The King they won’t celebrate

Brian Jones explains how Martin Luther King grew to embrace a more radical critique of U.S. society—one that was captured in his 1967 book Where Do We Go from Here?.

The History of Black America

EVERY YEAR, the holiday celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday gives politicians of both major parties a chance to praise King as a hero. His story—or at least one part of it—is told at every level of school.

It's a good thing that King is the object of so much official praise. But we should never forget that this wasn't always the case. Although he was assassinated in 1968, the campaign to acknowledge King's special contribution to this country with a national holiday wasn't won until 1986.

In the last year of his life, King actually became the source of much official derision, particularly after his public denunciation--at the Riverside Church in Harlem in April 1967--of the war in Vietnam. King, breaking with many of the more timid civil rights leaders, spoke out forcefully against what he called, "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government."

Did the liberal Democratic Party establishment leap to King's defense? Did they praise his courage?

Not exactly. Consider the reaction to the speech by then-President Lyndon Johnson, who fumed in the Oval Office: "What is that goddamn nigger preacher trying to do to me?"

In 1957, Time magazine had named King its "Man of the Year." After his 1967 speech, it ran an article called "Confusing the Cause," which chastised King for daring to speak about something other than civil rights. The article called King a:

drawling bumkin, so ignorant that he had not read a newspaper in years, who had wandered out of his native haunts and away from his natural calling.

Dr. King was murdered exactly one year after the speech at Riverside Church. In that last year of his life, he campaigned for radical, social-democratic reforms that are still far beyond what the Democratic Party is prepared to accept.

One of Socialist Worker's earliest features was a monthly series on the history of the African American struggle in the U.S., from slavery to the present day.
All articles in this series

In 1967, he published a book called Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? It's a dense, wide-ranging text, and a powerful polemic (rendered in the magnificent prose for which he is famous) for what King called "Phase Two" of the movement.

Readers of the book will find that King presents a radical analysis of the origin and nature of racism, and a perspective for future organizing that would, if carried out, shake American capitalism to its core.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

BY THE time King sat down to write this book, the civil rights movement had won the major legislation it sought. King recognized that those victories hardly changed the real structure of racism in America, but they did create a mass transformation in consciousness:

To sit at a lunch counter or occupy the front seat of a bus had no effect on our material standard of living, but in removing a caste stigma, it revolutionized our psychology and elevated the spiritual content of our being.

But "Phase Two" of the movement would have to challenge economic inequality:

[D]ignity is also corroded by poverty...No worker can maintain his morale or sustain his spirit if in the market place his capacities are declared to be worthless to society.

Compared to the cost of creating real equality, the civil rights victories were "cheap":

The practical cost of change for the nation up to this point has been cheap. The limited reforms have been obtained at bargain rates. The real cost lies ahead. The stiffening of white resistance is a recognition of that fact.

The discount education given 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 is complex far beyond integrating buses and lunch counters.

That "resistance"--the white backlash--against the gains of the civil rights movement began before the ink had dried on the chief pieces of civil rights legislation, signed into law by Johnson in 1964 and 1965. Further, Northern liberal politicians who funded King's campaigns to desegregate the South were the very ones presiding over the segregated slums in the North:

When, in the last session of Congress, the issue came home to the North through a call for open housing legislation, white Northern congressmen who had enthusiastically supported the 1964 and 1965 civil rights bills now joined a mighty chorus of anguish and dismay reminiscent of Alabama and Mississippi.

So while King thought that riots were counterproductive, and he disagreed with the popular slogan "Black Power," he rejected the logic of blaming the victim and identified racism as the real root of the problem:

The persistence of racism in depth and the dawning awareness that Negro demands will necessitate structural changes in society have generated a new phase of white resistance in North and South.

Based on the cruel judgment that Negroes have come far enough, there is a strong mood to bring the civil rights movement to a halt or reduce it to a crawl. Negro demands that yesterday evoked admiration and support, today--to many--have become tiresome, unwarranted and a disturbance to the enjoyment of life. Cries of Black Power and riots are not the causes of white resistance, they are consequences of it.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

KING MOVED his family to Chicago and led a campaign there against the manifestations and institutions of Northern racism, but his nonviolent tactics were unable to wrest major concessions from city officials.

A sense of frustration had set into the Black ghetto, evidenced by the urban riots that swept hundreds of American cities from 1965 to 1968. Once, King even spoke before a Black audience and was booed. That night, he tossed and turned, trying to understand what was happening to Black consciousness:

Why would they boo one so close to them? But as I lay awake thinking, I finally came to myself, and I could not for the life of me have less than patience and understanding for those young people.

For 12 years, I, and others like me, had held out radiant promises of progress. I had preached to them about my dream. I had lectured to them about the not-too-distant day when they would have freedom, "all, here and now." I had urged them to have faith in America and in white society. Their hopes soared.

They were now booing because they felt that we were unable to deliver on our promises. They were booing because we had urged them to have faith in people who had too often proved to be unfaithful. They were now hostile because they were watching the dream that they had so readily accepted turn into a frustrating nightmare.

King warned that the legacy of racism in America would not be easily or quickly overcome. He recalled the tendency of the country to take "one step forward on the question of racial justice, and then take a step backward," and drew an historical parallel with the freeing of the slaves:

In 1863, the Negro was given abstract freedom expressed in luminous rhetoric. But in an agrarian economy, he was given no land to make liberation concrete...As Frederick Douglass came to say, "Emancipation granted the Negro freedom to hunger, freedom to winter amid the rains of heaven. Emancipation was freedom and famine at the same time."

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

WHAT DID this history demonstrate to King?

All of this tells us that the white backlash is nothing new. White America has been backlashing on the fundamental God-given and human rights of Negro Americans for more than 300 years.

Interestingly, King stopped short of asserting racism as a universal or permanent feature of American society. He argued, instead, that its origins lay in the economics of the African slave trade. Racism was the result, not the cause of slavery:

It is important to understand that the basis for the birth, growth and development of slavery in America was primarily economic...It seems to be a fact of life that human beings cannot continue to do wrong without eventually reaching out for some rationalization to clothe their acts in the garments of righteousness. And so, with the growth of slavery, men had to convince themselves that a system which was so economically profitable, was morally justifiable. The attempt to give a moral sanction to a profitable system gave birth to the doctrine of white supremacy.

It follows from this understanding of the social roots of racism that, just as it was made, racism can be unmade. Furthermore, the logic of the struggle for economic equality, King argued, naturally leads to the question of multiracial struggle:

Racism is a tenacious evil, but it is not immutable. Millions of underprivileged whites are in the process of considering the contradiction between segregation and economic progress. White supremacy can feed their egos but not their stomachs.

King worried that the slogan "Black Power" cut Blacks off from their potential allies:

In the final analysis, the weakness of Black Power is its failure to see that the Black man needs the white man, and the white man needs the Black man. However much we may try to romanticize the slogan, there is no separate Black path to power and fulfillment that does not intersect white paths, and there is no separate white path to power and fulfillment, short of social disaster, that does not share that power with Black aspirations for freedom and human dignity. We are bound together in a single garment of destiny.

Racism actually retarded the organization of poor whites to challenge their own poverty:

There are, in fact, more poor white Americans than there are Negro. Their need for a war on poverty is no less desperate than the Negro's. In the South, they have been deluded by race prejudice and largely remained aloof from common action. Ironically, with this posture, they were fighting not only the Negro, but themselves.

Did this mean forgetting about racism and "moving on" to a purely economic movement? No--quite the opposite:

It is, however, important to understand that giving a man his due may often mean giving him special treatment. I am aware of the fact that this has been a troublesome concept for many liberals, since it conflicts with their traditional ideal of equal opportunity and equal treatment of people according to their individual merits...

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.

That "something special," King argued, would be a massive reparations program--an Economic Bill of Rights:

However much we pool our resources and "buy Black," this cannot create the multiplicity of new jobs and provide the number of low-cost houses that will lift the Negro out of the economic depression caused by centuries of deprivation. Neither can our resources supply quality integrated education. All of this requires billions of dollars which only an alliance of liberal-labor-civil-rights forces can stimulate.

In short, the Negroes' problem cannot be solved unless the whole of American society takes a new turn toward greater economic justice.

We should never forget that King died trying to build a movement to get those billions. He was assassinated in Memphis, where he had come to support sanitation workers on strike for union recognition--the very kind of struggle he felt was central to "Phase Two."

In the final pages of Where Do We Go from Here? King calls on a bit of Biblical poetry to urge his readers to build the kind of determined movement that could make their dreams a reality:

Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal opposition to poverty, racism and militarism. With this powerful commitment, we shall boldly challenge the status quo and unjust mores, and thereby speed the day when "every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low; and the crooked shall be made straight and the rough places plain."

Amen.

First published at SocialistWorker.org on January 19, 2009.