See how they did our friend Martin?
One of my first introductions to Martin Luther King, Jr., was when my adolescent eyes watched Our Friend, Martin (1999) for the first time.
It was an animated, educational film with the stellar cast of Angela Bassett, LeVar Burton, Whoopi Goldberg, Samuel L. Jackson, James Earl Jones, Oprah Winfrey, and others who we’ve come to know and love. But I must be honest, that little soul of mine couldn’t handle the story the movie told, as it guided the main character (Miles) through a historical lineage of Dr. Martin Luther King, trying to help young children like me understand the Dream. The main character was the first African American boy I can remember seeing in cartoon form.
Miles and his friends journeyed through a museum with many of Martin Luther’s King’s artifacts, where they discovered how the turning of a watch could launch them through the life and legacy of Dr. King.
At one point, close to the end of the movie, Miles and his friends journey to the past, come upon the teenage King, and encourage him to “come back to the future” with them. Their colorful presence described the future as a vibrant place, full of diversity, equality, and opportunity, with school names like “Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School.” The teenage King was both skeptical and suspicious as Miles’s friends attempted to convince him that he will be the reason that “different races of people can hang together” and that their time (the future) was “much cooler” than the days of King’s fledgling years. King thought all of the harmonies and possibilities spoken by these futuristic teens were too good to be true. But after pondering it for a while, he decided to go, putting his hand in the circle of Miles and his friends and heading into what were supposed to be better days.
Upon entry into the “new world,” everything looked old. The future looked and felt as dark and dull as the past. Miles no longer had his friends by his side. And he couldn’t believe his eyes. It was just Martin and Miles, facing rejections familiar to King’s mid-twentieth century but unfamiliar to Miles’s futuristic memory. They tried to get on the bus Miles often rode to school but was immediately told to get off after attempting to enter the bus at the front rather than the rear. Randy Smith (Miles’s best friend) and Kyle Langon (who technically was already a bully) had turned into ardent racists. And Maria Ramirez couldn’t speak English. And Miles’s mother had metamorphosed from a successful businesswoman to a maid trying to make ends meet. Confusion entrapped Miles’s spirit as he wondered what happened to the future he had known so well.”
As they returned to what the future described as King’s broken, dilapidated (possibly bombed) home, revelation met Martin and Miles as they wrestled with the woes of distant days. “Because I left my own time, things have changed in your own time,” Martin said. Piercing from the sky came the voice of Martin’s father in a daydream that reminded the teenage King that the greatest thing a person could do in this world was serve.
But Miles knew the pending fate awaiting King if he crossed back into the past. He knew about King’s holidays commemorating his life and legacy in the future, but he also knew that it came with a perilous price. He knew that if Martin journeyed back, there would be no coming back. “Miles, we all have a destiny in life. This is mine. Seeing you with your friends before — how you all got along so well. That’s a wonderful thing.”
Sitting on the curbside of the place Martin knew was once his home, Miles tried to inform him of the place of no return and how devastating it would be.
“If you go back — ” Miles tried to explain, but Martin cut him off, preventing him from finishing his thought. “No, please don’t tell me anymore.” Standing up, King stretched out his right hand and pulled Miles off the ground. “Thanks for being my friend. I hope I get to remember you,” he said while handing Miles his watch.
Tears fell from Miles’s eyes.
As the teenage King walked towards his home, the house resurrected from rubble and ruin, almost like it was a heavenly place, waiting for King’s entry into eternity. Seeing this transfiguring moment, Miles ran to the door while the teen Martin transformed into the mustache, black suit wearing Dr. King. But Miles couldn’t enter the door until the time travel configuration was no more and returned to a simple, plain, wooden door. But this wasn’t the door that introduced the viewing audience to a new scene.
The following scene introduced the audience to another door leading to the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, where the now Dr. King stood as if he was looking over the mountain top. And then the screen blinks and goes dark as the sound of a gunshot rang.
It was in that moment, my little body knew what death felt like. Tears fell from my eyes as I vowed to myself never to watch that movie again.
I understood the movie’s message loud and clear. I recognized the call to commit to Dr. King’s Dream and pursue a Beloved community in hopes of keeping our past from becoming our future. But I was emotionally sick for at least a week. I couldn’t describe these emotions at the time, but now I know that those feelings were somewhere between grave terror and the gates of hell.
It wasn’t until last year, almost two decades later, that I watched the film again. And the feelings that snuck up on me when I watched the movie as a child were still there. That kind of heavy, grief-filled feeling doesn’t leave you, especially when you look like the main two characters doing the journeying and the dying.
Some people will tell you that children shouldn’t have to view terrorizing, troubling realities of American history. Animation be damned.
They will tell you that their children weren’t alive when “that kind of stuff” was going on, so there is no need to talk about it. They would probably call it “critical race theory,” then put it on a list of banned movies, joining an amalgam of banned artistic forms of engaging race and culture and community. In their eyes, the movie’s attention to detail — the flashbacks and journeys forward — could be relegated to dramatics and oversimplifications, designed to put fear in the souls of children and keep them hating each other until the end of time.
Every time people — especially white people who shun “wokeness” and critical engagement of American history — misquote and misinterpret Dr. King, I get that deathlike feeling that reminds me how wicked, out of touch, and out of key this country is with its own frailties. Perhaps the most misquoted, misconstrued quote comes from the speech I’ve listened to the most over the years, especially in that computer room of one of my former afterschool program facilities in Birmingham, Alabama. I’d sit in that yellow wall computer room and listen to King shout with his Black, Baptist cadence, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
I have heard white Republicans, in particular, especially in Alabama, use this quote as a source to spew their racial mendacity in political campaign ads, press releases, and speeches as justification for their inability to confront the social construction of race and its devastating impact on the economic, educational, social, and political conditions of our state and country. Cognitive dissonance and misinterpretation of thought have contributed to immeasurable chaos in our nation today.
These people fail to realize that “not judging children by the color of their skin” wasn’t spoken in the names of whiteness and colorblindness. It was a declaration of holiness and divineness — a projection of hope that encouraged America to value Black children as much as white children. It was a claim rooted in the Beloved Community where “one day right down in Alabama little Black boys and Black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.” The next line of Dr. King’s speech that so many adversaries of justice and peace fail to quote.
And while these politicians, preachers, and people like to quote King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, they often ignore the unparallel terror that would follow — with the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, less than a month after King declared his dream. They ignore the labor, the bloodshed, and the deaths it took to get the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, passed amid the filibustering tactics of the Dixiecrats. They ignore how Dr. King once told his friend Harry Belafonte that he felt as if he was leading his people into a burning house because America simply wasn’t listening, wasn’t feeling, wasn’t loving. And even today, they fail to address the three evils King committed his life to in his efforts to address the evils of racism, poverty, and war.
These people would rather spend their time treating King as if he died in 1963, as if his life’s work ended with one quote that can be Tweeted within the limits of 280 characters.
As I think about Our Friend, Martin and Dr. King’s Dream, I can’t help but hear the question “What happens to a dream deferred?” A question Langston Hughes raised in his poem “Harlem”. And while this poetic expression carried the jazzy tune of northern, urban streets, it possesses enough rhythmic gumption to meander through roads and hills and valleys all across this country, raising the question “What happens to a dream deferred?”
Now I know many people are not ready to suggest that King’s Dream has been deferred and denied, even though he declared that his dream was deeply rooted in the American Dream.
Many of us have been holding on to King’s last words,
“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead…I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
It is no secret that the promised land was central to King’s Dream, rooted in the contours of a Beloved Community, where all of God’s children would be able to stand together, hold hands together, and sing together, “Free at last. Free at last. Thank God, Almighty. We are free at last.”
But after all this time, all these years, America is still not truly free. And the truth of the matter is this: It doesn’t really want to be. Because if America wanted to be free, we would already have a Beloved Community.
And this is why Langston Hughes’s “Harlem” poem has the ability to hop on a plane or jump on a train and ride through historical and cultural waves of America’s existence and inquire whether deferred dreams…dry up like a raisin in the sun, fester like a sore and run, stink like rotten meat, crust and sugar over like a syrupy sweet, sag like a heavy load, or explode.
And while Hughes wonders what happens to these kinds of dreams, I wonder what happens to the people who are responsible for deferring dreams like these? Do they get dried up, and fester, and stink, and get crusty, and all sticky, and saggy, and heavy? Do they explode? The last few years have shown that they do. And the past decades too.
Perhaps King knew that America had erupted into a cataclysmic ball of despair, as he was set to preach on why America might go to Hell before being cut down by an assassin’s bullet. Almost fifty-four years since King’s death, the Beloved Community seems impossible to obtain — as too many white Americans, in particular, refuse to confront their ancestral history and sociopolitical depravity over and against America as a whole.
King’s Dream tried to call us to reimagine what America could be if we had the political courage and social cordiality to upend the roots of our sins. If we’d pursue racial reconciliation through critical castigation of racism and its elders. If we’d guide our children down the path of unmitigated truth so that they could journey peace and justice in ways this nation and world have never seen.
But now, as too many Americans focus on the idolization of King rather than the ideals of King, all I can say now is, “See how they doing our friend Martin? See how they lyin’ on the Dream?”
America has deferred, delayed, and denied King’s Dream time and time again — with its lies, lies, and more lies. How much longer will America hide from itself and ignore the institutional problems that have caused death to be like fire, shut up in our bones?
America is indeed on fire.
And the question before us now is, “Are we going to keep letting it burn?”
And while I want to say, “No!” The answer isn’t up to me. Our folks — my brothers, sisters, siblings, kinfolks, and elders — have been in the streets, shouting, preaching, teaching, writing — hoping white folks would finally get the picture and get free. And while many have joined the army of radical change and transformative justice, many more are still tarrying like the status quo is the way to go. And now they must be the ones to answer if they are tired of America burning. They must decide whether they are done being criminals of confusion, hijackers of truth, imposters of freedom, hinderers of the Dream.
Truthfully, I think they have already decided.
The current political climate affirms the antagonizing, exhausting narrative about too many white folks being pale and frail. And perhaps they just don’t have enough fiber, enough gumption to get better.
But we’ll just have to wait and see…if the Beloved Community is still a possibility.
Until then, the truth still remains: America doesn’t truly want to be free.
See how they did our friend Martin?