An­nette Gor­don-Reed

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - An­nette Gor­don-Reed

To the Promised Land: Martin Luther King and the Fight for Eco­nomic Jus­tice by Michael K. Honey

To Shape a New World: Es­says on the Po­lit­i­cal Phi­los­o­phy of Martin Luther King, Jr. edited by Tom­mie Shelby and Brandon M. Terry and three other books about Martin Luther King Jr.

To the Promised Land: Martin Luther King and the Fight for Eco­nomic Jus­tice by Michael K. Honey. Nor­ton, 241 pp., $25.95

Redemp­tion: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Last 31 Hours by Joseph Rosen­bloom. Bea­con, 204 pp., $24.95

The Heav­ens Might Crack: The Death and Le­gacy of Martin Luther King Jr. by Ja­son Sokol.

Ba­sic Books, 343 pp., $32.00

The Sem­i­nar­ian: Martin Luther King Jr. Comes of Age by Pa­trick Parr. Lawrence Hill, 286 pp., $26.99

To Shape a New World: Es­says on the Po­lit­i­cal Phi­los­o­phy of Martin Luther King, Jr. edited by Tom­mie Shelby and Brandon M. Terry. Belk­nap Press/Har­vard Uni­ver­sity Press, 449 pp., $35.00

“Well, they killed King.” The mat­ter-of-fact state­ment hung in the air of the kitchen where a room­ful of women—in­clud­ing my mother (I was the lone child)—had gath­ered on that April day in 1968 to learn to make hot tamales for sale at church fundrais­ers. Our her­ald, the adult son of the kitchen’s owner, de­liv­ered the news af­ter push­ing through the swing­ing door from the liv­ing room where the men had set­tled to watch tele­vi­sion while we worked. His face—down­cast eyes, fur­rowed brow, pursed lips—showed the res­ig­na­tion of one who had long sus­pected this would hap­pen—a painful but near-in­evitable out­come.

“They killed King.” Even as a third grader, I didn’t have to ask who “King” was, and I had a pretty good idea who “they” were, too. Martin Luther King Jr. was the leader of the black com­mu­nity—only re­cently call­ing it­self “black”—though in my house­hold Stokely Carmichael and Mal­colm X were more ad­mired. “They” were whites who op­posed any ef­forts— whether by King, Carmichael, or Mal­colm—to ad­vance the sta­tus of black peo­ple in the United States. I had in­te­grated the school dis­trict in our pre­dom­i­nately white East Texas town just a few years be­fore, and spent time in first grade as the sole black per­son in a school full of whites. I felt I knew what some of this name­less “they” were ca­pa­ble of do­ing. Open cru­elty was not un­com­mon in our world. More reg­u­larly, how­ever, faux po­lite­ness and friend­li­ness, mixed with an ex­pec­ta­tion of def­er­ence, masked whites’ smol­der­ing hos­til­ity to­ward black peo­ple. That a per­son who sought to dis­rupt that world would draw ac­tual fire, even though he de­nounced “eye for an eye” think­ing and spoke of love con­quer­ing hate, should have sur­prised no one. It might be hard for younger gen­er­a­tions of Amer­i­cans in 2018, fifty years af­ter King’s as­sas­si­na­tion, to fathom just how con­tro­ver­sial a fig­ure he was dur­ing his ca­reer, and par­tic­u­larly around the time of his death. That is be­cause King’s im­age has un­der­gone a re­mark­able trans­for­ma­tion in these five decades. He and the move­ment he helped to lead have been ab­sorbed into a tri­umphant story of Amer­i­can ex­cep­tion­al­ism, in which the ac­tions of in­di­vid­ual peo­ple mat­ter less than the dy­namism of the sup­pos­edly in­ex­orable wave of hu­man progress that swept the coun­try for­ward from the Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence to the civil rights move­ment. The strength of the op­po­si­tion to civil rights for blacks, the an­tag­o­niz­ing and dis­com­fit­ing words King used, and the ag­gres­sively dis­rup­tive tac­tics he and his sup­port­ers em­ployed have been pushed into the back­ground. King now fits so com­fort­ably into the present-day pop­u­lar un­der­stand­ing of Amer­i­can his­tory that one might think that nearly all Amer­i­cans had sup­ported him en­thu­si­as­ti­cally from the very start, and that his mur­der was a tragic event un­moored from any wider op­po­si­tion to his ac­tiv­i­ties. His birth­day is a na­tional hol­i­day. There are streets named for him in cities and towns through­out the na­tion. He has a mon­u­ment in the na­tion’s cap­i­tal. Fig­ures like King, Har­riet Tub­man, and Rosa Parks have now be­come “safe” in ways they never were when they were op­er­at­ing at the height of their pow­ers. Stripped of their rad­i­cal­ism, they are wel­comed as sources of in­spi­ra­tion in the cur­ric­ula of al­most ev­ery ele­men­tary school in the coun­try.

King es­pe­cially has be­come use­ful to both lib­er­als and con­ser­va­tives, who use lan­guage from his speeches and writ­ings to sup­port their ir­rec­on­cil­able views about the best di­rec­tion the coun­try should take on mat­ters of race. Con­ser­va­tives have ex­ploited his call for judg­ing peo­ple by the “con­tent of their char­ac­ter,” rather than the “color of their skin,” to fight af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion, while lib­er­als in­sist that King was speak­ing of a world to come that could only be brought into ex­is­tence through the use of race-con­scious mea­sures for as long as they were needed. This seem­ingly uni­ver­sal de­sire to ac­cept King has come at a cost. Mak­ing him all things to ev­ery­one fogs the clar­ity of his moral vi­sion and se­verely un­der­val­ues the con­tri­bu­tions he made to this coun­try.

Re­cov­er­ing and, in some cases, dis­cov­er­ing the real Martin Luther King is a theme that runs through­out a num­ber of the books writ­ten to com­mem­o­rate the fiftieth an­niver­sary of his death. Whether chron­i­cling his days as a young sem­i­nar­ian, por­ing over his writ­ings, or re­count­ing the fi­nal pe­riod of his life, their au­thors in­sist that af­ter all that has been writ­ten about the man, we have yet to take his true mea­sure, notwith­stand­ing Tay­lor Branch’s mas­ter­ful tril­ogy, Amer­ica in the King Years (1982–2006), which tells the story of the civil rights move­ment and King’s role in it. Crit­i­cism of the im­age of a be­nign King-who-suits-ev­ery­one is not new; a re­cal­i­bra­tion of his im­age has been un­der­way for years now, prompted mainly by the be­lief that the rad­i­cal na­ture of his views, es­pe­cially his eco­nomic be­liefs, has been min­i­mized in an ef­fort to cre­ate a King who can be ac­cepted by Amer­i­cans of any race or po­lit­i­cal per­sua­sion. De­spite the myr­iad books, ar­ti­cles, doc­u­men­taries, and a fea­ture film about his life, the au­thors of these com­mem­o­ra­tive vol­umes sug­gest that we do not know the real King. Do­ing jus­tice to the man who gave his life for a cause we claim to honor, they in­sist, re­quires com­ing to a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of who he ac­tu­ally was.

Three books—Michael K. Honey’s To the Promised Land: Martin Luther King and the Fight for Eco­nomic Jus­tice, Joseph Rosen­bloom’s Redemp­tion: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Last 31 Hours, and Ja­son Sokol’s The Heav­ens Might Crack: The Death and Le­gacy of Martin Luther King Jr.—fo­cus mainly on the lat­ter part of King’s life, to re­mind us that it was not only his chal­lenge to seg­re­ga­tion that made him a hated fig­ure. His “So­cial Gospel cri­tique of Amer­i­can cap­i­tal­ism” also in­cited forces of re­ac­tion, in­clud­ing the John Birch So­ci­ety, White Cit­i­zens’ Coun­cils, and J. Edgar Hoover, who all launched dis­in­for­ma­tion cam­paigns to dis­credit King and his move­ment.

Michael Honey’s very co­gent book shows that King in­tended from the start of his pub­lic ca­reer to work to end racial dis­crim­i­na­tion and poverty for all Amer­i­cans, a fight that would pro­ceed in two phases. The pas­sage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Vot­ing Rights Act of 1965, which killed de jure seg­re­ga­tion, was the cul­mi­na­tion of the “first phase.” That done, King started to speak even more openly and in­sis­tently about the “sec­ond phase,” which would be a “strug­gle for ‘eco­nomic equal­ity,’” with unions as the linch­pin of this ef­fort. King, along with his aide Ba­yard Rustin, had long thought that there should be a “‘con­ver­gence’ be­tween unions and the civil rights move­ment.” Ev­ery­thing was at stake for King here: if the sec­ond phase of his plan for so­cial trans­for­ma­tion was suc­cess­ful, “ev­ery­one could have a well­pay­ing job or a ba­sic level of in­come, along with de­cent lev­els of health care, ed­u­ca­tion, and hous­ing.”

He soon found, how­ever, that “union racial pol­i­tics re­mained con­tra­dic­tory and com­pli­cated.” The same racism that per­me­ated Amer­i­can so­ci­ety also had a firm grip on the union move­ment. As had been true through­out Amer­i­can his­tory, many poor and work­ing-class whites had no in­ter­est in sol­i­dar­ity with blacks against white elites. To the Promised Land’s thor­ough treat­ment of King’s ef­forts to sup­port black union­ism and to forge an al­liance be­tween the black and the white work­ing classes re­veals the ardu-

ous ef­fort that he put into this project, most heart­break­ingly in his fi­nal years, when he drove him­self to ex­haus­tion. Honey writes:

What he lacked in grass­roots cadre and or­ga­ni­za­tional re­sources, King tried to make up for with his own su­per­hu­man ef­forts. In Fe­bru­ary [1968], he un­der­took a whirl­wind of speak­ing and or­ga­niz­ing, giv­ing as many as five talks a day in a gru­el­ing sched­ule that might have de­stroyed most peo­ple. “The Pres­i­dent of the Ne­groes,” as Coretta called him, trav­eled much as a can­di­date would in a pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, but spoke like a prophet who moved his au­di­ences into spir­i­tual realms of anger, in­spi­ra­tion, joy, and com­mit­ment. His preach­ing drew upon his own fam­ily’s his­tory as slaves and poor peo­ple and upon themes he had de­vel­oped in a so­cial move­ment for over thir­teen years.

King had al­ready drawn con­nec­tions be­tween the civil rights move­ment and union­ism at the be­gin­ning of his ca­reer, join­ing, in the words of the his­to­rian Thomas Jack­son, “a van­guard of ac­tivists who were vig­or­ously push­ing a com­bined race-class agenda in the late fifties.” In a 1957 speech he voiced the hope that the union move­ment would spread, and that black and white union mem­bers would join to­gether in op­po­si­tion to the most preda­tory as­pects of cap­i­tal­ism. King re­jected com­mu­nism, but even be­fore he be­came an ac­tivist, he ques­tioned the ba­sic moral­ity of the coun­try’s eco­nomic sys­tem, writ­ing in 1952 to his fu­ture wife, Coretta:

I am much more so­cial­is­tic in my eco­nomic the­ory than cap­i­tal­is­tic .... Cap­i­tal­ism has out­lived its use­ful­ness. It has brought about a sys­tem that takes ne­ces­si­ties from the masses to give lux­u­ries to the classes.

King re­al­ized that a truly suc­cess­ful ef­fort to bring about eco­nomic jus­tice would re­quire an enor­mous re­al­lo­ca­tion of re­sources. By 1967, he was will­ing to speak openly about the coun­try’s need to re­assess its pri­or­i­ties. Why, he asked in a speech at River­side Church in April of that year, should the United States spend money on an im­moral and waste­ful war in Viet­nam when that money could be used to fight a real war on poverty at home? King knew that sup­port for that so­cial war was on the wane as crit­ics por­trayed it as a drain on the coun­try’s re­sources. He coun­tered by sin­gling out the Viet­nam con­flict as not only a “de­monic suc­tion tube” si­phon­ing money from needed so­cial pro­grams, but as ev­i­dence of a deep moral cri­sis in the United States. A coun­try that put “profit mo­tives and prop­erty rights” ahead of “peo­ple” was easy prey to “racism, ex­treme ma­te­ri­al­ism, and mil­i­tarism.”

Honey ef­fec­tively de­tails how King’s de­ci­sion to com­bine the call for racial sol­i­dar­ity to achieve an eco­nomic trans­for­ma­tion in the United States with a cri­tique of a war sup­pos­edly be­ing waged to stop com­mu­nism abroad made him the tar­get of a host of sin­is­ter forces. He often re­ceived mes­sages mark­ing him for death. Pres­i­dent Lyn­don John­son was be­side him­self at what he took to be King’s apos­tasy. This was prob­a­bly not just about the sub­stance of King’s words: the con­cern was also pro­ce­dural, for King was vi­o­lat­ing a strongly held, and not so hid­den, norm. It was fine for black preach­ers to do what they had done since the days of slav­ery: act as in­ter­me­di­aries for and cham­pi­ons of the black com­mu­nity on sub­jects said to touch di­rectly on its pur­port­edly nar­row in­ter­ests. King was test­ing bound­aries on many fronts.

The two projects that gal­va­nized King in his fi­nal year rep­re­sent the apoth­e­o­sis of his fo­cus on eco­nomic jus­tice: the Poor Peo­ple’s Cam­paign and his sup­port for the strik­ing san­i­ta­tion work­ers of Mem­phis, Ten­nessee—the lat­ter would bring him to his fate­ful trip to that city in April 1968. With the Poor Peo­ple’s Cam­paign, King hoped to reprise his tri­umphant 1963 March on Wash­ing­ton by lead­ing thou­sands of poor peo­ple to the na­tion’s cap­i­tal to de­mand a “rad­i­cal re­dis­tri­bu­tion of eco­nomic power.” The ef­fort was fraught from the start, as his or­ga­ni­za­tion, the South­ern Chris­tian Lead­er­ship Con­fer­ence, had nei­ther the funds nor the in­fra­struc­ture to or­ga­nize the huge event he en­vi­sioned. The task was not only phys­i­cally drain­ing, it was psy­cho­log­i­cally dif­fi­cult. For as King criss­crossed the coun­try to pro­mote the ef­fort, “the right-wing hate cam­paign against him es­ca­lated.” While in Mi­ami to speak to a group of min­is­ters, King re­mained in the con­fer­ence ho­tel be­cause the po­lice could not en­sure his safety.

The plight of the garbage col­lec­tors of Mem­phis in the 1960s per­fectly il­lus­trated the con­nec­tion be­tween racial dis­crim­i­na­tion and eco­nomic in­jus­tice. The men worked in dan­ger­ous and dif­fi­cult con­di­tions, car­ry­ing garbage in tubs on their heads, often with mag­gots and liq­uids rain­ing down. They had to bring their “own clothes [and] gloves,” had “no reg­u­lar work breaks,” and were given fif­teen min­utes for lunch. They worked “from dawn till af­ter dusk” with low wages and no over­time pay. The work­ers, most of whom were too poor to pay union dues, de­fied an in­junc­tion against pub­lic em­ployee strikes and marched un­der ban­ners say­ing “I Am a Man.” Their sit­u­a­tion and their re­sponse to it moved King deeply, so much so that he de­cided to make Mem­phis the start­ing point of the Poor Peo­ple’s Cam­paign march to Wash­ing­ton. As nearly all the books un­der re­view make clear, the specter of an un­timely death haunted King. Joseph Rosen­bloom writes that he “tried to buf­fer his fear by de­vel­op­ing a numb fa­tal­ism, a de­fense against the dread that some­one might kill him at any mo­ment.” He had sur­vived an ear­lier at­tempt on his life in 1958, when a woman, suf­fer­ing from men­tal ill­ness, stabbed him in the chest, nar­rowly miss­ing his heart. In the years that fol­lowed, the threats were more clearly po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated. Rosen­bloom presents a man pro­pelled for­ward by a mis­sion: “If dy­ing vi­o­lently was in­evitable, he reck­oned, he might as well re­sign him­self to it. He girded him­self men­tally against the nerve-rack­ing de­spair of con­stant panic.” Rosen­bloom quotes An­drew Young, who was with King when he was killed: “He was philo­soph­i­cal about his death. He knew it would come, and he just de­cided... there was noth­ing to do about it.” Sus­tained by his re­li­gious faith and spurred by his “grow­ing im­pa­tience with cap­i­tal­ism and em­brace of rad­i­cal ide­ol­ogy in re­sponse to the ur­gent so­cial and eco­nomic prob­lems he per­ceived,” King pressed on. It is hard to imag­ine such con­vic­tion in the face of all the forces ar­rayed against him, and to think of just how young King was (in his thir­ties) as he con­tem­plated the vi­o­lent end of his life. The “redemp­tion” of Rosen­bloom’s ti­tle car­ries a re­li­gious tone, and refers to the au­thor’s at­tempt to tie “to­gether three strands that de­fined the last phase of [King’s] life” by fo­cus­ing on his fi­nal thirty-one hours on earth. The first of those strands was non­vi­o­lence: in the month be­fore he died, King had gone to Mem­phis twice to ad­dress ral­lies in sup­port of strik­ing garbage work­ers. The sec­ond rally had ended in a riot as po­lice clashed with strik­ers. Even though mat­ters were not in his con­trol, the ri­ot­ing did enor­mous dam­age to King’s rep­u­ta­tion as a pro­po­nent of non­vi­o­lence. He hoped to re­turn to the city to lead a peace­ful march that would re­deem non­vi­o­lence and show it to be a suc­cess­ful tac­tic. Sec­ond, Rosen­bloom posits, King sought the “redemp­tion” of the Amer­i­can na­tion by mak­ing the coun­try live up to the prom­ise of “eco­nomic jus­tice.” If it could be done for garbage work­ers, it could be done for all. Fi­nally, in those last hours, King was “draw­ing deeply on his faith in the re­demp­tive power of sac­ri­fice for a no­ble cause, as he risked his life—a faith rooted in the bib­li­cal ex­am­ple of Je­sus.”

Although King was greatly re­spected by many at the time of his death, there was a gen­eral sense that he had peaked—that his time as a leader of black Amer­ica was com­ing to a close. In The Heav­ens Might Crack, Ja­son Sokol ex­plores the dif­fer­ing re­ac­tions to what hap­pened in Mem­phis on April 4, 1968: “News of King’s mur­der stopped peo­ple in their tracks and ren­dered them speech­less, moved many to tears and oth­ers to cel­e­bra­tion, drove some to vi­o­lence and still oth­ers to po­lit­i­cal ac­tivism.” Sig­nif­i­cantly, Sokol writes, “white con­tempt for King knew no ge­o­graph­i­cal bounds.” To an ex­tent that might shock many to­day, large num­bers of whites across the coun­try were happy about what had hap­pened. But then things be­gan to change. King’s mar­tyr­dom, along with John F. Kennedy’s and Robert F. Kennedy’s, al­tered the way peo­ple saw him. The three men, often pic­tured to­gether on tapestries and in por­traits that hung on the walls of many homes, be­came sym­bols of a tragic loss of pos­si­bil­i­ties. As the years wore on, Sokol writes, “King looked ever more ap­peal­ing.” Yet King’s el­e­va­tion to some­thing like saint­hood has ob­scured the truly her­culean ef­fort he put into what was called “the strug­gle.” The true na­ture of his la­bor has been lost.

Other than in his rad­i­cal po­lit­i­cal ac­tiv­i­ties, where would we find the real King? Pa­trick Parr’s The Sem­i­nar­ian: Martin Luther King Jr. Comes of Age and the fas­ci­nat­ing and in­struc­tive es­says col­lected in Tom­mie Shelby and Brandon M. Terry’s To Shape a New World: Es­says on the Po­lit­i­cal Phi­los­o­phy of Martin Luther King, Jr. at­tempt to an­swer this ques­tion by fo­cus­ing on the in­ner King from his youth un­til his death. Parr’s King is the leader in the mak­ing: a nine­teen-year-old, away from his na­tive South, thrust into a world of whites to study the­ol­ogy and phi­los­o­phy at the Crozer The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary in Penn­syl­va­nia. Like many youths, he had “wild, wild dreams of what he would ac­com­plish in so­ci­ety,” and he did show a flair for preach­ing. Although Parr’s ac­count, aided by the mem­o­ries of peo­ple who knew King at Crozer, sug­gests that he was well re­spected and had lead­er­ship po­ten­tial, there is noth­ing to in­di­cate that he was nec­es­sar­ily headed for great­ness. That should not sur­prise us. King was made by the times that gave him the chance to use what he had learned dur­ing his years at the sem­i­nary, both in the class­room and out­side it, as he nav­i­gated life as a black man in a white en­vi­ron­ment. The chief value of Parr’s book is to re­mind us that King was once a quest­ing stu­dent who learned new things, made mis­takes, shot pool, had girl­friends, and laughed. In To Shape a New World, Shelby and Terry di­rect us to his writ­ings to find the real man, not­ing that “de­spite King’s hav­ing been memo­ri­al­ized so widely and quoted so fre­quently, se­ri­ous study and crit­i­cism of his writ­ings, speeches, and ser­mons re­main re­mark­ably mar­ginal and un­der­de­vel­oped within phi­los­o­phy, po­lit­i­cal the­ory, and the his­tory of po­lit­i­cal thought.” King was what the edi­tors call a “pub­lic philoso­pher,” a type that most often goes un­rec­og­nized by “aca­demic” philoso­phers (of which Shelby is one) who “write largely for each other and rely al­most ex­clu­sively on a tiny canon of nonaca­demic po­lit­i­cal thinkers” like “Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean-Jac­ques Rousseau, Karl Marx, and John Stu­art Mill.” Race, the edi­tors sug­gest, fig­ures into the equa­tion: “There is a high bar to ac­cep­tance into this elite com­pany, and few black pub­lic philoso­phers (with the ex­cep­tion, per­haps, of W.E.B. Du Bois and Frantz Fanon) are widely re­garded as hav­ing cleared it.” This “aca­demic in­su­lar­ity and prej­u­dice” has ham­pered rig­or­ous study of King’s writ­ings.

In ad­di­tion, King’s great gifts as an ora­tor al­lowed peo­ple to tap into the emo­tional power of an old-style preacher, whose ca­dences lifted au­di­ences whether they were lis­ten­ing care­fully to his words or not. Ac­cord­ing to Shelby and Terry, his “un­canny abil­ity to turn a mem­o­rable and lyri­cal phrase, to con­jure a vivid metaphor, to stir his lis­ten­ers’ emo­tions, and to move peo­ple to ac­tion across a wide

range of au­di­ences” al­lowed for the de­ploy­ment of an age-old racial cat­e­go­riza­tion: blacks sup­pos­edly ex­ist in the realm of emo­tion, whites in the realm of the in­tel­lect. To Shape a New World is a “col­lec­tive ef­fort to crit­i­cally en­gage King’s writ­ings” with the aim of res­cu­ing him as a “sys­tem­atic thinker,” not just a “mas­ter­ful ora­tor and in­spir­ing leader.”

King pub­lished five books over the course of ten years, start­ing with Stride To­ward Free­dom in 1958, and he wrote and de­liv­ered thou­sands of speeches. In four the­matic sec­tions—“Tra­di­tions,” “Ideals,” “Jus­tice,” and “Con­science”— the es­say­ists in To Shape a New World, who in­clude Danielle Allen, Martha Nuss­baum, and Cor­nel West, use those writ­ings to dis­cover and an­a­lyze as­pects of King’s thought that they be­lieve will show him “to be an im­por­tant and chal­leng­ing thinker whose ideas re­main rel­e­vant and have sur­pris­ing im­pli­ca­tions for pub­lic po­lit­i­cal de­bate.”

In the book’s first es­say, Robert Good­ing-Wil­liams puts two of King’s books, Stride To­ward Free­dom and Why We Can’t Wait, “the two ma­jor state­ments of King’s po­lit­i­cal thought be­long­ing to...the ‘first phase’ of the ‘civil rights rev­o­lu­tion,’” in con­ver­sa­tion with the fa­mous de­bate be­tween Booker T. Wash­ing­ton and Du Bois about the cor­rect plan of ac­tion for black ad­vance­ment—often re­duc­tively de­scribed as the choice be­tween ac­com­mo­da­tion with Jim Crow or mil­i­tant as­ser­tion of black civil rights. Good­ing-Wil­liams sees King steer­ing a mid­dle course. While he re­jected Du Bois’s early call for a “Tal­ented Tenth” to lead the strug­gle for black rights, he em­braced the idea of wag­ing an open bat­tle against white supremacy and, as Lawrie Bal­four shows, he even sup­ported the con­cept of repa­ra­tions. King wrote in Why We Can’t Wait:

Few peo­ple con­sider the fact that, in ad­di­tion to be­ing en­slaved for two cen­turies, the Ne­gro was, dur­ing all those years, robbed of the wages of his toil . . . . The an­cient com­mon law has al­ways pro­vided a rem­edy for the ap­pro­pri­a­tion of the la­bor of one hu­man be­ing by an­other. The law should be made to ap­ply for Amer­i­can Ne­groes. The pay­ment should be in the form of a mas­sive pro­gram by the gov­ern­ment of spe­cial, com­pen­satory mea­sures which could be re­garded as a set­tle­ment in ac­cor­dance with the ac­cepted prac­tice of com­mon law.

As for Wash­ing­ton, King de­cried the Wizard of Tus­keegee’s “ap­par­ent res­ig­na­tion” about the fate of black peo­ple but ac­cepted his ad­mo­ni­tion to “let no man pull you so low as to make you hate him.” King’s phi­los­o­phy stressed the im­por­tance of “the moral good of self-re­spect,” as Good­ing-Wil­liams puts it, and re­jected “ha­tred and vi­o­lence” as in­com­pat­i­ble with “the moral de­mands of dig­nity and per­son­al­ity.” Jonathan Wal­ton’s af­ter­word iden­ti­fies dig­nity as the vol­ume’s “over­ar­ch­ing theme.” “Dig­nity,” in his words, “is the in­strin­sic value and moral worth of ev­ery in­di­vid­ual,” and the de­fense of “hu­man dig­nity” was at the core of King’s po­lit­i­cal thought. In To Shape a New World, the philoso­pher Cor­nel West writes with great pas­sion about what he sees as the fail­ure of the first black pres­i­dent of the United States to carry for­ward King’s le­gacy. West had ini­tially sup­ported Barack Obama, but soon be­gan to launch what he de­scribes as “fierce crit­i­cisms” of the pres­i­dent. The long­ing for even a King­like fig­ure is un­der­stand­able, but the pres­i­dent of the United States, the head of a sec­u­lar coun­try of over 300 mil­lion peo­ple with vary­ing views, in­ter­ests, and as­pi­ra­tions, can­not rea­son­ably be—and should not be—a prophetic leader guided by Chris­tian the­ol­ogy, as King em­phat­i­cally was. Danielle Allen makes the salient point that King’s writ­ings blended “the the­o­log­i­cal and the philo­soph­i­cal,” as did his speeches. Chris­tian­ity was cen­tral to King’s per­sona and his plans of ac­tion. His un­der­stand­ing of eco­nomic in­equal­ity and the best ways to deal with it grew out of his be­lief in the Gospels. “There are few things more sin­ful,” he said, “than eco­nomic in­jus­tice.” A per­son such as him could not reach the high­est level of his call­ing within the con­fines of the Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment.

Any fig­ure as­pir­ing to­day to take on King’s man­tle would do so in a more cul­tur­ally frag­mented coun­try, mak­ing it much less likely that he or she could com­mand the na­tional stage as the leader of black Amer­ica. Still, there is no way to read these books with­out a pro­found sense of long­ing, as one muses about what might have been. Shelby and Terry may of­fer the best so­lu­tion to the pain of think­ing about King and our loss of him. Through modern tech­nol­ogy, we can still hear and see him in record­ings of his speeches and in­ter­views, and we will con­tinue to do that as we com­mem­o­rate his birth and his death. But King’s phi­los­o­phy, speak­ing to us through the writ­ten word, may turn out to con­sti­tute his most en­dur­ing le­gacy.

Hank Wil­lis Thomas: In a Non-Vi­o­lent Move­ment, Un­mer­ited Suf­fer­ing Is Re­demp­tive, from the in­stal­la­tion Ain’t Gonna Let No­body Turn Us Around, 2016. The im­age ap­pears in the book Hank Wil­lis Thomas: All Things Be­ing Equal, just pub­lished by Aper­ture and the Port­land Art Mu­seum, with an ex­hi­bi­tion to fol­low next year. The orig­i­nal pho­to­graph is by Spi­der Martin, 1965.

Martin Luther King Jr., Selma, Alabama, 1965

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