The most-visited grave in Arlington National Cemetary is that of John F. Kennedy. I know where it is, but that’s not who I visit. At the base of one of two broad paths up to Kennedy’s eternal flame, is a much simpler plot, with a much simpler marker: Civil Rights Advocate.
You have to walk around to the back to see who that is: my hero Thurgood Marshall. The first African-American on the Supreme Court didn’t want that splashy title staring out at mourners. He wanted his life’s driving force known.
I’ve got a problem with the way Martin Luther King Day is observed in much of the country. Yeah, I hate seeing it commercialized. But more than that, I take issue with the way MLK is remembered in the minds of a lot of white people. The Reverend was a smart tactician, a tough-as-nails organizer who knew what worked, and particularly in his last years, a man came to see the Vietnam War as an enemy of the poor. It’s hard to teach that to kids in the age of conservatism, because MLK would have taken issue with many of their teachers, their parents, and the people who represent them in Congress. He’d have spoken in fury. So instead, we’ve dumbed-down the memory of a complicated genius. And in some places we don’t do much more than teach him as an expression of pure-love, a kind of inoffensive Black Jesus. He was so much more.