Last week Americans in the United States recognized two major landmarks in our recent history. On Jan. 20, 1961, John F. Kennedy presented his â€œAsk not what your country can do for youâ€ speech. On Jan. 20, 1986, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was observed for the first time.
Efforts by civil rights leaders to push JFK to more boldly engage civil rights issues were largely unsuccessful outside some important political appointments, according to the JFK library. The swing of change did not occur until 1962 when JFK mobilized the National Guard in Mississippi to control riots spurred by the admission of the first black student to Ole Miss University.
In considering this historic event I find it interesting that President Reagan signed the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday into law in 1983. However, the day was not officially celebrated until three years later in 1986, and 2000 was the first year the holiday was officially recognized by all 50 states. It makes me wonder what took so long to recognize the work and life of a man removed from jail only by a phone call from the president of the United States.
The civil rights era, and the bits and pieces we learn in school, occurred well before I was born. Unfortunately, by and large, our generation relies on third-and fourthâ€“hand accounts of the civil rights battle through politically cleaned media, books and rhetoric.
Every year in mid-January I think back on a particular anecdote. According to history, JFK looked at baseball great and civil rights leader Jackie Robinson and said â€œI donâ€™t really know much about African Americans.â€
JFK still won the election, with 70 percent of the black vote.
Regardless, our discussion revolved around an entirely different component of JFK words: Who does know â€˜African Americansâ€™? Itâ€™s no secret that people are individuals and the idea of â€˜met-one, met-them-allâ€™ does not apply to any group.
However, black America has had a unique history, highlighted by some globally recognized leaders or representatives of the race: Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mohammed Ali among others. It was arguably acceptable to ask these people to speak for the whole of black America. I think it worked and was the only way for the civil rights movement to occur, but what about going forward?
It isnâ€™t new to ask if any one speaks for black America. We still observe appearances by Rev. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton every so often and certainly at times there is President Obama. Can anyone really speak for the entire racial group anymore? My own youth on a farm was incredibly different from that of my parents in the city. While inequalities for African Americans, as well as other groups are still prevalent, black America has integrated strongly economically and at a lightning pace socially. No longer is the race solely defined as a church-going, post-slavery, oppressed people as the books read.
I wonder if MLK would say his dream has been recognized or if he would recognize us as a people? Would he see us as an evolution of his â€œdreamâ€ or as a mutation of a memory?
The diversity within the African American community is striking, while also subtle and nuanced. Award-winning author Eugene Robinson has spoken and written at length of the division of â€œthe African American community.â€ I donâ€™t think it is breaking apart as much as making a point to not let a â€œchip on the shoulderâ€ be a dead weight.
As we conclude the mid-January festivities and prepare for Black History month in February, I consider in my own struggle for identity if there is an unexpected, overwhelming burden of responsibility â€“â€“ or a deepened isolation in inheriting the dream and living the life of our civil rights contractors.
Phoenix Mourning-Star is a graduate student in environmental health. His column appears Wednesdays in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.