In the 22 years since the Source was launched on Jan. 15, 1999, we have consistently marked the celebration of the birth of one of the greatest leaders and prophets of our time with reference to one of his prescient speeches, or written works that rang true at the time of our writing, while weaving its prescience through the fabric of current events.
This year we cannot escape the farsightedness of Martin Luther King Jr.’s final book, finished on a four-week retreat to Jamaica in 1966 – 55 years ago – and published in June 1967.
As we have done in the past, we offer our readers selected passages that reverberate through the decades to sound King’s alarm and hope for humanity once again.
“Ever since the birth of our nation, white America has had a schizophrenic personality on the question of race. She has been torn between selves – a self in which she proudly professed the great principles of democracy and a self in which she sadly practiced the antithesis of democracy. This tragic duality has produced a strange indecisiveness and ambivalence toward the Negro, causing America to take a step backward simultaneously with every step forward on the question of racial justice. … There has never been a solid, unified and determined thrust to make justice a reality for Afro-Americans.”
The outpouring of outrage and demonstrations following the on-camera killing of George Floyd coupled with calls for the restructuring of the systemic racism that is America and the most recent, horrifying, livestreamed insurrection of white supremacists taking over its Capitol are the reverberating realities of what King understood about racism and its inevitable consequences.
“The segregationist goal,” he wrote, “is the total reversal of all reforms, with reestablishment of naked oppression and if need be a more native form of fascism.”
Expounding on W.E.B. Du Bois’ statement, “the problem of the twentieth century will be the problem of the color line,” King writes, “Now as we stand two-thirds into this exciting period of history we know full well that racism is still that hound of hell which dogs the tracks of our civilization.”
King wrote that the gains of the Civil Rights Movement – which he in no way dismisses – fed the notion that all was well, offering whites a soothing myth that enough progress had been made, while the reality for Blacks in America, then as now, was an entirely different story.
What would King have made of the white backlash exemplified in the election of a known racist that followed the eight years of the first Black president in the White House?
“White backlash is nothing new,” he wrote. “It was caused neither by the cry of Black Power not by the unfortunate recent wave of riots in our cities.”
White backlash is, King wrote, “rooted in the same problem that has characterized America ever since the Black man landed in chains on the shores of this nation.”
He goes on to state, it is an “expression of the same vacillations, the same search for rationalizations, the same lack of commitment that have always characterized white America on the question of race.”
After the events of Jan. 6, one wonders if white supremacists even need a rationalization anymore. As for November’s election, the results, while comforting, hardly allows for a margin of laxity in light of how many Americans display more than a lack of commitment to the advancement of the “liberty and justice for all” that has long been our country’s hollow slogan. It would seem that some 72 million think that maxim is intended for middle- to upper-class whites only.
Throughout the book, in his unrelenting optimism, King swings between a realistic appraisal of the state of continued oppression, injustice and gross economic disparities faced by Black people in America in 1967 and his historical perspective of progress – all the time insisting it is not enough, but that it is forward motion.
“First, the line of progress is never straight. For a period, a movement may follow a straight line and then it encounters obstacles and the path bends. It is like curving around a mountain when you are approaching a city. Often it feels as though you were moving backward, and you lose sight of your goal; but in fact, you are moving ahead, and soon you will see the city again, closer by.”
It would be easy in this particular time as we see Black people being killed with impunity by white police officers and tear-gassed as they protest these outrageous killings even as white thugs scale and invade the walls of the Capitol, breaking windows, killing a police officer, threatening the lives of our democratically elected officials and wreaking havoc and terror as the world watches, without so much as a police dog, fire hose or tear gas grenade in sight, to gnash our teeth and wail over the utter waste of the last 50 years we wanted to believe from our safe distance had brought change.
But King would say, “A final victory is an accumulation of many short-term encounters.”
If anything arose from this horrific, real-time encounter with the racism that threatens once again to splinter our country, it would be that “Where Do We Go From Here,” and other titles old and new that address racism head-on are selling faster than they can be printed. We are “woke” in a whole new way. Will it be enough to see in our lifetime the prophetic blueprint for change King offered just a year before he was assassinated?
“A true revolution of value will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. We are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be beaten and robbed as they make their journey through life.”
“True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it understands that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
“A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look at thousands of working people displaced from their jobs with reduced incomes as a result of automation [and coronavirus which has disproportionately sickened and killed Black people] while the profits of the employers remain intact and say: ‘This is not just.’”
“It will look across the oceans and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries and say: ‘This is not just.’”
“The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.”
“A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: ‘This way of settling differences is not just … of sending men home … physically handicapped and psychologically deranged cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.’”
“America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values.”
” – There is nothing to prevent us from paying adequate wages to schoolteachers, social workers and other servants of the public to ensure that we have the best available personnel in these positions which are charged with the responsibility of guiding our future generations.
“– There is nothing but a lack of social vision to prevent us from paying an adequate wage to every American citizen whether he be a hospital worker, laundry worker, maid or day laborer.
“– There is nothing except shortsightedness to prevent us from guaranteeing an annual minimum – and livable – income for every American family.
“– There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from reordering our priorities so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war.
“– There is nothing to keep us from remolding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood.”
Chaos or community? That was the question Martin Luther King Jr. posed in his final days with us.
With chaos upon us in a way few of us alive today have ever seen, “Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.”
This was King’s call to action on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. Using the momentum of the present moment we must honor his life and martyrdom by making his dream a reality. Now. The time for incremental change – given in particular the rapid advancement of climate change, which is inextricably linked to the rapidly expanding chasm between unbounded wealth and poverty and injustice – appears to be used up.