Among the books I'm reading lately is Martin Luther King Jr.'s Where Do We Go From Here, written in 1967, a year before he was assassinated. Reading his words as he wrote them, rather than the platitudes and selective quotes that have passed through the filter of American history, has been extremely enlightening. Reading this book has been at once encouraging (I'm not imagining all of this! I've figured out some things from first principles!) and discouraging (Jeez, all of this written in 1967 applies right now in 2015. Aww...dang.).
Rather than put down fully formed thoughts on a book I'm only four chapters into, a week after MLK Day I'll take the opportunity to share some excerpts from the book that I've highlighted and pondered. Much of these quotes are from a radical activist who saw the need for reforming America from the roots on up. This is not the moderate, friendly, savior-type that we're taught about in school. MLK was a revolutionary who drew the full attention of the FBI because what he proposed was no salve. Rather, he proposed a complete remaking of a fundamentally broken country.
The book opens with an introduction by Vincent Harding (as well as a forward by Coretta Scott King) set in the ashes of the Watts riots, barely a year after the passage of the Civil Rights Act:
When King and several of his coworkers rushed to Watts to engage some of the young men who were most deeply involved in the uprising, they heard the youth say, "We won." Looking at the still smoldering embers of the local community, the visitors asked what winning meant, and one of the young men declared, "We won because we made them pay attention to us.
At the time in Watts, located in West LA, Black people were restricted in their movement by a fascist police state to a narrow corridor that assiduously avoided contact with upper-class white neighborhoods. This is laid out in detail in the excellent and heart-wrenching documentary Crips & Bloods: Made In America. An excerpt from the Wikipedia synopsis:
First and foremost, the media portrayed and the public perceives African-American males as violent criminals. Therefore, the Los Angeles Police Department, especially under Chief Officer William Parker regulated the Los Angeles area "like a military."
African Americans were to remain in their neighborhoods at all times...you had to be at the "right neighborhood at the right time. You couldn’t go east of Alameda, for example." That was a predominantly white neighborhood, where African Americans were not wanted...the invisible barriers that African Americans were not allowed to cross. If one was found simply walking through the “wrong neighborhood,” he was questioned and investigated almost like a criminal. There was in essence no freedom to walk to streets of a free country.
The benefits of the Civil Rights Act did not reach these disenfranchised Black people in places like LA, Chicago and Detroit, and the people's voice was available only through the destruction of their own neighborhoods. White America then, as now, responds to violence. Sadly, our country has only ever known violence, from it's birth (the Revolutionary War), to the Civil War, to state-sanctioned terrorism through the KKK and lynching, to southern sherifs like Bull Connors, to modern-day wars and the torture regimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. Fortunately, King found that a lack of violence, through active nonviolent protest could harness America's tendency toward violence against itself. Nonviolent resistance was something America had never seen until Black America demonstrated how it's done.
Moving on, it's clear that this book will pull no punches. King loved his country, but recognized it is sick:
King expressed a conviction that had long been a crucial part of what he saw when he paid attention to the nation's poorest people. He said, "Something is wrong with the economic system of our nation...Something is wrong with capitalism."
I've never understood the assumption that capitalism is the pinnacle of human society.
|President Lyndon Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law. Martin Luther King, Jr. is among those looking on. (Photograph by Cecil Stoughton)|
Regarding the Civil Rights Act, King recognized the difference between a relatively cheap change to our laws, and a real movement toward equality:
The practical cost of change for the nation up to this point has been cheap. The limited reforms have been obtained at bargain rates. There are no expenses, and no taxes are required, for Negroes to share lunch counters, libraries, parks hotels and other facilities with whites...Even the more significant changes of voter registration required neither large monetary nor psychological sacrifice.
Allowing Black people to share the same spaces as white people was easy. However, bringing them out of poverty requires a different type of commitment, at a level that most white people weren't (and aren't) prepared to venture. King continues:
So far we have had constitutional backing for most of our demands for change, and this has made our work easier, since we could be sure of legal support from the federal courts. Now we are approaching areas where the voice of the Constitution is not clear...We have left the realm of constitutional rights and we are entering the area of human rights...The Constitution assured the right to vote, but there is no such assurance of the right to adequate housing, or the right to an adequate income. And yet in a nation which has a gross national product of $750 billion per year, it is morally right to insist that every person have a decent house, an adequate education and enough money to provide basic necessities for one's family.
|Hyman Bookbinder (Google Images)|
At the time, bringing Black America out of poverty would have required an investment of a trillion dollars. That's a lot of money. But then again, it wasn't as much as, say, the Vietnam War. In fact, Hyman Bookbinder, the white assistant director of the Office of Economic Opportunity in 1966 said
The poor can stop being poor if the rich are willing to become even richer at a slower rate...[But] unless a substantial sacrifice is made by the American people the nation can expect further deterioration of the cities, increased antagonisms between the races, and continued disorders in the streets.
The rich don't have to be taxed at an exorbitant rate. They don't have to have their wealth taken away. They simply have to get richer a little slower and the poorest can be brought out of poverty. Sadly, the myth of the American Dream holds sway in our society, and the rich are not satisfied with getting richer at a slightly slower rate. Those who are poor are poor because they are lazy and deserve their plight. The rich, even though they have received huge benefits from the government and often inherit their wealth, deserve to be rich because they are hard working. This is a pathological way of thinking that is key to maintaining a racist structure in our society.
With Selma and the Voting Rights Act one phase of development in the civil rights revolution came to an end. A new phase has opened, but few observers realized it or were prepared for its implications...White America was ready to demand that the Negro should be spared the lash of brutality and coarse degradation, but it has never been truly committed to helping [Black people] out of poverty, exploitation or all forms of discrimination...But the absence of brutality and unregenerate evil is not the presence of justice.
It was hard for white America to watch Southern police beat and rain tear gas down upon Black women and children. Facing that sort of evil on their TV screens they finally called for something better. But while the Black people being beaten saw that "something better" as full equality with whites, white America thought that ending raw brutality would be good enough. King writes:
[M]ost whites in America in 1967, including many persons of goodwill, proceed from a premise that equality is a loose expression for improvement. White America is not even psychologically organized to close the gap---essentially it seeks only to make it less painful and less obvious but in most respects to retain it. Most of the abrasions between Negroes and white liberals arise from this fact.
Then as now. If this was the state of affairs mere years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, when was the magical moment when white America suddenly changed? When did white people---who were unable to move toward equality when faced with the most vivid and egregious acts of inequality on their TV screens and streets---magically transform themselves to the point when they were ready to grant Black people full equality? Yes, there was affirmative action. But with it came "white backlash," and the modern-day perception that white men are the most oppressed citizens in this country. That attitude was not a result of granting Black people equality. It was from white people giving up a bit of advantage. I'd argue that this country has never embraced the concept of full equality across races in anything but word, but certainly not in action.
A good many observers have remarked that if equality could come at once the Negro would not be ready for it. I submit that the white American is even more unprepared...The Negro on a mass scale is working vigorously to overcome his deficiencies and his maladjustments. Wherever there are job-training programs Negroes are crowding them. Those who are employed are revealing an eagerness for advancement never before so widespread and persistent...Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance.
Based on my time in American academia, which is >90% white in the sciences, I totally agree. Our early educational system teaches a propagandistic history that glosses over the evils of slavery, glorifies men who owned other humans, speaks of Manifest Destiny as if it were an inevitable aspect of nature rather than a systematic program enacted by actual people. This miseducation, described vividly in Lies My Teacher Told Me, has left America unable to honestly face its past and engage in good-faith conversations about race. As King frankly said, a massive reeducation is required in order for this nation to even move toward racial equality.
Now as it was back then.
Can we do better? I have to believe we can. Martin had a dream, not a prophesy. When he said we would not live to see the completion of what he started, I don't believe he was predicting his early death. I think he simply recognized the magnitude of the problem, and the immense amount of time and effort that would be required to right the many wrongs on which this country is founded. I'm beginning to get a sense of this view, perhaps at the 10% level. I don't think I'll live to see racial equality in this country. But if I don't fight, then what hope do future generations have? If I don't put in the work and do my part, it'll only take longer.
My hope is that America finally lives up to the ideals it professes. It can only do this by fully confronting the terrible, woeful wrongs of the past; to stop lying to itself; and to invest the effort and money necessary to do better for all its citizens as if they were well and truly equal.