Yesterday marked the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King. Media coverage of the event featured numerous “what if he had lived” scenarios, ignoring the fact that so many racists had the man marked for death that he had about as much chance of getting out of the 1960s alive as I do of walking my dog in the Mariana Trench.
King set such high standards of spiritual clarity, personal courage, and captivating intelligence that even white supremacists had to admit their theories of racial inferiority had a glaring exception. How else could a Klansman explain this guy?
Hispanics, of course, don’t have a King equivalent. When cultural leaders are listed, we usually get Cesar Chavez. It sounds like he was a great leader and principled individual, but let’s be blunt. Chavez simply does not have the moral authority or historical impact of Martin Luther King. Maybe it’s an unfair comparison, but one was a Nobel Prize winner who gave one of the most stirring speeches in history, inspired millions of people to action, revolutionized American culture, was martyred for his cause, and got an official holiday named for him. The other won marginal rights for people who pick lettuce. Both have streets named for them in many cities, although in most cases, these roads pass through shady parts of town and change names back once they leave the hood or barrio.
To be fair, there is no Martin Luther King of the gay-rights movement either, or an Asian American of such stature, or so on. King was the pinnacle of social leaders.
And now, perhaps we are past the point in American history where any one person can become a powerful symbol and instigator of change. We’re too entrenched or cynical or hyperinformed to yank people onto a pedestal and leave them be.
But just in case we aren’t, is it too much to ask that the next icon be Hispanic?