelty has been in America, he writes, and, to be fair, his description of 250 years of slavery is powerful stuff. When you arrive at the 1960s, the period in which King and others began to change all of this, helping to beget the 1964 Civil Rights Act as one example, Coates says phooey. The movement did nothing.
To Coates, all police are "menaces of nature," even black ones. He sees America as criminal throughout its history. The American dream is nothing but whites seeking comfort and pleasure. His own answer to racism is reparations under which whites would hand over enough money to make blacks on average equally well off. I myself can think of little more likely to worsen racial tensions.
The point in all of this is not to beat up on Coates in particular or even to insist none of his stances have merit. It is to underline a widespread, overall take on things that seems to me more about revenge than rectification. You see as much in so many who seem to think like him even if they do not know about him.
I happen to agree that those of us who do not walk around in black skins cannot really know what it is to be black in this society. We can, however, read other black writers of note who grant the horrors blacks have had to endure while saying blacks do have self-responsibility for making things better. Shelby Steele, a Hoover Institution fellow, says that liberals, with their self-appreciative, shame-erasing largesse, degrade the human capacities of blacks. Jason L. Riley of the Wall Street Journal points to the deprivations of single-parent families and cultural inadequacies that blacks themselves must deal with. No one else can do it for them.
King was like this. He did not disparage dreams. He had a dream. He did not believe in judgments based on skin color. It was character that counted. He believed that someday blacks, like whites, could be free at last, free at last.
Thanks to him and others like him, we are surely closer.