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On Thanksgiving: Gratitude for champions of civil rights

Walter Earl Fluker

Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders.

—William Faulkner, “Light in August”

Thanksgiving is a composite of memories. For some, memories of the table where they gather will take them to places and spaces inscribed in a nostalgic past of the warmth and intimacy of home and nation. For others, Thanksgiving is laden with memories that they would rather forget; and, no doubt, for some there are not any memories at all. My memories of Thanksgiving are of the former — of family, friends and food; moments of joy and of sadness, but moments nonetheless that I cherish because they help me believe in The Welcome Table.

This Thanksgiving, I will remember the fallen prince of our nation, the handsome and erudite John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States who was assassinated 50 years ago. He was family. In almost every African American home of the ‘60s and ‘70s, his picture was on the wall in commemoration, not so much for his brilliance and commitment to civil rights — but because of his absence. Those pictures on the walls were sites of memory. I think most Americans of that era had a deep respect and abiding reverence for the office of president. I am not so sure now. The dangerous incivility and racist innuendoes hurled at President Obama convince me that though seasons have changed, still most Americans find it easier to revere our fallen heroes than to honor and believe in the possibility of the present ones.

On this Thanksgiving, I will also remember another picture that was on the wall in our homes — the picture of another fallen martyr, too frail and human to worship, but too good and courageous to forget. I will give thanks for the memory of Martin Luther King Jr. and for his American Dream. He was also family.

On Aug. 28 of this year, my wife and I joined the throng of thousands who returned to the Lincoln Memorial, another site of memory, to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. I could not help but reflect on the progress that we have made towards the realization of that dream, but also on how far we still must go “if America is to become a great nation” as King so eloquently proclaimed. King, more than Kennedy, invited America to “sit down at the Table of brotherhood (and sisterhood).” He helps me to believe.

We sat there in the shadows of the Great Emancipator, commemorating Martin and so many others, during the controversy surrounding the George Zimmerman verdict in the killing of Trayvonn Martin, a 17-year-old teenager in Sanford, Fla. President Obama’s remarks that “Trayvon could have been me 35 years ago” came as a source of encouragement for many mass protests of righteous indignation and cries for justice from citizens around the nation. On the other hand, many felt that he had inserted the proverbial race-card into an already volatile situation of fractured race relations in this country. Some conservative pundits blamed him for acting as the “Racist-in-Chief” while critics within the black community felt that he said too little, too late — that his statement was like “pre-sweetened Kool-Aid” suggesting that it was palliative at best and failed to address the deep structural issues at stake for the poor and black and hopeless masses who need his engaged and embodied leadership in this case and others.

One has to ask why this continued public harassment of President Obama appears to be intensifying as Supreme Court rulings carefully and effectively seek to dismantle the hard-fought gains of the Civil Rights Movement (the Voting Rights Act and affirmative action) in the year of the 50th Anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic speech?

This Thanksgiving, I will give thanks at the table for John and Martin and so many others who fought these hard won battles. I will also give thanks for Barack. He helps me to believe.

Walter Earl Fluker is the Martin Luther King, Jr. Professor of Ethical Leadership and editor of the Howard Washington Thurman Papers at Boston University.