A more sobering reality is how hard and infrequent such courage was, how tenacious and how steadfast activists had to be and how much pressure people exerted against the movement, just how hard it was.
“There is a pressing need for a liberalism in the North which is truly liberal,” the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. told an interracial audience in New York City in 1960. He called for a liberalism that “rises up with righteous indignation when a Negro is lynched in Mississippi, but will be equally incensed when a Negro is denied the right to live in his neighborhood.”
On this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, it’s tempting to focus on the glaring human rights abuses, racist fear-mongering and malfeasance happening at the federal level. But taking seriously Dr. King’s critique of Northern liberalism means also calling out liberal public officials and residents who profess commitments to equality yet maintain a corrupt criminal justice system and a segregated school system. It means calling out Northern newspapers, along with Southern ones, to atone for their skewed civil rights coverage. And it means reckoning with the dangers of “polite” racism, as Dr. King warned, which still rings true today.
Dr. King visited New York City throughout the 1960s and called attention to its racial problems. In Harlem in 1963, he spoke to an audience of some 15,000 white people as City College’s commencement speaker. Fewer than 2 percent of the graduates that day were black, giving visual proof to his admonition that the “de facto segregation of the North was as injurious as the legal segregation of the South.”
The next year, in a TV interview after the Harlem uprising, Dr. King called for “an honest, soul-searching analysis and evaluation of the environmental causes which have spawned the riots,” which started after the police killed 15-year-old Jimmy Powell. Dr. King was nearly run out of town when he dared to suggest that New York would benefit from a Civilian Complaint Review Board to oversee the Police Department.
In 1964, Dr. King refused to condemn the Brooklyn chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality’s plan to create a major disruption by stalling cars on highways that led to the World’s Fair at Flushing Meadows. After all, the goal was to draw attention to rampant inequality in the city, which had long been unaddressed. “If our direct action programs alienate so-called friends,” he wrote to in a letter to civil rights leaders, “they never were really our friends.”
Indeed, mainstream newspapers lauded his work in the South but took issue when he brought the same tactics north. In 1967, Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference announced the need for mass disruption in Northern cities to draw attention to longstanding inequalities. The New York Times criticized the idea as “certain to aggravate the angry division of whites and Negroes into warring camps,” part of the paper’s long history of deploring direct action on home turf.
Three years earlier, when 460,000 New York City students stayed out of school to demand a comprehensive school desegregation plan — making it the largest civil rights demonstration of the decade — The Times called the daylong boycott “unreasonable,” “unjustified” and “violent.”
After the Watts uprising, Dr. King focused on the racial dishonesty of the North which “showered praise on the heroism of Southern Negroes.” But concerning local conditions, “only the language was polite; the rejection was firm and unequivocal.” The uneven attention was clear, he noted: “As the nation, Negro and white, trembled with outrage at police brutality in the South, police misconduct in the North was rationalized, tolerated and usually denied.”
Dr. King also highlighted white people’s illegal behavior that helped produced Northern ghettos: The white man “flagrantly violates building codes and regulations, his police make a mockery of law, and he violates laws on equal employment and education and the provisions for civic services,” he said in an address to the American Psychological Association in 1967.
In his 1967 book “Where Do We Go From Here,” Dr. King noted the limits of Northern liberalism: “Negroes have proceeded from a premise that equality means what it says.” “But most whites in America, including many of good will,” he wrote “proceed from a premise that equality is a loose expression for improvement. White America is not even psychologically organized to close the gap.”
That still holds true. In 2014, the Civil Rights Project at U.C.L.A. found that New York State’s schools were the most segregated in the nation. Low-income students of color languish in underfunded schools while wealthier students attend better-resourced ones. And white parents are still tremendously resistant to school rezoning, just as they were 50 years ago.
And discriminatory policing persists. Despite Mayor Bill de Blasio’s “Mission Accomplished” narrative, police officers continue to use stop-and-frisk in a way that’s racially disparate. Now, many of the stops simply go unreported. The Police Department, despite court decisions, continues to disparately monitor Muslim communities, and it has reportedly surveilled Black Lives Matter activists.
At the same time, many people have condemned the disruptive tactics of Black Lives Matter activists, claiming they should be more like Dr. King.
In April 1963, Dr. King sat alone in the Birmingham jail. He knew the rabid side of white supremacy very intimately. And yet he wrote that “the white moderate, who is more devoted to order than to justice,” was more of an impediment than “the White Citizens Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner.”
For too long, order has been more important than justice. We can honor Dr. King’s legacy by taking uncomfortable, disruptive, far-reaching action to remedy the problems to which he devoted his life.
Jeanne Theoharis is a professor of political science at Brooklyn College and the author of, most recently, “A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History.”
The Guardian, Bhaskar Sunkara, 20 Jan 2019
In 1983, 15 years after King’s death, 22 senators voted against an official holiday honoring him on the third Monday in January. The North Carolina senator Jesse Helms undertook a 16-day filibuster of the bill, claiming that King’s “action-oriented Marxism” was “not compatible with the concepts of this country”. He was joined in his opposition by Senators John McCain, Orrin Hatch, and Chuck Grassley, among others.
Reagan reluctantly signed the legislation, all the while grumbling that he would have preferred “a day similar to Lincoln’s birthday, which is not technically a national holiday”.
And guess what? He had a reason to be hesitant. The real Martin Luther KingJr stood for a radical vision of equality, justice, and anti-militarism that rebelled against Reagan’s entire agenda. Today more than ever, we need to rediscover that champion of working people.
The Disneyified version of Dr King begins and ends with his role as a civil rights leader, who summoned Christian teachings, as well as Gandhian tactics, and told us of his dream that “one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’”
But in that same oft-quoted I Have a Dream speech from 1963, King celebrated the “marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community” and spoke of the “fierce urgency of now”. For his own militancy, King was hounded by the FBI, denounced as a communist, and bombarded with death threats. Only 22% of Americans approved of the Freedom Rides fighting segregated transportation. By the mid-1960s, 63% of Americans had an unfavorable opinion of King, according to polls.
Martin Luther King Jr was a part of a much wider movement, standing alongside socialists such as Ella Baker, Bayard Rustin, and A Philip Randolph in not just attempting to dismantle the Jim Crow system, but replacing it with an egalitarian social democracy.
Despite President Lyndon Johnson’s shepherding of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, ending legal apartheid in the United States, King became even more radical as the decade went on. As he put it in 1967: “We aren’t merely struggling to integrate a lunch counter now. We’re struggling to get some money to be able to buy a hamburger or a steak when we get to the counter.”
King wasn’t willing to drop his internationalist commitments in to achieve this change. He had long been a supporter of anti-colonial struggles in developing countries and in an April 1967 address at Riverside church in Harlem, he alienated his liberal allies by challenging the slaughter in Vietnam and the broader system of imperialism that made poor people, black and white alike, “kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools”. Despite rebukes from more than 160 newspaper editorials the next day and his permanent alienation from liberal allies in the Democratic party, he pressed on.
Now calling himself a democratic socialist, through his Poor People’s Campaign, King was set to create the kind of movement that could fight for not just political but economic freedom for all. He wasn’t just a civil rights activist, he was a tribune for a multiracial working class – people who faced poverty, racism, and joblessness, but who when banded together could wield tremendous power.
King traveled to Memphis in April 1968, where he was assassinated by the white supremacist James Earl Ray, to support striking sanitation workers. His advisors warned against the trip. There were the threats of his life, and there were other campaigns and commitments too. But King knew he had to be there. He knew what side he was on.
Martin Luther King Jr wasn’t a prophet of unity. He was a champion of the poor and oppressed. And if we want to truly honor his legacy, we’ll struggle to finish his work.