IN his epochal I Have a Dream speech delivered at the Lincoln memorial, Dr Martin Luther King (jr) kindled up the spirits of his followers by imparting to them the faith to “hew out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope”.
However, towards the end of his life, he remarked: “For years I laboured with the idea of reforming the existing institutions of the society, a little change here, a little change there.
“Now I feel quite differently. I think you have got to have a reconstruction of the entire society, a revolution of values.”
There are essentially two Martin Luther Kings; the young energetic leader who preached from the pulpit, led successful protests in Montgomery, Birmingham and Selma and received the Nobel prize, and the later the post-1965 pilgrim who was tired, discouraged and was losing faith in the American system while his followers began losing full confidence in him.
The first King’s life and career are a quintessential American story — a narrative of struggle and reversal, but one in which truth and justice ultimately triumph.
King has become, for many, an almost Kitchy symbol of benevolent social change, of the belief that great progress has been made in the field of race relations and that enough has been given in terms of money, time and effort to redeem the nation’s past. The shining example and the testing sample being none other than the current first American black president Barack Obama.
Martin Luther King (Jr)’s life represents an odyssey from a somewhat privileged childhood in Atlanta, through college at Morehouse, a graduate school at Crozier theological seminar and Boston University and to the fateful first pastorship at Dexter Avenue Baptist church on Montgomery, Alabama, where he fully intended to serve an apprenticeship as a minister to proper middleclass blacks before, assuming the pulpit of the church he grew up in — his father’s Ebenezer Baptist.
However, events or destiny, depending on one’s point of view, in the form of the Montgomery bus boycott, led him elsewhere. The rest has been recounted thousands of times.
Along with Lyndon Johnson, King signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Some commentators say it was the showdown over voting rights at Selma that effectively constituted the end, which Marshal Frady in his book Martin Luther King (Jr) described as “the benediction to the classic southern phase of his movement.”
King became the only leader of national scope trusted by both blacks and whites. History seemed to unfold in his favour.
After 1965, King’s legend and the reality of his life divide into radically different, even contradictory strands enter the second King who represents a different kind of legacy a call for larger structural changes stretching beyond pleas for brotherhood into demands for economic justice for downtrodden Americans including poor whites.
The most cursory reading of King’s books, speeches, sermons and interviews makes clear that he was far from the historical relic he can seem in retrospect — the nice man who did his best to help everybody get along. He spoke and wrote about the problems of our current society with a preternatural acuity and with a ferocity that has been lost in his secular or pop canonisation.
In describing the problem of well-meaning white Americans whose commitment to justice end not with painful, necessary change, but with assuaging of their own consciences, he offered a diagnosis that is sadly relevant to the racial standoffs of today: “The majority of white Americans consider themselves sincerely committed to justice for the Negro. They believe that American society is essentially hospitable to fair play and to steady growth toward a middle class Utopia embodying racial harmony.
But unfortunately this is a fantasy of self-deception and comfortable vanity. Overwhelmingly, America is still struggling with irresolution and contradictions it has been sincere and even ardent in economic some change. But too quickly apathy and disinterest rise to the surface when the next logical steps are to be taken.”
King also decided to take the civil rights movement to the north as he highlighted the systematic and institutional exclusion that the whites of the northern metropolises were not prepared to acknowledge. In Chicago and other cities, whites staged violent demonstrations against fair housing and other programmes.
After Chicago, King’s 10-year love affair with his countrymen would cool noticeably and it would be just as accurate to say that America’s love for him cooled as well. His assertion that economic inequality is the wedge preventing America becoming whole saw the congeniality with which King was viewed by whites begin to fade.
Meanwhile, blacks who were suffering a letdown as their rising expectations met growing white resentment felt King was moving too slowly as this led to the rise of militants such as Stokey Carmichael and the Black Panthers. Glenn Loury’s book the Anatomy of Racial Inequality paints in chilling detail the distance between King’s dream and the reality of present-day America.
“Nearly a century-and-a-half after the destruction of the institution of slavery and a half-century past the dawn of the civil rights movement.
“Social life in the United States continues to be characterised by significant racial stratification, numerous indices of well-being wages, unemployment rates, income and wealth levels ability test scores, prison enrolment and crime victimisation rates, health and mortality statistics all reveal substantial racial disparities, indeed over the past quarter century the disadvantage of blacks along many of these dimensions has remained unchanged or, in some instances has even worsened.”
King himself, as early as 1967, began to suspect the Brown v Board of Education decision.
He wrote: “Even the supreme court, despite its original courage and integrity, curbed itself only a little over a year after the 1954 landmark cases, when it handed down its pupil placement decision in effect returning to the States the power to determine the tempo of change, this subsequent decision became the keystone in the structure that slowed school desegregation down to a crawl.”
By the time he died, King was asking starkly simple, but also infinitely difficult questions such as why there are 40 million poor people in a nation overflowing with such unbelievable affluence. He was encouraging civil disobedience and the sort of now-violent economic warfare that must have seemed extraordinarily dangerous to many capitalists.
King had his flaws, but we must also accept that he had chosen to take upon himself the burden of virtually single-handedly representing black aspiration and hopefulness and had to be an everywhere at once.
What he tried to say at the end of his life was something we as a society have yet to hear — that without economic equality and opportunity, legal equality, hard fought as it was, will never be enough. It will remain like many matters having to do with the law and as law professors are known to say a fiction.