My first real experience with the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. happened in 1980, just 12 years after his tragic assassination in Memphis, Tenn. I was a 14-year-old freshman at Loyola High School, a prestigious Jesuit all-boys school in Los Angeles built on the philosophy that rigorous academic training would produce the next generation of elite Catholic young men.
Known for its meat grinder academics, Loyola also had a complementary mission to train young men to have a social justice mindset, a “Man for Others.” We were to go out and change the world. Seems like a school perfectly matched to the philosophy of Martin Luther King Jr., right?
Well, not at first.
For most of the school’s life, the world that Loyola wanted to change was white, just like its student body and faculty. Around the mid-1970s, by the time the school opened its doors to more black and brown boys from throughout South Central and East L.A., it had recognized that African American and Latino communities needed to be served also. But still, when I entered Loyola, the school was around 90 percent white, both in students and faculty.
From the point of view of the small group of black Loyola boys, we were invisible. Admitted for our academic chops, yes, but who also just happened to be damn fast on the football field and track, we were ignored in all things social. We had to fight for recognition of our clubs, to host dances with black Catholic girls’ schools and to gain the rights any other student would have.
That was the downside. The upside? We also knew that by attending Loyola, we were the direct beneficiaries of the Martin Luther King Jr. dream. As such, we wanted Loyola to recognize King’s birthday, which had yet to be declared a federal holiday, as a school holiday.
Loyola said no.
So we black boys did what we were supposed to do. We revolted.
Most of our families migrated to Los Angeles in the 1950s and 1960s to escape the darkness of the Jim Crow South in order to bask in the golden-sunshine promise of western freedom. Now able to see the mountaintop, black families in Southern California took full advantage. Affirmative action opened previously closed doors in education and employment, turning sharecroppers who’d pulled cotton in the dry, hot fields of Texas into shareholders of Texas Instruments. And they destroyed the racist housing covenants that kept blacks out of the previously white South Central neighborhoods like Inglewood, Baldwin Hills, Ladera Heights, Windsor Hills and View Park. Having their sons admitted to the top academic school like Loyola was a cherry on top.
We were living King’s dream.
This didn’t mean that every black Loyola boy was a natural ally. Most of us had grown up playing in Little League against one another, but there were definite class differences. Flatlanders, aka the boys who lived in South Central and Inglewood, versus the Hill Negroes, the ones with the Baldwin Hills views of downtown Los Angeles—these were a definite class dividing line. It was Jack and Jill versus Jamal and Jamila. Those who took the Rapid Transit District bus, aka the Rough Tough and Dangerous, through Blood and Crip territory versus those who rode comfortably in their dad’s classic Jag to the Dons.
Yet when it came to standing up for our own dignity, and the dignity of King, those black class barriers broke down and we stood arm in arm and marched in lockstep. We’d fight together not only to get a King holiday but also to change the school itself. Not just for us, but also for future black Loyola boys.
Taught by the Jesuits that our brains were our most powerful weapon, and the reason we’d been admitted to the school in the first place, we pressured the Jesuits to listen to our arguments. We transformed our lunch from pickup basketball games to teach-ins around the philosophies of Frantz Fanon, Angela Davis, Dick Gregory and Malcolm X. We grew our facial hair, in direct violation of the strict Loyola dress code, as an act of nonviolent protest. This would get us JUG, or Justice Under God, as detention was known at the school, but still, the Jesuits didn’t move.
Finally, we decided to do something drastic. Instead of simply being absent on the day, the black students would show up on King’s birthday wearing a white shirt, black pants and a simple black-tie uniform. The key? Stay silent in class when called upon by teachers as an act of nonviolent resistance. Today this may seem like a relatively benign act of defiance, since it didn’t involve tearing something up or burning something down, but as a 14-year-old black boy still trying to understand that he held all the power in the universe to make change, it was amazing.
Loyola is the oldest school in Southern California, with the traditions and stately brick buildings that come with that legacy. Intrinsic within Loyola was the notion that you as a student were extremely privileged to attend such an august institution, and as such, students needed to toe the line, or that opportunity could be taken away from you. In other words, when the Jesuits asked you to jump, you only asked how high after you were already in the air.
So when the teacher pointed to you and said, “Mr. Ross … ,” you answered immediately. We didn’t.
On that day on Jan. 15, 1981, the majority of the black students at Loyola (there are a few who didn’t, and to this day, I can remember their names) sat in their seats and said nothing when called upon. It was an act of defiance that was unmistakable and, frankly, jarring to the Jesuits. And yet, understanding King’s philosophy that said nonviolent change was revolutionary, we risked our spots at Loyola to create our own small revolution.
After school, phone calls were made to our nervous parents, the ones who’d risked so much to get us into that “Lie-Oh-La,” and yet they didn’t blink, either.
We didn’t win that year. But we kept up the protests, the rhetoric, and finally the Jesuits broke. Loyola honored Martin Luther King Jr. as a school holiday in 1982, a year before President Ronald Reagan signed the federal holiday into law.
That was then, 36 years ago, when King’s life and philosophy felt real and alive. Now we’re approaching the 50th anniversary of his death, and King has been transformed into a stone figure, towering over the African-American community, but rarely understood correctly. For my Gen X compadres, many of us moved on from King, who in some ways became passé in comparison with the dynamic Malcolm X, and the burgeoning hip-hop culture that embodied his “By any means necessary” philosophy.
We were living in a world where the crack was flowing, the bullets flying and the government lying, all to wage war on black and brown bodies in Baltimore, Chicago, Washington, D.C., New Orleans and, yes, South Central. Nonviolence? Not a goddamn chance. But for many white folks, and some black folks, the diminished legacy of King presented an opportunity.
Given a choice between the angry red pill of Malcolm X’s “Ballot or the Bullet” and the blue chill pill of King’s nonviolence, white folks began swallowing handfuls of blue pills that created a gentrified MLK of “What would King do?” questions, and “colorblind society” empty platitudes. In other words, white folks turned Martin Luther King Jr. into a Jedi mind trick of nothingness, stripping him of meaning, and turning his words and movement into a cliché.
But it wasn’t as if they were alone. What was more genius was that they got some black folks to believe that “nothingness” definition of King. While we weren’t looking, someone had injected a post-racial tumor into the brains of some black folks who turned a King movement dedicated to the “us” into a hollow narcissistic philosophy devoted to the “me.”
These Negropeans, instead of feeling the responsibility of fighting the King fight to create a hand-up for those needing a come up, rejected the tangible connective tissue that binds us together as black people. In other words, they’d sing Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday” tribute as an ode to authentic blackness, heads swaying and all, without giving one nanosecond of understanding of the philosophy of the man for whom the song was written.
I see it in social media spaces like Nextdoor and Facebook groups, especially those centered in the black Los Angeles areas of Inglewood, Baldwin Hills, Ladera, View Park and Windsor Hills, the same places where my fellow Loyola classmates and I lived and fought to keep King’s dream alive. They’re now filled with the nouveau Negro riche who are more concerned with their paper property values than with the plight of the black poor for whom King marched. They spend their time aggrieved that the black poor inconveniently live within shouting distance of their emerald green lawns and mighty-whitey picket fences.
With their remote cameras, their transformation of crime into a fetish, and the almost pathological need to distinguish themselves from the poor, undereducated black other who have the temerity to walk down their sidewalks, it should come as no surprise that as these black middle-class communities became more and more gentrified by the privileged children of white flight, these beneficiaries of King enthusiastically joined these new interlopers in myopically misquoting King’s “colorblind society” as a justification for not noticing that African-American communities are being dissolved in irrevocable ways, all because yet another zero has been added to the worth of their house and a Whole Foods is rumored to be a-comin’.
Is that how much King’s dream is worth today?
In some ways, this is a natural progression as the struggle for social justice moves from consciousness to unconsciousness as the generations move away from the real King as a flesh-and-blood human rights revolutionary. Fifty years after his dead body was reduced to a Newsweek shock post, King has become a myth or a symbol. Nothing says your philosophy has become impotent more than when black folks think they can create social change through those symbols, but without the hard work. Most important, King as symbol has stripped away the empathy that comes with believing that the destinies of black people, whether rich or poor, are always and forever connected.
Changing one’s profile picture to say Black Lives Matter one day, only to counteract it the next day by parroting the white supremacist notion that blackness is an inherent moral deficit that causes “black-on-black crime,” is a paradox that can’t be aligned. However, it is what happens when you get the good education, the good job, and think that you made it because of your individual genius and pluck, but also because you think your property taxes are the true metric of your moral worth. A wealth that you believe gives you carte blanche to look down on the black working poor who rent, shower at night because of their dirty jobs and, yeah, like to talk shit on street corners with a tall can, seeing them as your lessers.
“Raise your game up!” is the pithy philosophy of some beneficiaries of King’s largesse. It’s what they shout to the black poor for whom King actually fought. King died supporting the Memphis garbage workers as they went on strike for a decent wage back in 1968, but if they did that today in a black middle-class neighborhood, we’d have some black folks ask in social media why they had to see these dirty men walking on their sidewalks, and why couldn’t they protest somewhere else?
“We don’t need any ghetto black kids being bused into our neighborhoods” is what they do say today when King’s mission of erasing structural educational inequity means that their Capri Sun-sipping black children would sit side by side with a black kid from the projects.
In other words, King’s dream—the one that spoke of centering the inequities of black America, particularly around educational access and poverty, into America’s consciousness—had turned into a RushCard nightmare of petty capitalism and the struggle to be seen as upper black middle class through the accumulation of expensive but rapidly depreciating things.
I imagine you already know that I am much more socialistic in my economic theory than capitalistic. And yet I am not so opposed to capitalism that I have failed to see its relative merits. It started out with a noble and high motive, to block the trade monopolies of nobles, but like most human systems it falls victim to the very thing it was revolting against. So today capitalism has outlived its usefulness. It has brought about a system that takes necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes.
These were the words of a young King writing to his wife, Coretta, in 1952. They were prophetic, and for King’s dream to be real for the next 50 years, black folks are going to have to move beyond their Schoolhouse Rock version of this revolutionary man and recognize that many have been brainwashed into loving a King dream that only Ronald Reagan would recognize. And the sad reality is that the gentrification of our black middle-class neighborhoods was long preceded by the gentrification of our mentalities toward one another as black people.
Those 14-year-old black boys back in 1980 were privileged to get that Loyola education, and we realized that the doors opened by King had made it possible. But we also knew that we weren’t getting an education just to have good credit and brag about our newest Chinese-sweatshop-built mobile phone. The true meaning of King for the next 50 years is one that makes us care about black people, black community and blackness, not just for altruism’s sake but because we love ourselves. That’s when King’s dream becomes relevant and real, even when we’ve reached middle-class respectability.