A Check We Can Cash: Reflecting on King Holiday


by Sean H. Palmer, Assistant Director, MLWC

As we turn our attention to our annual observance of Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday, we continue to be reminded that we live in an interesting time of contradictions.  A Black man remains president (and will be inaugurated), but Blacks are unemployed at twice the rate of the entire country.  We continue to celebrate the notion of freedom through our observance of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation as movies like “Lincoln” explore the notion of slavery in the Civil War…at the same time over 300 Black and Brown children died last year in the streets of Chicago due to an inability to create solutions for gun control and gang violence.  We commemorate “The March on Washington,” yet controversial “Stand Your Ground Laws” are used in vigilante justice most notably against black teens like Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis. 

And here at Duke, we begin our year-long commemoration of Black Student Integration (50 years), even as “slave” action-figures are being sold to the public on websites like Amazon in conjunction with Quentin Tarantino’s racially charged movie, “Django.” When King offered that he had a dream in his eminent “March On Washington Address” in 1963, I don’t believe that his dream foretold of this reality.  Yes, my friends, race and racism are complicated conceptual frameworks as we stand in the doorway between our reality and historical memory.  King’s prophetic imagination had hoped for mutual love and respect, helping to sequester domestic terrorism.  And, 50 years after that speech, and 100 years after a group of Black women (who called themselves Deltas) organized to march for women’s suffrage, and 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, we find ourselves facing many of the same challenges of racism, albeit in new ways.

When King offered early in his profound speech that, “instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds,’” I wonder if he thought that by now we would be able to cash this check for justice, equity, and equality?  While much has changed in the ability for people of color to move “freely” in society, much has remained the same in regards to access, equity, and justice. Scholars like Adolph Reed have remarked that Black people have been getting symbolic justice…and symbolic justice isn’t actually justice.  Contrary to popular opinion and praxis, populating Black faces around hostile policies don’t, in fact, make the policies more palatable.   And while some might be confused for a season, the voices of Dr. King et al. continue to ring true.  We cannot get lost in the chorus of Hosannas as we teeter on the cliff of obscurity.

While many of us praise God for faith in the efforts to persevere in spite of what we see, King reminds us to remain vigilant to the case for freedom.  While we protest the various disparities of the day, King reminds us to remain committed to the task of equality and justice.  While we seek the power to control our personal destinies, King reminds us that love must be coupled with power if we are to ever use this gift of power wisely.  And, we persevere because we believe in humanity beyond degradation and volatility. Thus, we invite you to join us as we remember our roots and expand our reach in 2013. We invite you to visit our office as we reflect on “Praise | Protest | Power | Perseverance,” in our newest wall exhibition. Finally, we invite you to join us as we seek to cash a check that has the possibility of provision for all of the world’s people.