Each Memorial and Veteran's Day, one is apt to hear the slogan "freedom isn't free" spoken of American soldiers who lost their lives on the battlefield. Although I am more than happy to recognize the service of America's uniformed troops, I search in vain for how many of our nation's recent conflicts have anything to do with enlarging freedom. The war in Iraq was the result of neo-con imperial ambition. Vietnam hardly qualifies as a battle for freedom, most 'Nam vets that I've known do not even think about as such. There also tends to be in the popular mind a notion that threats to freedom in this country have come from without, rather than from within. During the 1960s the real American freedom fighters weren't in the jungles of Southeast Asia, they were on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, in Greyhound busses, and occupying lunch counters across the South. I think it best for us to use Martin Luther King's holiday as a day to eulogize others who gave their efforts, and their lives, to the struggle for freedom and equality in this country.
I have watched with bemusement and frustration over the years as King's day has become a time for high-flown platitudes, and his complex legacy reduced to sound-bites whose meaning have been eroded with each passing usage. The treacle dripping from the Facebook posts of well-meaning people who perpetuate this paper version of King became unbearable for me to endure today. Along with the mainstreaming of a man who loudly opposed war and economic inequality as much as he did segregation, there seems to be a growing perception that non-violent marches occurred, and then, voila! equal rights magically appeared. The struggles that led to the passage of the major civil rights legislation of the 1960s came about after great effort and horrific violence intended to halt freedom's progress.
Many lives were taken, and until we have a South Africa-style Truth and Reconciliation Committee in the South, we will never know how many were killed, or how many of these murders were committed with the cooperation of local authorities. Based on what I've heard and read, the infamous killings of Schwerner, Goodman, and Cheney in Mississippi in 1964 are only the tip of the iceberg. The wheels of justice have at least caught some of the perpetrators of the most prominent killings, such as Byron De La Beckwith, assassin of Medgar Evers, and some of the terrorists who bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. The police responsible for killing Fred Hampton, however, will never face such a reckoning.
I don't write these words to diminish the day or bring you down, but only to combat the tidal wave of smug, empty platitudes that fill the air each year in the third week of January, and to call on our nation to do more to recognize the martyrs for freedom who didn't wear uniforms.