(Today is the official day to commemorate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I am reposting (updated and edited) something I wrote two years ago.)
In reflecting on the life and message of Martin Luther King, I feel there is a need to resurrect an essential aspect of his message that he articulated during the last phase of his life. Over time, layers of gauze have covered this portion of his legacy and blurred the increasingly hard-edged and accurate 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 the emphases of his pre-1963 positions. His later 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. All these moves 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 to address these horrors did not cost anything and could be supported fairly easily. It did not cost much to repeal Jim Crow segregation laws either. “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 four 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 of 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 progressive national leader of all people, which was what made him really dangerous.
The late 60s was a time of ferment and there was a divergence between those who called for violent action to combat repression and those advocating non-violence. The main criticism leveled against the non-violence movement led by King (by critics such as those in the Black Power movement) was that it reinforced the stereotype of African-Americans as passive and meek. They argued that changing this perception required African-Americans to separate from whites and forge a more militant identity. King disagreed strongly with this analysis. In an interview, King said that “there is great deal of difference between nonresistance to evil and nonviolent resistance.” He pointed out that anyone who had been involved in the civil rights struggles would know that nonviolent resistance, far from being passive, was a strong, determined, and effective response to injustice.
He pointed out that violent resistance was futile because its ultimate goal, the total separation of blacks and whites in the US, was absurdly unrealistic. The power of the state was overwhelming and could brutally crush any serious challenge to its authority. If the general public, black and white, did not personally identify with the struggle for justice, then they would passively stand by while this power was unleashed to crush any opposition. He knew from the history of wars in general (and World War II and the Vietnam war in particular) that the general public could and would passively accept massive injustice and cruelty and horrific destruction on even innocent civilians unless they identified in some way with those at the receiving end of the violence. We see that even now with the way most Americans are unperturbed by the deaths, injuries and displacements of millions of Iraqis because of the invasion of the country by the US. He felt that you needed public opinion on your side and the only way “that the pressure of public opinion becomes an ally in your just cause” was if they themselves were touched by the struggle, at some deep level.
King argued that while some notable victories had been won by violence (for example, the American revolution among many independence struggles in former colonial countries), such models were not applicable to the civil rights struggle because “those fighting for independence have the purpose to drive out their oppressors.” King argued that blacks and whites had to live together in a post-racist US, and the only way they could do that with any sense of common community was if they joined together in the struggle to create such a just society. And he saw a united, non-violent struggle as the way to get everyone involved.
It is this firm conviction in the power of non-violence as an effective strategy, coupled with a basic sense of generosity and fairness in his outlook, his desire to see the best in even those who opposed him, that was the key to his success as a coalition builder. He was always inclusive in his thinking, trying to find ways in which to form a common cause with those who shared his basic belief in justice and equality. But he could also be scathing in his appraisal of those with whom he felt he had nothing in common, and fierce in his denunciation of the few deep-rooted racists who could not be won over.
Martin Luther King was always conscious of the importance of trying to maintain balance between the tensions pulling in different directions. He said that “a strong man must be militant as well as moderate. He must be a realist as well as an idealist.” Even the subtitle of his book Chaos or Community shows his realization that the future of society lay in a delicate balance. King’s murder removed from our midst someone who could hold people and movements together while moving towards a common goal and thus take us towards community. While we have not quite reached chaos in his absence, there is an urgent and deep need for a new generation of leadership that can point us towards community again.
Martin Luther King seemed to draw his strength from two sources: his wide reading and scholarship, which enabled him to always place people and events in a deeper and more meaningful context; and his ability to see the best in people. After the march in Montgomery, observing the demonstrators who were crowded together in an airport terminal, he noted “As I stood with them and saw white and Negro, nuns and priests, ministers and rabbis, labor organizers, lawyers, doctors, housemaids and shopworkers brimming with vitality and enjoying a rare comradeship, I knew I was seeing a microcosm of the mankind of the future in this moment of luminous and genuine brotherhood.”
His vision of what a society should be and what must be done to achieve it is as relevant and vibrant as ever. His call to action is as compelling now as it was when he first made it.