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Feb 28 2006

The later Martin Luther King

Some writers are very good at planning ahead for their writing and preparing pieces that coincide with upcoming anniversaries. I am hopeless at this, reacting to events after the fact rather than anticipating them. So, for example, Charles Darwin’s birthday was on February 12 but I completely forgot about it, even though I have been reading and writing about him extensively. Similarly Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday came and went in January without me commenting on it, although he was a person who influenced me tremendously.

But today’s visit to Case of Harry Belafonte, yesterday’s Case Martin Luther King celebration with speaker Fred Gray, and the recent death of Coretta Scott King have made me reflect on the life and message of Martin Luther King and the importance of resurrecting an essential aspect of his message. It is clear that there is a need to remove the layers of gauze that have covered his legacy and blurred the increasingly hard edged vision that characterized the last years of his life.

Most people focus primarily on his “I have a dream speech” given at the March on Washington in 1963. It is important to realize that he did not retire after that oratorical triumph but went on to speak and act in ways that were often different from his pre-1963 positions. His new emphasis on a class-based analysis of American society, his drive to unite the problems of black people with poor and working class white people, coupled with his opposition to the war in Vietnam, were a radical departure from a purely race-based civil rights struggle, cost him some support and alienated some former allies, and are what some believe precipitated his assassination.

Since his death in 1968, the mass media have increasingly portrayed King as primarily a visionary and a dreamer of a non-racial America, and some have even argued that that his dream has essentially come true, apart from some minor remaining problems. To read his last book Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community is to be jolted by the piercing clarity of his wide-ranging analysis of the real problems, what needed to be done to resolve them, and the immense obstacles that lay in the way of reaching the goal of a free and fair society. It is also important (and rather chastening) to note that nearly everything that he said four decades ago is still relevant today.

What is particularly striking about King’s writings is his ability to keep in balance the tension between a hard-eyed and realistic appraisal of the problems faced in trying to achieve justice (derived from his study of politics, economics, history, and philosophy) and his deep-rooted optimism in the innate decency of human beings (derived from his religious faith).

He saw that the successful multiracial coalitions that formed in the civil rights struggles and which culminated in Selma and the Voting Rights Act were just the first phase of the struggle and that these focused around the issues of treating African-Americans decently but not necessarily equally. People of all races were appalled at the lynchings and beatings, and the legal remedies that were proposed did not cost anything and could be supported fairly easily. “There are no expenses, and no taxes are required, for Negroes to share lunch counters, libraries, parks, hotels, and other facilities with whites.” But he pointed out that “the absence of brutality and unregenerate evil is not the same thing as the presence of justice.”

King noted that when the issue switched to the second phase, from that of simple decency to one of equality, much of the multiracial support evaporated as the cost of the remedies for generations of injustice became clear. “The discount education given to Negroes will in the future have to be purchased at full price if quality education is to be realized. Jobs are harder and costlier to create than voting rolls. The eradication of slums housing millions of people is complex far beyond integrating lunch counters.”

King praised the thousands who rushed to battle the brutalities of Selma, “heedless of danger and of differences in race, class, and religion.” But he also realized that they represented “the best of America, not all of America” and “Justice at the deepest level had but few stalwart champions. . .The great majority of Americans are uneasy with injustice but unwilling yet to pay a significant price for eradicating it.” He realized that while equality was the common goal of everyone, even the word was interpreted differently by whites and blacks. “Negroes have proceeded from the premise that equality means what it says. . .but most whites. . .proceed from the premise that equality is a loose expression for improvement.”

It is startling to see how well King’s analyses of the status of African-Americans in US society hold up three decades later, despite all the other changes that have taken place during that time. King realized that generations of slavery and other forms of discrimination and subjugation had taken its toll on the financial, intellectual, and other resources on the African-American and thus required an enormous and concerted effort from within their own community in order to “overcome his deficiencies and his
maladjustments.” But he rejected out of hand the suggestion (currently enjoying a resurgence) that the poor conditions under which they lived “can be explained by the myth of the Negro’s innate incapacities, or by the more sophisticated rationalization of his acquired infirmities (family disorganization, poor education, etc.).”

He was no sentimental believer that this appalling state of affairs would disappear by itself once the institutionalized roadblocks had been removed and a legally ‘color blind’ society had been created. He saw that the problems went much deeper than that. “Depressed living standards for Negroes are not simply the consequence of neglect. . .They are a structural part of the economic system in the United States. Certain industries and enterprises are based upon a supply of low paid, under-skilled and immobile nonwhite labor. Hand assembly factories, hospitals, service industries, housework, agricultural operations using itinerant labor would suffer economic trauma, if not disaster, with a rise in wage scales.”

In other words, powerful economic and political interests benefited from the depressed state of poor people and would strenuously resist any attempts to improve things.

He realized that achieving equality for African Americans required a massive expenditure in education, housing, and employment for blacks, but always emphasized that this must be done within the context of a general anti-poverty program meant for all poor people, of all races and religions. It is a big mistake to think of King as a leader of only black people. When he was killed, he was becoming an outspoken national leader of all people, which was what made him really dangerous.

To be continued. . .

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