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Celebrating Dr. King’s Birthday

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In his belated support for a day honoring Martin Luther King Jr., Ronald Reagan predictably recalled the man as an inspiring—and innocuous—advocate of good will, brotherhood, and harmony. Such a carefully cropped portrait of Dr. King has gained wide popularity, perhaps because it enables the nation to create a comforting icon out of the career of a political iconoclast. Yet the heart of King’s legacy was not his teachings as a gentle minister, but his influence as the most skilled protest leader of our age.

Any attempt to free King from myth must begin by emphasizing that though he frequently lauded the country’s avowed ideals, he honed his own moral vision on deeply felt grievances against American society. King spent his youth in the Deep South, where he felt both anguish and anger at segregation, “partly because the separate was always unequal, and partly because the very idea of separation did something to my sense of dignity and self-respect.” Later, as a seminarian and then as a theology student in the early 1950s at Boston University, he shaped a philosophy of social activism that interwove Christian beliefs and Gandhian tactics of civil disobedience. At the heart of his values, though, there remained a desire, which he shared with other black citizens, to topple a racial caste system sanctioned by law and flourishing on the margins of the American conscience.

King gained influence as an advocate of protest, as his words expressed what a growing number of blacks were already thinking—and doing. In 1954, the year King became pastor of a black Baptist church in Montgomery, Alabama, the N.A.A.C.P. won the landmark Brown case, in which the Supreme Court overturned legalized school segregation. The following year, just months after King declined to head his local N.A.A.C.P. branch (preferring to spend more time with his family, congregation, and books), a black woman named Rosa Parks defied Montgomery’s racial etiquette by refusing to yield her seat on a bus to a white man. When Parks was arrested, black leaders met at King’s church, and there chose him unanimous ly to lead a boycott of the offending bus company. King later wrote that Rosa Parks, who galvanized an entire black community into action, “had been tracked down by the Zeitgeist—the spirit of the time.” That observation might also be applied to King’s own emergence among a generation of confident blacks, impatient with Jim Crow custom and awaiting only the spark to set them against it.

The Montgomery boycott lasted nearly a year and became a symbol of growing black assertiveness in opposing segregation. Its final triumph, in December 1956, admittedly required a mighty assist from the N.A.A.C.P., which persuaded the Supreme Court to void segregation laws for public buses. Still, the campaign showed that a unified black community could strongly challenge racism even in a city proud to be called “the cradle of the Confederacy.” The times were changing. A similarly successful boycott in Baton Rouge had drawn scant notice in 1953; three years later the Montgomery victory brought its leader sudden national fame. This was in part a tribute to King’s eloquent moral definition of the campaign as o struggle, not against whites, but against injustice. Yet his new eminence also reflected the fact that blacks, as King often proclaimed at rallies, “were on the move now.”

King exerted his greatest influence as America entered the 1960s, and blacks found that the civil rights gains of earlier years still left the American Dream an infinitely receding vision. Six years after the Supreme Court heralded an end to segregated education, the great majority of black children stilt attended inferior, separate schools. Two acts of Congress, in 1957 and 1960, affirmed the franchise for adult citizens regardless of race, yet blacks in many parts of the South still went to the polls at peril to their jobs, or worse. Blacks did register notable gains in the armed forces, where they now risked their lives for freedom in integrated units. At home, however, signs for “white” and “colored” in restaurants, theaters, and other public places reminded returning veterans that, like other dark-skinned Americans a century after Emancipation, they still lived in a white man’s democracy.

Black unrest suddenly spilled over in hundreds of student-led sit-ins across the South, which left established civil rights figures like King hastening to maintain their credibility in an age of rising mass action. Although King was among those surprised by his youthful emulators, he endorsed their conduct and in October 1960 he courted arrest at an Atlanta sit-in, as an act of civil disobedience against “an unjust system.” His arrest was one of thousands made against civil rights demonstrators that year, but it commanded such national publicity that John F. Kennedy, the Democratic Presidential candidate, privately intervened to secure his release. The resulting increase in black electoral support helped (together with a heavy graveyard turnout in Texas and Illinois) to give Kennedy the Presidency. In turn, Kennedy’s election encouraged blacks to mount new demonstrations in hopes of prodding their cautious ally in the White House to bolder reform leadership. In such ways, Martin Luther King Jr. acted as a catalyst whose symbolic stature focused attention and support on protest campaigns already gathering momentum.

Just as King’s ethic of nonviolent resistance sanctioned disregard of selected laws, so it encouraged disruption of individual routines, businesses, even entire communities. Thus, the early sit-ins and boycotts won grudging concessions from merchants, for whom freedom from prejudice often came in the form of economic coercion. During the critical campaign to desegregate Birmingham’s stores in 1963, it look the specter of rising disorder as well as falling profits to turn many hard-line racists into “moderates.” A delegation of prominent Birmingham businessmen had just rebuffed a federal mediator’s overtures when, as King described, they stepped outside to view the alternative to compromise: “There were Negroes on the sidewalks, in the streets, standing, sitting in the aisles of downtown stores. There were square blocks of Negroes, a veritable sea of Negro faces.” Within three days of this encounter, the merchants agreed to local black demands for desegregation.

It is a measure of King’s readiness for confrontation that a salient by-product of his nonviolent campaigns, as in Birmingham and Selma, was violence. Historian David Garrow has argued persuasively that during the campaign for voting rights early in 1965, King deliberately sought to precipitate police assaults on black demonstrators in order to stir public support for civil rights legislation. If that approach had a hard manipulative edge, it was formed by harsh experience: earlier campaigns had failed to sustain media coverage or to win federal aid in the absence of racist violence. By contrast, in May 1963 Americans recoiled in horror and indignation at televised scenes from Birmingham, where attack dogs sank their fangs into fleeing black children, fire hoses blasted unarmed demonstrators against buildings, and officers swung nightsticks indiscriminately. The mood of the country in some sense paralleled that in antebellum times, when neighbors disapproved of any master whose slaves could be heard screaming from the lash; an owner with a decent respect for public opinion would first gag or sequester his slaves before whipping them. So, too, in the 1960s Americans were content to ignore the routine degradation of blacks so long as the violence that enforced it took place in the recesses of prisons or police stations. Through the news media, however, Americans involuntarily confronted their greatest national shame. The ex-slaves were heard suffering everywhere, and the society’s walls of hypocrisy collapsed at the sound.

The moral awakening of white Americans was helped along by conciliatory appeals as well as by campaigns of confrontation. For these efforts to win over white citizens, the civil rights movement owed its greatest debt to King, who persuasively wrapped even the most disruptive acts in velvet images of interracial brotherhood and national redemption. Historian August Meier observed of King in 1965 that by emphasizing to whites “his belief in their salvation,” he “makes the nonviolent direct action movement respectable.” This distinctive mediating mission to white America stemmed partly from King’s matchless eloquence, sharpened by years of Northern graduate training and Southern Baptist preaching. In addition, he displayed a keen ear for the political sounds and symbols that could move a nation. Fusing civil rights with both democratic and patriotic content, he defended black demands as reflecting a “love for America and the sublime principles of liberty and equality on which she is founded.” He voiced familiar cold war refrains, while imparting an added social challenge: that the way Americans treated the “eternal moral issue” of civil rights “may well determine the destiny of our nation in the ideological struggle with Communism.” King also drew on his role as a minister, urging prompt civil rights action to guard “the most sacred values of America’s Judeo-Christian heritage.” Thus, on King’s powerful baritone the civil rights movement soared beyond the goals of one group to embrace a country’s deepest, worthiest ideals.

The effect on society of these skillful overtures is nowhere more strikingly confirmed than in the belief, still nearly universal among blacks and whites alike, that King and his allies were “moderates” of the black protest movement, while critics like Malcolm X were implacably “militant” scourges of American society. It is true that Malcolm brilliantly articulated black anger, castigated whites as “devils,” and ridiculed civil rights activities such as the 1963 “farce on Washington.” Yet his consuming cynicism afforded no outlet for challenging the social order beyond vague talk of a distant racial apocalypse. Like others on the extremes of black nationalism, he left segregation intact and, in general, substituted stridency for political strategy. The real militants were King and his fellow activists, who shook whole cities with mass demonstrations, demanded and secured sweeping changes in federal law, and reshaped the political agenda of two strong-minded chief executives. Like earlier protest groups, they proved that within the bounds of America’s political system there were possibilities for dissent, pressure, and change.

As civil rights leaders continued to blend moral appeals with mounting protests, they succeeded in mobilizing public support for reform. In the wake of the Birmingham campaign. President Kennedy (who previously had tried to dissuade King from further demonstrations) called for comprehensive civil rights legislation. He also admonished Americans that they could no longer be content to say that their country had “no ghettos, no class or caste system, no master race except with respect to Negroes.” Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, made civil rights the centerpiece of his liberal reform program, and in July 1964 Congress passed an omnibus measure that barred discrimination in public accommodations, employment, and voting, and tied federal aid to education to the desegregation of schools. In 1965 public outcries over violence in Selma led President Johnson to seize the moment for a televised address before a Joint Session of Congress. Requesting new legislation to vanquish racism, he also echoed the hymn made famous by civil rights workers, proclaiming, “And we shall—overcome!” Six months later a strong Voting Rights Act passed Congress by better than a four-to-one margin in both houses. Diehard racists still found champions like Alabama’s Governor George Wallace, who pledged to defend “segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!” But under the insistent prodding of black demonstrators and spokesmen like Dr. King, most Americans resolved that in the matter of legalized discrimination, it was indeed past time to overcome.

Following these dramatic victories, the reform coalition that King had helped to shape suddenly faltered. The nation’s deepening involvement in Vietnam diverted funds from domestic concerns, while King’s criticisms of the war as immoral alienated both President Johnson and conservative black spokesmen in the N.A.A.C.P. and the Urban League. Black unity further eroded as King’s exhortations to nonviolent protest were increasingly drowned out by cries of “Black Power!” At the same time, a growing focus by black leaders on de facto segregation in the ghettos disconcerted many northern liberals who had viewed civil rights as a sectional product for export to the needy, sinful South. The spread of ghetto riots hastened the reform coalition’s demise amid a wave of conservative demands for “law and order.” Though some black extremists hailed the riots as a “revolutionary statement,” they were tragic in their destructiveness and politically counterproductive: filled with sound and fury, signifying Nixon.

The assassination of Martin Luther King, on April 4, 1968, deprived blacks of their ablest spokesman. His death, soon followed by the murder of Robert Kennedy, deepened the despair of reformers who saw the promise of social change shot down in a cross fire of senseless violence and political reaction. Theirs was a bitter journey from naive optimism to unmixed cynicism; in a year from Selma to Watts, in a decade from Camelot to San Clemente. For all the risks by vulnerable marchers, for all the energy and idealism, what had the protest movement that King symbolized really achieved?

In retrospect it is clear that the more expansive hopes for civil rights reform were markedly inflated. Residential segregation, seen in the persistence of black inner-city ghettos and nearly lily-white suburbs, has easily survived federal fiats against housing discrimination. De facto segregation of churches, social centers, and private schools also remains routine, suggesting that in important respects the society’s newfound emphasis on interracial harmony has been more rhetorical than real. Black political power is still embryonic with respect to national office holding and participation in the circles that shape foreign and domestic policy. As for economic progress, it has scarcely touched the black urban poor, whose continued desperation marks the most severe limitation of the civil rights movement.

Today, even by the spartan thresholds set by the federal government, one in three blacks lives in poverty. As in 1960, black median income is barely more than half that of white families, and the black unemployment rate continues to hover at more than twice the national percentage. This can be attributed in part to a rise in single-parent, female-headed black households from one-fifth of all black families in 1960 to nearly one-half today—a disastrous pattern in a society where such families, regardless of race, are twice as likely to be poor as two-parent families. But the “feminization of poverty” does not fully account for the plight of ghetto residents. The jobless rate for black males 16 or older is 45 percent, and for black youth it is 55 percent. In all, the roots of racial inequality were too deeply embedded in centuries of American history to be washed away by the purifying rains of a decade’s liberal reform.

Still, if the protest movement King represented is judged by the distance it traveled rather than by barriers yet to be crossed, a record of substantial achievement unfolds. In communities throughout the South, “whites only” signs that had stood for generations suddenly came down from hotels, restaurants, theaters, and other facilities. Court-ordered desegregation of schools quickened its pace and by the mid-1970s had become fact as well as law in over 80 percent of all southern public schools. There are now federal penalties for overt discrimination in employment, and gains in college education and professional training have led to an increase in the black middle class. Perhaps above all, black protest brought new respect for Afro-Americans, breaking forever the comfortable myth that they were contented with a bi-racial society and proving that they had the rare courage needed to challenge it.

In the South, black protest transformed the racial mores of an entire region, a change particularly evident in the tenor of its political life. Politicians quickly jettisoned their tested appeals to prejudice, learned to pronounce “Negro” in place of more casual epithets, and prefaced the names of newly valued black constituents with the once forbidden appellation “Mister.” Even the past master of race baiting, George Wallace, was struck color blind on the road to Montgomery in his recent gubernatorial campaign. Wallace, who like most politicians believed above all in winning elections today, tomorrow, and forever, spent much of his hard-fought contest kissing black babies and humbly supplicating their parents’ support, assuring them of his reborn attitudes on race matters. Whatever Wallace’s deepest sentiments, his actions were a striking testament to the legacy of the civil rights protests he once vowed to crush, but which instead have left an indelible imprint on the nation’s moral landscape.

Although King’s vaunted place in civil rights history is assured, the meaning of his leadership to Americans today is less clear. Last year’s March on Washington, organized by the King family, attempted to revive his reform vision, symbolized by his inspirational cry at the first march twenty years ago, “i have a dream today!” Yet while the event attracted a wider range of groups than the march in 1963 (including contingents of Hispanics, gays, and women), no cohesive social movement was in evidence. The original march was notable for the way its chief organizer. Bayard Rustin, fused its many participating groups into a disciplined lobby for two overriding goals; enactment of the civil rights bill pending in Congress and, secondarily, a federal jobs program. By contrast, the quality of diversity was strained at the recent march, in which a host of otherwise disparate placards and speeches all exalted “the dream,” more as a substitute than a shorthand for a set of political priorities. King’s name was continuously invoked, and one speaker imitated his manner in a recital aptly called “Echoes of Martin Luther King,” The tributes were fitting, yet in the absence of a clear political agenda, they underscored that the dominant mood at this gathering for bold reform was nostalgia.

Among current leaders seeking to extend Martin Luther King’s legacy, by far the most influential and best known is his former aide, Jesse Jackson. Jackson’s Presidential campaign, marked by special attention to minorities and the poor, has sparked voter registration, and this in turn should enhance black influence in national politics. Jackson is also among the few leaders who approach King’s charisma in addressing both blacks and whites. Yet his candidacy should give pause to even the most ardent civil rights advocates.

It is not simply that Jackson’s character is suspect in view of his false claims to have cradled the dying Reverend King in Memphis. Nor is the problem merely one of questionable judgment, as in 1979 when he embraced P.L.O. leader Yasir Arafat, whose idea of “We shall overcome” might reasonably be considered somewhere over the rainbow coalition’s moral limits. Beyond these shortcomings, there is the fact that Jackson’s popular rhyming jingles have been rather bolder and more inventive than any of his specific ideas about aiding the disadvantaged. To date, his isolated criticisms of welfare have not greatly distinguished his candidacy from those of other major party figures of the left or right. In all, Jackson may have donned the mantle of Dr. King, but the garment fits so loosely as to leave its personal and political contours nearly unrecognizable.

In what direction, then, does King’s legacy point for the current generation of Americans who have enshrined his name? Admittedly the question of what King might have done—as with any figure capable of dramatic growth, from the Kennedys to Malcolm X—must remain a matter for speculation. It is clear, though, that civil rights laws did not nearly exhaust King’s interest in social change. The flaring of ghetto riots persuaded him that the nonviolent protest movement had to shift its focus to aid the mass of ghetto blacks who still lived in economic misery. His increasing activity in the northern ghettos after 1965 also accompanied growing doubts about the social consequences of capitalism. Although he continued to reject communism because it denied individual liberty. King also criticized capitalist economies, which he felt “often left a gulf between superfluous wealth and abject poverty.” Increasingly, therefore, he came to view the reforms of the early ‘60s as only a first step toward curbing disparities of wealth and opportunity in a society still ridden by caste distinctions.

Though King by no means resolved the complex technical disputes over how government programs could best aid the poor, he contributed a lucid moral viewpoint in asserting that this cause should command the nation’s highest priority. Lamenting the “fragmentary and spasmodic” reforms that “have failed to reach down to the profoundest needs of the poor,” he insisted that the federal government either ensure full employment or provide guaranteed incomes “pegged to the median income of society, not at the lowest levels.” In his final months. King was planning a Poor People’s March on Washington to focus public attention on his call for “the total, direct, and immediate abolition of poverty.”

Anticipating fierce resistance to appeals for a radical redistribution of national wealth. King believed that protests might need to reach a higher level of mass civil disobedience. He noted approvingly that “to dislocate the functioning of a city without destroying it can be more effective than a riot because it can be longer-lasting, costly to the larger society, but not wantonly destructive.” Such protests. King hoped, would “transmute the deep rage of the ghetto into a constructive and creative force.” It meant, as well, a shift away from reliance on federal good will, in favor of new tactics “to compel unwilling authorities to yield to the mandates of justice,”

Despite these ominous signals. King still sought a consensus for nonviolent change, and toward that end he presented his urgent demands to end poverty as consistent with national interests and values. Such a program, he claimed, would strengthen the economy by raising consumer purchasing power and enlarging the labor force. King also believed that the issue could attract an interracial coalition, since two-thirds of the nation’s poor were white. Finally, he termed the elimination of poverty a moral necessity “if democracy is to have breadth of meaning.” By such efforts to temper protest with conciliation. King advanced the cause of the poor, not only as a man who had a dream, but as one who could then go tell it on the mountain of American democratic myth.

In all, the nation’s first commemoration of King’s life invites not only celebration, but also sober cerebration over his—and the country’s—unfinished tasks. These remain as formidable as in his lifetime, though it was a mark of King’s leadership to discern possibilities for reform equal to every test. Unsparing in his criticisms of the country, he nonetheless believed that “America, the richest and most powerful of nations, can well lead the way” to a “revolution of values” that would ensure a decent life for all people. In that faith, he shared his dream of a just society while realizing that this ideal still existed, to a challenging degree, only in the realm of his moral imagination.

Robert Weisbrot, a Fellow of the Du Bois Institute at Harvard University and assistant professor of history at Colby College, is the author of Father Divine and the Struggle for Racial Equality (University of Illinois Press). He and Dolita Cathcart, who assisted in the research for this article, are preparing a study of the civil rights movement, to be published by W. W. Norton.