Bankole: MLK’s ‘burning house’ matters in 2017

Bankole Thompson

In his memoir “My Song,” the legendary activist and entertainer Harry Belafonte recalls an important conversation he had with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at the singer’s New York apartment a week before King was assassinated.

“What deeply troubles me now is that for all the steps we’ve taken toward integration, I’ve come to believe that we are integrating into a burning house,” King told Belafonte, the man who facilitated his meeting with President John F. Kennedy.

When Belafonte pressed King to explain what should be done, he reportedly said, “I guess we’re just going to have to become firemen.”

King was distraught about the nation’s slow move to dismantling the shackles of segregation. He was disturbed about the contradictions and deep hypocrisy of American democracy: preaching freedom abroad and not practicing it at home.

My godfather, the late George Haley, shared with me numerous times in his Silver Spring, Maryland, home about the humiliating and degrading experiences under Jim Crow laws he was subjected to growing up.

He talked about how after graduating from Morehouse College he took classes in the basement of the University of Arkansas law school because school officials told him that “maximum isolation” was the best way to avoid violence for a black student.

Despite the tauntings from white students, his personal determination and encouragement from his brother Alex Haley, the author of “Roots,” George Haley would later become an editor of the school’s law review. The faculty also chose him as a moot-court defense attorney.

The ending to his traumatic law school experience was remarkable because some of the students who earlier had ridiculed him for being black later would look up to him with an enlightened perspective.

The persistence of experiences like those George Haley and countless other blacks endured during that time and the reluctance of political leaders including some southern governors to join the fight against racial segregation, concerned King.

It also explains why King was deeply worried about the fate of blacks and the need for more men and women of conscience to speak out against racism, bigotry and other forms of indignity.

King’s burning house analogy is even more relevant today when you read what Carl Paladino, an honorary co-chairman of President-elect Donald Trump’s New York campaign recently offered as a New Year’s resolution in a Buffalo newspaper.

“Obama catches mad cow disease after being caught having relations with a Hereford,” Paladino wrote.

Not only did Paladino demean the president, he also took a shot at first lady Michelle Obama saying, “I’d like her to return to being a male and let loose in the outback of Zimbabwe where she lives comfortably in a cave with Maxie, the gorilla.”

To imagine that an ally of the incoming president would be offering such a racist and condescending diatribe as his 2017 wishes for the outgoing president — the first African-American president — and the first lady is unbelievable.

Is this a degeneration into the burning house King warned us about?Paladino’s “words of interposition and nullification,” as King would call them, do not belong in any civilized democracy.

After a barrage of condemnations, including from his son, Paladino this week said his remarks were a mistake.

Paladino’s shameful comments are a mockery of the Declaration of Independence, which affirms our shared humanity and debunks the notion of racial superiority.

After a bruising presidential campaign that opened the racial wounds of the past, the focus should be on healing the nation not tearing it further apart.

Those who are called upon to lead should not use their power to oppress the weak or exploit the racial divisions of the 2016 campaign.

Leadership should be about protecting the most vulnerable who are easily dispensable because they are not connected to power.

To avoid living the experience of a burning house in 2017, the new administration will have to boldly anchor the ship of state on the undeniable truth that no one is better than the other because of how they look or their background.

That the words of Paladino do not advance us to a better future. Instead his wishes will only breed more racial recriminations and put us in the burning house. And that is not how we ought to start the new year.

Happy New Year.

Twitter: @bankieT

Bankole Thompson is the host of “Redline with Bankole Thompson” on Super Station 910AM weekdays at noon. His column appears Mondays and Thursdays.