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Coach Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King -- The "N" Word, and Necessary Leadership in Social Justice


Where is it that you placed your dream
and why is it
that as a team
we always appear to be in a game
we cannot win.
How badly we need you to return
and coach again.

Our squad needs direction
Some type of game plan.
We have yet to learn
how to score on “The Man,”
who blitzes us often
and stunts quite a bit,
intentionally roughs the passer
and doesn’t give a shit
as to the penalty flags
that might be thrown on the play.
He knows all close calls will be called his way.

With the referees on the take
the commissioner too,
it’s no surprise player loyalty
may not remain true.
Many feel that a victory
is just a momentary thing.
It hurts me how soon
you are forgotten
Coach King.

I have faith that we’ll discover
the plays you would have called,
that we’ll pick up the fumble
and run with the ball,
where even if we don’t score,
the yards we will have gained
will at least tell the world
you coached not in vain!

-- J.W. Wiley (1987)

As a young man in Southern California looking for answers to how people can treat others so poorly, if not hatefully, years ago I wrote a tribute to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. At the time I was relatively obsessed with sports, so the poem I ultimately wrote to honor Dr. King’s memory was written as a sports metaphor. On this day that the United States celebrates his memory, it is ironic and actually quite sad that the poem I wrote about him 25 years ago, still applies today. As I write this blog post I have in the backdrop of my mind four recent and local occurrences that remind me of how much work is still required to advance Dr. King’s mission.

1. An ex Teacher’s Assistant of mine walks to her car and finds a brochure affixed to her car window. She kept it and ultimately passed on a copy of this document to me. It is a six paneled marketing piece titled: “’N….’ Owner’s Manual.” It is quite an extensive document and is proof of the racial enmity that continues to exist in our society.

2. A White middle school student at a local school, who has African American friends, is so-called dating an African-American, nonetheless attempts to teach another middle school student how to say a dysfunctional sentence that includes the N-word, as entertainment amongst other ill-advised goals.

3. One high school teammate (who happens to be White-American), attempting to joke with another (who happens to be Black-American) is comfortable asking if the Black teammates’s prior city with an odd name was a “plantation.” When laughing about it afterwards, he was totally comfortable with having used the joke, though he acknowledged that he wouldn’t have said it if he was in the midst of a racial majority as a minority, instead of being a member of the racial majority speaking to a minority.

4. A White high school student who attends a local school posts on FB a conversation with his father that reveals his father’s ignorant attempt at wit, his father’s racism, and the student himself’s cluelessness about how he paints himself with a whole lot of people who he may think are laughing with him, but sadly are laughing at him. However, conversely, the fact that he would/could post such a thing on a social network with no apparent compunction also reveals how acceptable it still is to publicly use hateful language.

You tell me, have we gotten past the sentiment in the poem above, a wish for leaders that are capable of helping us advance diversity & social justice, and not just in terms of racism, but all the other socialized ills that we buy into blindly, or use to justify some of our own inadequacies? Is it too much to ask for leaders, hopefully beginning with parents, but also friends and neighbors that are committed to building a world free of hate? Is it too much to take the time to consider what we ultimately are doing to one another by not finding ways to promote love instead of acquiescing to jealousy, stupidity, or duplicity?

Can we huddle on this...or at least take a time out?


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I recently saw a FB post so similar to the one you describe in #4, that it most likely is the same one. I went into shock mode for a moment trying to imagine how a senior in high school could get so far in life and supposed education and yet still be stupid enough to publicly present himself and his father as racist idiots.Also quite disturbing was the fact that literally no one made any kind of respectable effort to challenge this young man. The comments I saw were very weak, a few "are you serious?" type comments and even a few "wows" and "lols". Perhaps I shouldn't be as astonished as I am. Perhaps in surrounding myself with like minded people, I am shielding myself from these very ugly realities that exist in the confines of my home town and children's school. It seems things may be moving backward instead of forward at times. There seems to be a tremendous desensitization among youth, which obviously stems from the media, (driven by what sells) and in this case, a parent who role models hate and stupidity.

VERY awesome poem, btw...keep doing the right thing.

I honestly believe that we haven't moved past the theme presented in your poem. Many Black Americans have forgotten how far we have come as a people. At times we may laugh at sly jokes aimed at us instead of addressing them, which is a problem. I'm not sure if we fear being the stereotypical 'angry Black person' but our actions subconsciously give others approval to continue their possibly offensive behavior. (I think all people do this in different ways, but I used Black people as an example because it's the main topic of discussion.)I think the hateful mentalities are passed down and I think we can't expect every politician to be in favor of promoting the advancement of diversity and social justice because they may be ignorant to the fact that it is an important issue that requires awareness. When social acceptance is involved the line of right and wrong seems to become distorted.
In your poem you mention that we as a people need to work as a team. I completely agree with that but I think that years of division and tactics used to separate us have prevailed. We no longer see each other as a whole or a unit, we only see ourselves as individuals who must only look out for ourselves. In his letter to The Universal Negro Improvement Association, he emphasizes how important it is that Black mobilize themselves and work together by saying, "It is no fault of ours that we are what we are-if we are black, brown, yellow or near white, the responsibility for the accident is not ours, but the time has now come for us to get together and make ourselves a strong and healthy race". I think this quote pertains to ALL people of various races. We did not choose who we are but we do choose how we treat each other. Even if we can't fully work together, we should at least express respect for one another.

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