The heating up of racial issues in the Democratic Party’s primary campaigns has brought many media commentaries in recent days, not the least on the day honoring Dr. King. Major media outlets gave more attention to the slanted comments of Bill Clinton against Barack Obama than to Dr. King and the significance of the African American movement he helped to lead.
Let us reflect on a few of King’s forgotten comments about racial equality and the broader significance of the civil rights movement for equality in the United States.
Just before his assassination, Dr. King passionately argued that the main problem of equality in the United States was not so much the great discrepancy between the idea of equality and the conditions of African Americans, but rather that there is:
“not even a common language when the term ‘equality’ is used. Negro and white have a fundamentally different definition.”
King continued, noting African Americans:
“have proceeded from a premise that equality means what it says, and they have taken white Americans at their word when they talked of it as an objective. But most 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.” (Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go from Here? Chaos or Community, 1967).
For King and most in the critical movement, the central issue was, and still is, not just new opportunities but social justice and a closing of racial inequality gaps.
Elsewhere Dr. King was regularly eloquent, as when he asserted that:
“Justice for black people will not flow into this society merely from court decisions nor from fountains of political oratory. . . . White America must realize that justice for black people cannot be achieved without radical changes in the structure of our society.” (Coretta Scott King, The Words of Martin Luther King, Jr., 1983).
Large-scale structural change was the message Dr. King strongly asserted. Today, this is still the message that whites must somehow heed and act on if the U.S. is to survive this century.
From the beginning of the new United States, ideals of equality and freedom were significantly shaped by African Americans. These ideals started, at least as publicly published, as a white-stated viewpoint, but as African Americans gained access to writing tools and publications, they carried the equality and freedom message well beyond what the founding whites envisioned. After the revolutionary war, and during and after the Civil War, African Americans pressed for a broad view of political/economic equality that included destruction of slavery and, later, of growing racial apartheid. A brief Reconstruction was ended by violent white terrorism in the form of the Klan and similar groups, and most of the Southern white leadership’s Civil War goals were finally secured, with extreme segregation (a near-slavery) across the southern United States country becoming the reality. As they had since the 17th century, millions of white supremacists under legal segregation continued to argue for the permanent inferiority of black Americans and the fiction of “separate but equal” was used to justify complete legal or de facto segregation.
Until the 1960s a substantial white majority fought to keep the definition and meaning of equality limited to whites. For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, Black Americans pressed hard, often more or less alone, to expand racial equality to mean not only the right to vote but also equality in public accommodations, on juries, and in civil liberties. For decades well past the middle of the 20th century, this Black vision was violently opposed by most whites, north and south. These whites sought to maintain the permanent political, social, and economic subordination for African Americans. It took nearly a century for the white public’s understanding of equality to move significantly away from the idea of most founding fathers that only white men had a right to freedom to a much broader view that all men and women have a right to legal and political equality.
The American ideals of freedom and equality have gradually changed over time, in substantial part because of brave and consistent efforts of very large numbers of African Americans, such as Dr. King and those who followed him, fighting for these liberty and justice ideals. Beginning in the early 1900s, African American leaders and ordinary members of Black communities began to organize again for racial integration and reasserted strongly the American goals of racial equality and social justice—for all Americans. They pressed hard, until finally in the 1960s large-scale movements finally brought down legal segregation.
Yet, even today, numerous white intellectuals and leaders have shown much fear of any possible trend to expanded liberty and justice. Daniel Bell, for example, has expressed fears that modern populists and other social activists have a desire for “wholesale” egalitarianism that insists on “complete leveling.” Government social welfare programs and affirmative action programs are cited as examples of the “equality revolution.” Pulitzer prize winning journalist William Henry III, has argued against the view that everyone has something significant to contribute to society and the argument that most cultures offer something worth knowing. Multiculturalism is said to be “deeply harmful,” and such programs are said to miss the point that European conquest was successful making “inferior” cultures adapt to the modern world.
Many whites, especially white conservatives, still seem to fear racial and other societal equality because in their view it destroys white power and authority. The equality and freedom ideals have regularly generated “radical” political activity among the many Americans who take them seriously. They will likely continue to do so, and they will likely continue to expand in their scope. Indeed, as Dr. King often made clear, substantial equality of condition and opportunity is a prerequisite for the full exercise of personal and collective liberty.