The black Americans who marched with Dr. King wore the cleanest, neatest clothes they could afford because they were championing the idea that they were worthy of respect and equal protection under the law. Freedom, as the founders of our country and the Civil Rights leaders understood it, was not a license to behave any way they chose. It was indeed the right to pursue happiness as they saw fit, as long as it did not harm or encumber others. But it was taken for granted that such pursuits would be grounded in self-respect, as well as respect for others. They knew that to be the only way that freedom does not give way to chaos.
Yet since all the legislative gains bought with the blood of Dr. King and many others, it seems there is a movement to diminish the humanity of black Americans again. From obscene song lyrics and videos to sociopathic behaviors featured on the evening news, dress and conduct that would have horrified Dr. King and his followers has been romanticized as what it means to be authentically “black.”
How ironic, as Dr. Bernice King points out, that African Americans fought so hard to be respected as equals, only to have so many of us voluntarily degrade ourselves. In his famous I Have a Dream Speech, Dr. King urged, “We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: ‘For Whites Only.’” Yet today, too many of our children are casting their dignity aside. And of course these problems extend far beyond the black community. “Twerking” is just the latest obscene dance trend that seems to have originated in an urban environment and then quickly found its way into nearly every living room in America.
Defenders of the “Freedom 2 Twerk” posters have insisted that its creators meant no disrespect to Dr. King, and ironically, I believe them. I don’t think they were trying to shock or offend anyone. I think they thought they were honoring Dr. King in their own way. Sadly, they are so far removed from what Dr. King stood for that they have no reference point for how horrified he would be at behavior they consider normal and cute. The party planners’ inability to discern how offensive their posters would be is a sign of how far we have fallen.
When asked how she thinks her father would have responded to the images, Dr. Bernice King responded, "My father would have worked to elevate them, to connect with them, and bring them into the movement.” And perhaps the best way to honor Dr. King is for us to do just that.
Bishop Harry Jackson is chairman of the High Impact Leadership Coalition and senior pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, MD, and co-authored, Personal Faith, Public Policy [FrontLine; March 2008] with Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.