Monday, January 18, 2021
Today are we willing to celebrate the Martin Luther King Jr. of 1966, or are we unwilling to walk with him past 1964?
Dr. King offers powerful lessons for today, but those lessons may recede from view as we gradually construct a tamer, less offensive vision of him. Since his assassination, he has become almost universally admired in American society as a model of courage and dignity. Not coincidentally, he is now seen as much less threatening and disruptive to the status quo than he was in reality. We tend to focus on the Dr. King of 1964 rather than the Dr. King of 1966. By way of illustration, I’ll share a personal story.
I went to college in the south, and my roommate was from a small town in Louisiana. With the self-righteousness of an 18-year-old who had grown up in the “enlightened” north, I once started to lecture him about racial injustice in his state. He listened for a while, then he asked how many black students were in my graduating class at a large public high school in Chicago’s suburbs. I was able to count them on one hand. I knew that black people lived on the south side of Chicago, not in my suburb. So? That’s just the way it is. Now let’s get back to talking about racism in the south.
My own obliviousness to the full legacy of American racism reflects the reality that also limited the long-term impact of Dr. King’s work. As with many areas of moral judgment, we’re much quicker to point fingers than we are to engage in deep soul-searching and corrective action. Indeed, when the critical gaze turns to us, we push back powerfully.
Witness the changing public reaction to King himself. From August 1964 to August 1966, Gallup surveys showed that the percentage of Americans who viewed King unfavorably jumped from 38% to 63%.
In the years leading up to 1964, King had led the Montgomery bus boycott, spoke at the funerals of the girls killed in the Birmingham church bombing, wrote his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, brought worldwide attention to Bull Connor’s regime attacking peaceful protestors with police dogs and firehoses, and gave his “I Have a Dream” speech in which he envisioned a day when his children would one day be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character, and called out in particular the states of Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi.
So what happened between 1964 and 1966? King publicly opposed the Vietnam War for the first time, which could explain part of the shift in public opinion against him. I think the bigger change, though, was that King shifted his gaze to northern cities. He moved to Chicago and launched his first civil rights campaign outside the deep south. I grew up hearing quite a bit about the civil rights struggle in Selma, Birmingham, Montgomery, and other southern cities.
I was an adult before I learned about the marches King led in Chicago, where he encountered what he described as the most hostile crowds of his life. Rather than target a southern society that advertised its segregation policies for all to see, he now protested deeply embedded real estate practices, such as steering and redlining, that kept blacks locked in northern ghettos. In 1965, he predicted, “If we can break the system in Chicago, it can be broken any place in the country.” He didn’t break the system, and we still haven’t broken the system.
It’s easier to like King when he helps me feel morally righteous and confident in my place on the right side of history. I would never refuse service to someone based on the color of their skin. I would never turn the dogs loose on peaceful protesters.
We’re less comfortable with King – I’m less comfortable with King – when he starts asking what I’m doing about the inequality in my own community.
I encourage us to reflect on Dr. King’s most powerfully persistent question: How will we use our gifts to help bind our nation’s wounds and build the beloved community?