MLK's Dream: Be nice and keep marching
If Martin Luther King, Jr. returned to Savannah today, what would he see?
Would he nod approvingly at our racially-balanced city council and minority-owned businesses? Smile at the diverse sea of faces in the public elementary schools and local colleges?
Or would he be disappointed in our shocking dropout rates and violent crime, the apathy and greed? Would he shake his fist at the sky at how prejudice against our fellow humans seems to reseed itself within every generation in new, insidious ways?
I can't even intuit what my dog is thinking at any given moment (whywhywhy is she barking at a napkin?), so I wouldn't presume to imagine what might go through the mind of a great man like Dr. King. But as what would have been his 85th birthday approaches this week, I'd like to believe he would be a little impressed.
If Dr. King walked the streets of Savannah this very afternoon, he would find so many examples of a thriving Beloved Community that considers each and every human being as equal and valuable as any other, the kind of compassion he called "agape love."
He might see a mother and her two daughters quietly handing out gloves and scarves to a group of homeless men on a chilly morning. He could watch a gent pick up the tab for the groceries of the young woman behind him in the express line at Kroger, inspiring her to do the same for the person in line behind her.
If he happened upon a neighborhood game of four square, he would observe the older kids making sure the young'uns got their turn to play.
He could spend weeks checking out the way organizations like Second Harvest Food Bank and Senior Citizens, Inc. care for our neighbors and how Loop It Up Savannah and the DEEP writing program provide our children with valuable, enriching experiences — and how ordinary citizens donate their time and money to make it possible.
Sure, there's plenty of proof that humanity may be still sailing off to hell in a handbasket in 2014, but Dr. King would surely be heartened by those among us who are making sure everyone has a comfy place to sit.
I'm also quite positive he would advise us to keep on marching.
Fifty years after the Civil Rights Act, there are still some willfully ignorant folks who can't get a handle on the basics of living in an ethnically, culturally, socioeconomically, sexually and theologically diverse society. Cops profile brown faces more than ever, and every kid in a hoodie is a potential criminal. Gay marriage (in the South, anyway) remains as elusive as a unicorn. Venal politicians gerrymander voting districts of minority neighborhoods while others suggest our national debt is due to all those poor kids and their free lunches (looking at you, Rep. Jack Kingston!)
Our city, the country — heck, the planet — is still a long ways off from achieving the utopian kindness preached by Dr. King.
"We're still working to fulfill the dream," agrees Carolyn Blackshear, the president of the Savannah Martin Luther King, Jr. Observance Day Celebration. "And it starts with people knowing what that dream is. It's about inclusiveness."
Bringing everyone into the fold is the aim of the MLK Celebration, which centers around the cacophonous annual parade this Monday, Jan. 20 (Blackshear reports there are currently 325 entries and counting!) All of Savannah is also invited to the ancillary events whirling in the MLK Day orbit: The jazz concerts, the inspirational lunches and a fancypants dinner dance at the Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum on Feb. 15. The plan is that we can all find some way to honor Dr. King among the full schedule of events posted at mlkingsavannah.com.
Blackshear, who has been a part of the official MLK holiday planning since its inception 35 years ago, promises that a little more of Dr. King's legacy is achieved every time "people come together and get to know each other on a personal level."
Our city boasts plenty of strong-willed folks who marched because of (and with!) Dr. King, but there are some these days who would rather run with his ideals. This year marks the first MLK 5K & Festival, a run/walk benefit and musical extravaganza taking over Forsyth Park this Saturday, Jan. 18. Bringing together health education and public service, the MLK 5K (or as we've started calling around it here, the "M-L-5-K") raises funds for Blessings in a Bookbag, the grassroots non-profit that sends hungry kids home with food for the weekend.
Both the ML5K and Blessings in a Bookbag are organized by the irrepressible Mahogany Bowers, aka Lady Mahogany of 94.1 The Beat, who represents a new generation of local leaders pushing the dream forward.
"I do this because someone did it for me," explains Mahogany, who came up at the very school she serves in Garden City, now named Otis Brock Elementary. "I do it because if you can, you should."
Also a high-energy dance teacher, choreographer, former New York model and all-around badass, Mahogany sees herself as a community lighting rod charged with the kind of love Dr. King preached. But she doesn't interpret his vision of social equality as some kind of fake, politically-correct blindness that would sweep the 21st century manifestations of racial discrimination under the rug.
"I'm never going to be one of these people who says 'Oh, I don't see color,' because it's important to be proud of our heritage and who we are," she says, shaking the long, ropy curls she calls "locks" (no, not "dreads" — they're far too beautiful for that) to reveal cowry shell earrings emblazoned with the phrase "100% Natural."
"I can keep my culture, and at the same time I can keep breaking lines."
Still, when it comes to honoring Dr. King, she suggests that it's way past time to move the conversation beyond race.
"Forget 'black' and 'white'," she says. "It all comes down to 'nice' or 'mean'."
That's about the best summation of MLK's teachings I've ever heard.
Perhaps it's exactly what Dr. King would say if on a leave from Heaven, he happened back upon this Southern city still grappling with its tangled history, its complicated present and an uncertain future:
Just be nice, and let the politics and the prejudices and the ignorance dissolve in the smiling face of all that agape love.