Live from The Burning House: After-thoughts About MLK’s Radicalism

By Charlie Hotchkiss

Throughout my years of becoming more conscious and self-aware, I’ve been faced with deciding what path to choose when it comes down to race relations. I think too many are hung up on this false sense of a post-racial society and believe that if we pretend long enough it will become reality, when that’s not how to go about things at all. Privileged people will throw MLK Jr quotes in your face if you become too militant in your stance, in hopes of sedating your anger, produce faux stories of how they, too, have been oppressed and can relate to the last 500 years of your people’s history. Black folks found triumph in being “allowed” to join in on some of the things White people have always had access to, but how much good has it done to chase inclusion? 

“I’ve come upon something that disturbs me deeply, we have fought hard and long for integration, as I believe we should have, and I know that we will win. But I’ve come to believe we’re integrating into a burning house.”  – Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 

I want to place emphasis on the second part of Martin’s sentiment: 

I’m afraid that America may be losing what moral vision She may have had and I’m afraid that even as we integrate, we are walking into a place that does not understand that this nation needs to be deeply concerned with the plight of the poor and disenfranchised. Until we commit ourselves to ensuring that the underclass is given justice and opportunity, we will continue to perpetuate the anger and violence that tears at the soul of this nation.”

Imagine, if you will, a kid transferring to a new school during the 60s. This school happens to be mostly white, and by ‘mostly’, I mean everybody. Everybody is White. From the students to the teachers, nurses and counselors, the whole entire administration. In fact, the only person you may find sharing the same skin color as yours may be the janitor.

Let’s imagine that 75% of everyone there doesn’t want you on the premises because you are, in fact, an African-American. Let’s imagine that 20% don’t mind you being there, and tolerate your presence just out of their own curiosity: Can the Negro boy or girl read, write, play sports or speak English? 

The remaining 5% consists of actual well-meaning White kids whose parents aren’t neutral and are, perhaps, Civil Rights advocates. From the jump, you will be harassed, bullied, ridiculed, and have to face every micro and macro-aggression these people can think of hurling at you, on a daily basis. Add to the fact, the teachers in this scenario are ill-prepared to teach kids of a different culture, so the education you receive will be the same as every Brad and Susan in class. And the problem with that is that their curriculum is designed to uphold White Supremacy and highlight achievements they’ve co-opted as their own. 
With a country whose background is steeped in racism, textbooks are written in a way that revises American history, because when you own the books, the schools, the Board of Education, the authors, the lawyers, the judges, the local government as well as federal government, it’s easy to rewrite a history that favors you. 

You stick the experience out and down the road, you come across others like you, forced into cultural assimilation and shedding all the things that make you who you are. You find solace within each other and, as your friendship blossoms, you all begin creating cool handshakes and new slang as well as developing and discovering new talents. But guess who is watching? The moment you are deemed useful or entertaining in this world, there will be someone ready to use you, and in this scenario, you have the dominant group is now fascinated by you. You find yourself being admired, and now people have stopped harassing you as they have found their new muse. You find yourself reluctantly “sharing” your culture and teaching these fugacious frenemies all you know, in hopes that they will accept you and finally be nice to you. They won’t. In fact, they separate you from your circle, began to tell you what they think of your friends and your people. They will ask you how high you can jump; ask if you like watermelon; ask if you like certain Black musical artists and insist that you teach them how to dance like you. 

You find yourself becoming a parlor trick, a token, and much worse… You are now starting to look down on your own people as if the racial micro-aggressions they have to navigate is their fault. You begin wishing you had lighter skin and your voice inflections and pronunciations start to change to fit the status quo, because the media is subconsciously telling the White people around you that they are superior, and you begin subscribing to these notions without even noticing. You want straight hair and want to dress like the rest of the students. You decide that the more you are like them and less like yourself, the better off you will be. You notice that all the Black kids keep getting in trouble at school, reported to the principal, but you also know they aren’t the perpetrators of the problem. You begin to see that everybody has decided that your friends are troublemakers because, of course, at some point scientists have professed to have found some criminal gene in Black folks, so this is just us by nature, perhaps. Already, you begin to feel how structural and institutionalized racism can rain down on you for the sake of integration.

“I fear, I am integrating my people into a burning house.” MLK (to Harry Belafonte) April, 1968

That burning house Martin spoke of is, in fact, a dilapidated mansion of which the owners have declined all global advice on how to put the flames out. In fact, a large percent of the household members is completely fine with the inferno, because their room is seemingly fireproof. Some have bunkers underground and others have the option to whisk themselves to another country on a whim. These people are, conveniently, also the ones in charge of the fire department, police department, as well as the municipal water supply. And the reason why they won’t put out the inferno is because the majority of people available to put out said fire are now mostly “minorities” who have been disenfranchised, marginalized and will demand to be included in all plans on how to handle the fire as well as rebuild this house. Herein lies the “problem” that a newly built house in modern times won’t be built to cater to the wealthy 1% who are in control of everything, it would mean that everyone gets the same treatment, the same type of room, share the same kitchens and bathrooms, disgusting right? Who wants to share? Who DOES that?! 

As MLK Jr tried to appeal to the hearts and souls of people in hopes of bettering race relations it is believed that he had become more radical before his untimely death and it is quite understandable given the patience, time and energy it took to fight for equality only to see how far we have to go. 

“Become the firemen, let us not stand by and let the house burn.”

Fast forward to present day America, police brutality against Black and Brown has proven indefatigable. We have the highest incarceration rate in the WORLD (Go Team! Right?). We pour money in the Military Industrial Complex under the guise of fighting for “freedom” propaganda. Our education system is flawed and underfunded because for all intents and purposes, uneducated people are easier to lie to and control. Religion has divided us and demonized others further perpetuating war propaganda and discrimination. Our Health Care system is designed to maximize corporate profits and isn’t that efficient relative to its’ costs. Student loans are putting college grads in debt and homelessness is incessant and in many cases the two correlate. 

I could go on and on with the cons never mind the fact I haven’t even delved into issues specifically pertaining to the Black perspective but in all one must ask, is this burning house worth saving or should we just let it burn and say “I told you so”? We have race-baiters, mass shooters trying to possibly start a civil war, and a large percent of White people stockpiling guns and other artillery. It’s hard to want to be a fireman in this current condition, especially for Black people. It’s hard to feel patriotic. 

Integration has handicapped Black people and left us to depend on our oppressors instead of spending our time and energy investing in our own and, sadly, coupled with structural and institutionalized racism, many are left in susceptible positions. The 2nd Amendment, in so many words, says “That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government” so imagine the dichotomy between what a tyrannical government looks like to White people comfortable living in an Imperialist White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy versus the oppressed. People forget how young this country is and how great countries fall but my curiosity lies in what becomes of this burning house. We want change but what is more realistic? Tossing water balloons on a 5-alarm fire or just letting the motherf@#$er burn so we can focus on us? What would Martin do?

CharliebiopicCharlie Hotchkiss is a Louisiana Born, Hartford raised pro-Black activist, writer, Blogger, optician, and chef. His aim is to fight social injustice, while educating and empowering others to do the same in hopes of creating the change people need.