Dr. Wilmer Leon, left, and Pastor Clarence Williams
BY FRANK DROUZAS, Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG – Political scientist Dr. Wilmer Leon kicked off the 2017 Heritage Lecture Series Jan. 9 at the Greater Mt. Zion AME.
A published author, Leon was a lecturer/ teaching associate in the political science department at Howard University in Washington, D.C. He is a nationally broadcast radio talk show host, a syndicated columnist and regular political commentator on national and international news programs.
Leon called Dr. King “one of the greatest martyrs in the history of this country” and said that in the years since his assassination, he has been disturbed by what seems to be the “co-opting” of King’s message, his essence and even his persona.
He said the message, actions and ultimate sacrifice of Dr. King the visionary, the prophet and the revolutionary “has been hijacked, it has been compromised to where he has, in my opinion, been relegated to just a dreamer,” Leon stated.
People are comfortable with dreamers, he said, because dreamers are safe. To be a dreamer you must be in a restful state, Leon explained, adding that they’re usually docile, easy to manipulate and they’re also “incredibly, incredibly non-threatening.” To cast Dr. King in the light of a dreamer allows people to be convinced that the change that results through clear vision and direct action is not necessary.
“It allows the oppressed to be fooled into being patient,” he said, “and non-revolutionary.”
Dr. Wilmer Leon
Leon noted that the theme of his lecture—”Charging forward, changing the world”—drew a parallel from one of Dr. King’s seminal works, “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?” It was the last book Dr. King published before he was assassinated. One of his speeches, which was delivered in November of 1966, contained the outline to his upcoming book, Leon said, and in this speech Dr. King mused, “‘from whence have come, where are we now and where do we go from here?’”
“So that our charge forward as we go forth to change the world is not reckless and without direction,” Leon explained, “we must first understand from whence we come.”
In the historical context of enslaved Africans arriving in Virginia in the 1600s, he said, the colonists, being good Christians, “found themselves struggling with this whole idea of how do they rationalize enslaving human beings?”
Laws were enacted to cover certain gray areas, such as the status of children born to English fathers but slave mothers, and whether slaveholders can be charged with murder for the “casual killing” of a slave. Since the time when these African ancestors landed on these shores, they were viewed in the eyes of the law merely as property, personal possessions or “things.”
“This is our ground zero in America,” Leon said. “This is from whence we come.”
Leon submitted that the struggle in this country for African Americans has never been about civil rights or human rights, but the struggle to be recognized as human beings and not things.
“Even today it is ‘things’ that is being maintained,” he said, citing many African Americans who have lost their lives including Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice. “We know the stories.”
Do to “patterns of perception” and “systemic racism,” the reason police officers or even citizens can murder unarmed African Americans is because they are perceived first as threats, and “things,” Leon averred, and as human beings second.
Leon said that he didn’t believe the police officers shot these victims of color simply because the police officers were white, but wondered if they would have felt as threatened if the perceived perpetrators had also been white.
“Would this difference in perception have resulted in a different emotional response? Would that different emotional response have given those individuals one more second of consideration,” he asked.
America has never reconciled this great contradiction, Leon stated. He said that Dr. King wrote that with the removal of the statutes and the passing of the voting rights act, there’s been a struggle to treat the Negro with a degree of decency, not equality.
“That’s not Dr. King the dreamer,” Leon said, “but Dr. King the realist.”
These days we find ourselves in a period of “white backlash,” he said, with a resentment directed toward the election of Barack Obama as the first African-American president. In the minds of many people, President Obama became an indicator that the normal distribution of the “balance of power” is askew.
“White backlash,” as Dr. King had termed it, is not new, Leon said, citing such historical examples as the Dred Scott case of 1857, in which the Supreme Court ruled against an enslaved man who tried to sue for his freedom, and “convict leasing,” a system of penal labor practiced in the South. Widespread race riots in which whites attacked African Americans such as the ones during the “Red Summer” in 1919 and the 1921 Tulsa, Okla., riots where there was a backlash at the end of the First World War when jobs were scarce in cities.
“Whites were agitated and angry,” Leon said, “over the fact that African Americans who had returned from service in World War I had money, had training, and they had a new sense of self, and they were demanding equality in housing and jobs.”
He cited inequalities in education throughout the years between white and black children and the seemingly perpetually low socio-economic standing of many African Americans in this country as pressing issues. With all that said, Leon noted, how do we move forward? Where do we go from here?
“Honestly, I don’t know,” Leon said. “I wish I could stand here and tell you that I did…In my opinion, America has taken a giant step backwards.”
But as African Americans are a resilient people, he said, “we know what to do because we’ve done this before. First, we have to start reading. We have to dedicate ourselves to educating ourselves. We have to get a firm grasp on the issues surrounding us domestically and the issues surrounding us internationally.”
African Americans must understand these issues within the broader historical context in which they occur, he noted and stressed the importance of the struggle for the collective rather than the individual.
He closed with a quote from Dr. King: “‘It is time for the Negro middle class to rise up from its stool of indifference, to retreat from its flight of unreality, and to bring into its full resources its heart, its mind, its checkbook, to the aid of the less fortunate brother and sister.’”