This article appears in the Spring 2018 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.
In August 1967, in a sermon at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, Martin Luther King Jr. observed that he and the congregation were living in “evil times.” His remark was brutally punctuated on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee, when King was assassinated. What should we focus upon in marking the 50th anniversary of this somber landmark? I suggest three things: the particulars of King’s achievements as a liberal dissident; the trying circumstances he faced at the end of his life; and the virtues of his principal strategy and aim—coalition politics in the service of a decent, egalitarian, multiracial society.
King was a great man—not a pseudo-hero but the genuine article, one of the most remarkable dissidents in American, indeed world, history. He was at the forefront of three campaigns that defined the most consequential achievements of the Second Reconstruction. He gave voice to the blacks of Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955 when they successfully challenged racial segregation on the buses, thereby extending the writ of Brown v. Board of Education beyond public schooling. He rallied the blacks of Birmingham, Alabama, in the spring of 1963 in a rousing crusade that dramatized the need for what became the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed racial discrimination in public accommodations and much of the employment market. He marshaled activists in Selma, Alabama, in the spring of 1965 to mount protests which, when savagely repressed, generated demands for what became the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Along the way, King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, penned his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” and wrote several books, including Stride Toward Freedom, Why We Can’t Wait, and Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? He also joined the protest against the Vietnam War when most “responsible” civil rights leaders were too intimidated, confused, or misguided to do so. He packed all of this into a brief but gloriously full life. King was only 39 years old when he was slain by a rifle shot.
AT THIS MOMENT OF DAILY political peril, with Trumpian lunacy ascendant, it is useful to recall the difficult circumstances in which King found himself in the years immediately preceding his death. Now widely canonized, he was then widely disparaged. Right-wingers detested him. Moderates viewed him with unease. In 1966, nearly two-thirds of those responding to a Gallup poll expressed an unfavorable impression of King.
Cold War liberals were appalled when King assailed the Vietnam War policies of President Lyndon Johnson. They were outraged when he said that he could no longer raise his voice against the rioting of the oppressed in the ghettos “without first having spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today—my own government.” The Washington Post editorialized that by repudiating LBJ’s war policy, King “has done grave injury to those who are his natural allies … and … an even greater injury to himself. Many who have listened to him with respect will never again accord him the same confidence. He has diminished his usefulness to his cause, to his country and to his people.”
Much of Middle America looked askance at King’s anti-war dissent. Polling at the time indicated that 73 percent of Americans disagreed with his opposition and that 60 percent believed that his stance would hurt the struggle for racial justice. Fellow civil rights leaders, including Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young, also distanced themselves from him. They thought that he should abide by their hands-off attitude toward the war and bite his tongue, even if he thought that the war was unwise and immoral.
At the same time, with respect to the racial front, some in the Black Liberation Movement asserted that King’s appeal to conscience, his insistence upon nonviolence, and his embrace of integrationism were no longer tenable—if they had ever been. Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown portrayed King as insufficiently militant and all too trusting and forgiving of white folks. At the end of his career, then, King found himself assailed from the right and the left, from those who resented him for challenging pigmentocracy effectively, from those who alleged (mistakenly) that the civil rights movement had changed little on the ground, from those who complained that he had shown too little gratitude and loyalty to LBJ, and from those who charged that he did not adequately condemn American society.
The most important lessons that King bequeathed to us stemmed from his peerless capacity to convey the spirit with which we ought to wage our struggles for justice. He comported himself in his public life with magnificent dignity and exhorted his followers to do likewise. He did not always meet his own standards or those we would demand today. He exposed himself and thus the civil rights movement to potentially crippling embarrassment by indulging in extramarital affairs. Furthermore, he was sexist and antigay in ways that were conventional for his time. Still, overall, he played a major role in creating an admirable movement that served as a generative seedbed of dissent that flowered for decades. Veterans of the civil rights movement have contributed magnificently to the women’s liberation movement, the gay liberation movement, the free speech movement, and other worthy initiatives.
King was no naïf. He survived multiple bombings of his family’s home. He attended funerals of assassinated activists. He endured torments unleashed by J. Edgar Hoover and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Recall that the FBI bugged his hotel rooms and with damning evidence thus tried to get King to commit suicide. He appreciated the vile power of racial tyranny in its many guises. He also appreciated that high-mindedness and tough-mindedness were complementary, indeed essential for a dissident movement seeking to advance the fortunes of an ostracized, oppressed racial minority. He understood that disclaiming violence as a weapon of coercion was not only morally right but strategically right. He understood that a black liberation struggle that was welcoming of whites and others that do not identify themselves as African American is both morally attractive and politically imperative. Some proponents of the “Black Power!” slogan repudiated coalition politics, deriding white liberals as inevitably unreliable partners. King saw the matter differently. “[T]he solution to our problem,” King declared, “will not come through seeking to build a separate black nation within a nation, but by finding that creative minority of the concerned from the ofttimes apathetic majority, and together moving toward that colorless power that we all need for security and justice.”
Throughout his career, King considered himself an integrationist. That term is now seen in some left-liberal circles as quaint if not wrongheaded. But given the depth and influence of white supremacism, what is more radical in American racial politics than interracial empathy and yearnings to create a society free of racial impediments to well-being? He maintained that “[w]ithin the white majority there exists a substantial group who cherish democratic principles above privilege and who have demonstrated a will to fight side by side with the Negro.” He consistently recalled whites who, laboring for racial justice, earned the epithet “nigger lover”—whites who stood with their black comrades in the face of violence-prone, sometimes murderous, Negrophobes.
Over the past several years, insightful commentators including Michael Eric Dyson, Cornel West, Jeanne Theoharis, and Brandon Terry have performed the useful task of seeking to save the public’s memory of King from various perversions. They have endeavored to save it from the incessant marketeering on the part of King’s notoriously mercenary family, which bilked exorbitant fees from the charitable foundation behind the building of the King Memorial in Washington, D.C. They have also sought to save King’s memory from those who would make the most influential dissident of the civil rights movement into an anodyne figurehead.
Some on the right have attempted to misappropriate King’s teachings by depicting them as complacent banalities that pose no real challenge to the perpetuation of racial injustice. A vivid instance is the claim that King opposed affirmative action and kindred efforts to assist racially identified groups. To substantiate this claim, they invoke King’s famous statement that he envisioned a society in which his children would be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin. King, however, was neither simplistic nor formulaic. He recognized that undoing racism would necessarily entail active and ongoing attentiveness to race. Belying those who allege that he opposed race-specific remedies for social disadvantage, King declared unequivocally that “a society that has done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years must now do something special for him, in order to equip him to compete on a just and equal basis.”
KING WAS KILLED IN MEMPHIS during a campaign on behalf of black sanitation workers that sounded in demands for economic as well as racial justice. He had long been concerned about the economics of racial subordination. Many of the marches, boycotts, and other demonstrations that he inspired and guided were aimed at elevating blacks as workers as well as consumers. The rally in Washington, D.C., in August 1963 at which King emerged as the preeminent star of the civil rights movement was officially titled the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” As the 1960s wore on, King became even more insistent that economic fairness in general is essential to racial justice in particular since rising wages, low unemployment, and vigorous and fair unionization creates an environment that tends to be less susceptible than otherwise to the racial manias that have historically divided the American working classes. Promises of white power have been principal means of seducing poor whites and inducing them to eschew poor blacks. King strongly and persistently criticized the deceptions and betrayals of white racism. Responding to white reaction against the civil rights movement, King offered observations applicable to the eruption of white reaction against President Barack Obama. “[T]he white backlash is nothing new. It … is rooted in the same problem that has characterized America ever since the black man landed in chains on the shores of this nation. The white backlash is an expression of the same vacillations, the same search for rationalizations, the same lack of commitment that have always characterized white America on the question of race.”
King also criticized any reaction to white racism that smacked of retributive resentment or black chauvinism, or black bigotry. Part of his resistance was rooted in moralism. “I must oppose any attempts to gain our freedom by the methods … that have characterized our oppressors.” But part of his resistance was also rooted in pragmatism. “As we work to get rid of the economic strangulation that we face as a result of poverty, we must not overlook the fact that millions of Puerto Ricans, Mexican Americans, Indians and Appalachian whites are also poverty-stricken. Any serious war against poverty must of necessity include them.” The Black Power slogan, King complained, “gives priority to race precisely at a time when the impact of automation and other forces have made the economic question fundamental for blacks and whites alike.” He preferred the slogan “Power for poor people,” understanding and teaching that a common struggle for economic justice is key to suitably addressing the recalcitrant problem of racial injustice.
King gave up on hardly anyone—even initial enemies. He was committed to the power of persuasion and did all that he could, consistent with fundamental principles, to increase the possibility of attracting people of all sorts to his cause. A practical man, he knew that many of his fellow Americans of all complexions were unlikely to be persuadable—no matter what. A realistic man, he also understood that to stand any substantial chance for success he would have to reach many others who were persuadable. He went about his task with care and verve, producing inspiring exhortation and a devoted followership that persists despite the dulling effects of time. It is hard to imagine him “writing off” even deplorable Trump voters. It is hard to imagine him damning people for failing to mouth the latest, hip buzzwords or committing minor linguistic faux pas. It is hard to imagine him preferring ideological purity over reasonable compromise on behalf of a net progressive gain (though with respect to certain issues, such as opposition to the Vietnam War, he was willing to adopt a posture that some allies denounced). King was a believer in a progressive big tent—a crucial lesson of vital importance.
TODAY, WHEN THE FUTURE of democracy itself depends on wresting the government from the far right, liberals are at risk of suffering disabling conflicts over whose grievances take priority and over who is “privileged” relative to others who have been oppressed. If King were alive, he would surely seek to find ways of addressing these internal disputes with candor and generosity, realism and graciousness, keeping in mind the immensity of the larger stakes.
Changing the world for the better even by a little bit is extraordinarily difficult. On this side of the Second Reconstruction, having enjoyed for a generation the benefits won with heart-rending sacrifice by King and company, it is all too easy to forget or overlook that prior to the invalidation of de jure segregation, governments could lawfully separate people on a racial basis (which almost always meant consigning people of color to inferior facilities); that prior to the Civil Rights Act, people of color could lawfully be excluded from “private” public accommodations, work sites, hospitals, and unions; that prior to the Voting Rights Act, black voting was openly and brutally nullified by chicanery and violence in many places, including the very state—Alabama—that black voters recently rescued from the clutches of Roy Moore; that prior to Loving v. Virginia in 1967, all of the states of the former Confederacy made it a felony for blacks and whites to intermarry.
We obviously continue to face racial inequity on a massive scale. The Economic Policy Institute reports that with respect to homeownership, for example, the situation for blacks has not changed much since 1968. Then, 41.1 percent of black households owned their own homes. Now it is 41.2 percent (while for whites, it is 71.1 percent). Still worse is the story of incarceration. In 1968, African Americans were about 5.4 times as likely to be confined to jail or prison as whites. Today they are 6.4 times as likely as whites to find themselves behind bars. Plainly, there remains much work left to do. Our lives are daily diminished by the limitations and the defeats of the Second Reconstruction. But the struggles that Martin Luther King Jr. undertook did make a difference. He moved the world in a good direction to an appreciable extent. It is appropriate that we seek to learn from his example and salute his accomplishments.