Op-Ed: On MLK Day, Let’s Not Forget to Tap Into the We of Our Community

Image: Bettmann/Getty Images.

In the days leading up to Dr. Martin Luther King’s murder, Harry Belafonte sat with the civil right’s leader at his home and discussed life after the movement was won.  Dr. King was concerned about integrating with white people.  That conversation became known as the “Burning House” conversation.

“I’ve come upon something that disturbs me deeply,” he said. “We have fought hard and long for integration, as I believe we should have, and I know that we will win. But I’ve come to believe we’re integrating into a burning house.”‘

“I’m wondering if we, as a people, can bring any soul to America, can make America give up its greed, its willingness to inflict pain on others to maintain its position of power only for the sake of power,” he continued.

Inherent in that reference is a fundamental understanding that the souls of Black and white folks were different. 

I say “were” because everything Dr. King was deeply concerned about that night would happen to us, did.

In the past few years, I’ve thought a lot about that “burning house” reference. Because I don’t think we truly understood at that time that the house was almost already burned down. We were so busy surviving that we didn’t study the psychology of the fire and how to be firemen.  

I think about whether Dr. King would be the same person if he was born today; if he was born into this world of selfies, mantras of “to take care of others you must first take care of yourself.” If he were living in the era of meditations of  “put you first” and “take time for you,” would he have the same vision of the Mountain Top? 

I think the Civil Rights movement today would look very different.

Unlike today, Dr. King was raised in a time when Black people were we not me people. Generations of generations of everyday people who unapologetically sacrificed their evenings and weekends to talk about the needs of the community. Not because they wanted or because they had to but because we were pulled by a force to be “my brother’s keeper.” It was in our DNA. And it predates the Civil Rights Movement. 

In the early days of the Civil War, We were considered to be enemy number one by Confederate General Robert E. Lee—even before we signed up to join the Union Army.  Slaves, from the “house negroes” to the field hands, banded together to track and leak rebel movements, got their hands on battle plans, and recorded meetings of Confederate officers who dismissed their presence in the room when discussing tactical ops. Would you risk your life to do that, if you knew the owner would sell your daughter if you got caught? would you steal the battle plans? Would you risk being fired from your six-figure job if the boss told you not to go to a sit-in? If the U.S. government threatened the lives of you and your family, would you still write speeches to motivate millions to risk their lives? Would I?

With your day off spend less time thinking about what Dr. King and millions of others sacrificed for you and your family to have a seat at the table and more about where would we be if they didn’t. 

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