I remember the day Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered in Memphis. The following week my late mother kept me home from school in our stuffy three-story Chicago walkup so we could join the millions in the United States and worldwide in their collective grief.
Then all hell broke loose.
Anger and rage filled the streets of cities across America. In Chicago, Mayor Richard J. Daley punished the protestors by refusing to rebuild their burned-out neighborhoods. Today, 52 years later, Chicago’s West Side still shows that neglect.
President Donald Trump would have loved Daley’s reaction. Daley was a law-and-order kind of mayor, who directed the cops to “shoot to kill” looters and arsonists, and who famously said, “The policeman is here to preserve disorder.” Slip of the tongue?
Moral Leadership Vacuum
And now here we are. Or, here we are again. In my life I’ve lived through the Watts riots of 1967; the riots in Chicago during the Democratic Convention in 1968, when Chicago police officers took off their nameplates and brutally beat the demonstrators; the riots in south-central Los Angeles in 1992 following the horrific attack on Rodney King by the LAPD; and in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 and 2015, in which Michael Brown was senselessly murdered by another trigger-happy cop who was never charged.
But there is one distinct difference this time as we witness protests, violence and looting, and continued police brutality in American cities in the wake of yet another police snuff video. In addition to 112,000 pandemic deaths and 40 million Americans unemployed, there exists a moral leadership vacuum here that I have never seen in my 64 years.
Oh, there are the cable news experts and sages who pontificate and howl safely and securely from the aeries of their home studios and newsrooms in New York City and Washington.
Additionally, and predictably, there are the moralizing pearl-clutchers and fingerwagging-scolds who focus only on the looting and chaos with an emotional fever that they dare not display when people of color are senselessly brutalized and murdered day after day in the United States.
That’s not leadership.
No, the moral leadership that is absent this time is from slain heroes like King and courageous women such as Rosa Parks, who, on the day I was born, refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus and subsequently helped launch the civil rights movement. Their lives of non-violent civil disobedience were examples to the rest of the world.
I wonder: do today’s young protestors even know this inspirational history?
There is no need to mention the lack of any form of leadership from President Trump because after more than three years of lies, scandals, dog whistles, and hate speech, there is nothing he could say that would unite this nation. As he trembles behind fencing while watching his poll numbers tumble, he is beyond irrelevant.
This past week, as I watched Chicago rage – the city of my upbringing, the “city of big shoulders,” the city whose very DNA guides my life – I felt as if civilization itself is in its last spasm. So many of this planet’s inhabitants are sick, poor, hungry, oppressed, or trapped in refugee camps. They are horribly represented by dysfunctional heads-of-state in Hungary, Syria, Russia, Brazil, and, now sadly, the United States.
As bad as things appear to me, how much has really changed in my lifetime, and how much is simply repeated but accelerated with more people, fewer resources, a more militarized police force, and an environmentally damaged planet? Writer Paul Theroux once wrote,
“A great satisfaction of growing old – one of many – is assuming the role of witness to the wobbling of the world and seeing irreversible changes. The downside … is hearing the same hackneyed opinions over and over … the discoveries that are not new, the proposed solutions that will solve nothing.”
By the time King was assassinated, he had grown unpopular because of his opposition to the Vietnam War, calling it “an enemy of the poor.” In an excellent 2018 article in The Intercept, journalist Zaid Jilani recounts that liberals felt King betrayed President Lyndon Johnson with his criticism of the war.
King, they said, should have been satisfied with what Johnson had already done for the African American community “on issues like civil rights, health care, and welfare.” Johnson and others wondered why King didn’t know his place.
But King was prescient. He knew a country that did not address its systematic poverty and racism in America would not survive. He said, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
Fifty-three years later, leaderless and awash in our own silos of rage, our epitaph is writing itself.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.