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Presented November 17, 2002, by Mike Boles
Thank you for inviting me to speak today. I have entitled my talk "Martin Luther King, Jr., the Civil Rights Movement, and American Memory," because I want to discuss these three things and the interrelationships among them. I want to make two main points about Martin Luther King, Jr., the Civil Rights Movement, and what I am calling American Memory, by which I mean the ways in which our culture chooses to remember and celebrate important figures and events from our past. First, I want to emphasize that the civil rights movement was much more than Martin Luther King, Jr., and that the dominant cultural narrative which portrays King as the leader of a coherent, unified civil rights movement, which emerged on the scene in the mid-1950s, seemingly out of nowhere, misconstrues the actual history of this period. Secondly, I want to argue that King has been deradicalized in our cultural memory, and that we ignore the more challenging elements of King's message, particularly the ideas he developed in the last years of his life about the nature of racial oppression and the necessary means to combat the systemic injustices of American society. In addition, I want to suggest that these stories we choose to tell ourselves about King and the Civil Rights Movement, and the parts we leave out, indicate that we are as yet unwilling to confront the problems in our society King spent the last years of his life fighting and that we have failed to seriously consider the solutions he proposed.
Let me say a few things about my first point-that Americans tend to think of King as the leader of a unified civil rights movement that abruptly emerged in the 1950s. While King was undoubtedly an important figure, the emphasis on King's leadership makes the civil rights movement into more of a top-down phenomenon than it actually was. By placing so much weight on the role of King as a leader, we neglect the absolutely essential contributions made by ordinary black people in bringing about change in American society. Moreover, there was no singular, unified civil rights movement, but rather a series of shifting coalitions and groups that sometimes worked together but often apart, and who just as often disagreed as they agreed about the proper strategies and tactics necessary to fight against white domination. Furthermore, the civil rights movement did not emerge out of nowhere in the mid-1950s, but was an intensification of activism that had been going on throughout the 20th century, and indeed, throughout African American history.
This last point is important and to develop it further I want to briefly review some key themes and events in African American history leading up to the civil rights movement. The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s was part of a long history of black freedom struggles. To understand these freedom struggles one must understand that African Americans were never just victims, but were agents acting on their own behalf, resisting white domination in both overt and covert ways. Historians talk about African American agency, by which they mean that African Americans were not just acted upon but were themselves historical agents acting on their own behalf. That is, they were subjects and not merely objects. This agency is an ongoing theme of African American history.
From the very beginning black people in America struggled against white domination, from the slaves who engaged in both hidden and open forms of resistance, to the organized slave uprisings, to the slaves who ran away and stole themselves to freedom. During the Civil War, slaves ran away en masse, and when the war ended in 1865 and slavery was abolished, the freedpeople attempted to make their freedom concrete by exercising their newly acquired political and civil rights and by building up their own institutions, such as schools and churches. When the North gave up on its commitment to enforcing the civil and political rights of the freedpeople in the face of massive white resistance and Reconstruction came to an end in 1877, African Americans continued to struggle as the white South began pushing them back down into a subservient position.
Let me say a few things about the development of Jim Crow in the South in the late 19th and early 20th century, so we can better understand what the Civil Rights Movement had to fight. The term Jim Crow is used to describe the laws, rules, and customs of the South, which were designed to buttress white supremacy and to force African Americans into a subservient position. Jim Crow was not just about keeping the races separated, segregation was but one part of a whole system of power relationships designed to enforce white control The historian Leon Litwack describes Jim Crow as "the machinery of domination," in order to emphasize that it was a system, with economic, social, and political components working together to oppress African Americans. Violence, and the threat of violence, was an integral component of the system. The most spectacular form of violence was lynching. A lynching was much more than just a murder, it was a public event and display of white supremacy in which large cross-sections of the white community took part in the ritualistic killing of a black person. Lynchings were common throughout the South in the late 19th and early 20th century, with well over 3000 of them on record. But Jim Crow was about much more than violence, it was a whole system meant to limit black opportunities and advancement.
An important part of Jim Crow was the denial of resources to African Americans. For example, blacks had only poorly funded schools or even no schools at all. Under Jim Crow whites severely restricted the job opportunities of African Americans and denied blacks mobility by restricting their movement and keeping certain areas of the town or city off-limits to them. Part of Jim Crow was routine personal degradation and the constant reminders of servile status. Jim Crow also involved the abrogation of black political rights and through a variety of means whites kept blacks from voting. One way to do this was to have literacy tests in order to vote, tests in which whites got to evaluate how well the potential voter could actually read. Moreover, when you restrict the ability of blacks to learn how to read by denying them education, literacy tests are a powerful way to enforce white supremacy. Another way to keep blacks from voting was through the use of poll taxes since the large majority of African Americans were trapped in a system of sharecropping in which they had little or no cash. In these and other myriad ways, the whole system of Jim Crow worked to keep blacks in a subservient, powerless position. But again, I want to emphasize that African American history is not just a story of oppression and victimization, though that's there-often in far greater depth and intensity than most Americans understand. The oppression is only part of the history, the other part is African American agency. Throughout the Jim Crow Era African Americans used a combination of resistance and accommodation to create the best possible lives for themselves that they could.
Now let's move ahead to the beginning of the end of the Jim Crow Era to focus on one of the key events in the history of the civil rights movement and the life of Martin Luther King Jr., the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955 and 1956. The dominant story suggests that one day an elderly black woman named Rosa Parks just decided she was too tired to stand up when she was asked to give her seat on the bus to a white man and that her refusal to do so sparked a movement among black people to fight for their rights. In fact, Rosa Parks was a long-time social activist and member of the NAACP, and the NAACP in Montgomery, Alabama had planned on using this kind of event to mobilize the black community against segregation. This was not the first time Rosa Parks had challenged the segregation laws on buses, nor was she the first black person to ever do so. My point is not to detract from the bravery of Rosa Park's protest, but rather to suggest that her action, while an individual act of heroism, was also part of a long-running collective struggle against injustice.
As local African American activists began to rally members of the community, they convinced a new young Baptist minister in town to serve as spokesmen for the protest. That young minister was, of course, Martin Luther King, Jr., and his involvement in the ultimately successful boycott helped vault him to national prominence as a leader of the civil rights movement. And while King played an important role in the protest, the reasons for the boycott's success go far beyond King himself. What made it successful was the mass mobilization of the black community in Montgomery, and their collective refusal to ride the busses until they were no longer segregated. Success came from the black female domestic workers who chose to walk rather than ride, it came from the members of the black middle-class who donated their cars for the carpools which served as an alternative means of transportation, it came from the black taxi-cab drivers who donated their time and knowledge of the city's road system to help plan out routes for carpools to take. In these and countless other ways, members of the black community worked together to desegregate the bus system and to chip away at Jim Crow segregation laws. The Montgomery Bus Boycott undid one aspect of Jim Crow segregation. Over the next ten years African Americans continued to chip away at the structure of Jim Crow, winning significant victories in towns and cities across the South. And while King and other leaders played a role in these protests, their ultimate success resulted from the collective action of African Americans.
Before I move on to my discussion of King himself, let me make a few suggestions about why I think we, as a culture, tend to overemphasize the role of King as a leader, and underemphasize the role of ordinary people, in the stories we tell ourselves about the civil rights movement. Part of the reason stems from the way Americans tend to think of freedom only in individualistic terms, and the general uneasiness Americans feel with mass action and solidarity. I also think the overemphasis placed on King as the leader of the civil rights movement arises from a tendency to think of change as resulting only from the actions of heroic individuals. But the history of the civil rights movement, for all its individual acts of bravery, is really about freedom achieved through collective action. It is a story of people coming together to fight for their rights, a story of mass action in the cause of freedom. And it is a story in which ordinary people demonstrated that heroism can, and should be, a quality that everyone possesses.
Now let's move on to my second point. At the beginning of my talk I said that King had been deradicalized in our collective memory. Let me explain what I mean by that. American culture remembers and celebrates King as the heroic figure who struggled against legally sanctioned segregation in the South, but we neglect the King who spent the last years of his life arguing and fighting against systemic poverty, economic injustice, and the overbearing use of American military power around the world.
King's career as an activist and theorist of social change can be divided into a pre-1965 and post-1965 phase. By 1965 the legal basis of Jim Crow had been destroyed by the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Although white resistance and white violence continued throughout the 1960s, Jim Crow was clearly on its deathbed at mid-decade. It was at this point, having won significant victories in the South, that King and many other civil rights activists turned their attention to the conditions in the urban North, and to the problems that remained after legalized segregation had been defeated.
In King's last book, published in 1967 and titled Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, King searchingly examined his own ideas and beliefs as he analyzed the problems blacks faced in the urban North. King recognized that the victories achieved up to that point, while of major significance to African Americans in the South, had done nothing to improve the lives of northern blacks trapped in poverty in America's inner-cities. King argued that these problems, such as substandard housing, inferior schools, and a lack of job opportunities, were not the result of legalized segregation, but were the results of an economic system that led to a radically unequal distribution of wealth. King pointed out that it was relatively painless for people in the North to support dismantling southern segregation, because it didn't require a great outlay in funding. However, improving education, eradicating slums, and creating jobs for blacks in northern inner-cities, which King believed was the necessary next step in the pursuit of racial justice, would require large amounts of money. He knew this would be much harder for people in the North to accept, and he realized that this would severely test the commitment of Americans to achieving racial equality.
While King's thinking clearly evolved and became more critical in the last few years of his life, there was also continuity in his ideas and his activism. He never wavered in his religious faith and he continued to believe that moral regeneration was an important aspect of positive social change. He remained committed to nonviolence, and continued to express his belief that tactical violence was not only immoral, but an unworkable strategy for creating a better world. However, while King continued to call for a transformation of values and for creating social change by nonviolent means, he tied these ideals to an increasingly radical assessment of the causes and solutions to the problems of American society. King now wanted to use nonviolence to challenge the inequalities of wealth and power in American society and he hoped to mobilize the poor to work for their own liberation. In the last year of his life King was planning a massive poor people's march on Washington, and he was supporting sanitation workers in their fight to form a union when he was killed in Memphis in April of 1968.
King had come to believe that the problems blacks faced in the North were intricately related to larger problems in American society, and he argued that "the Negroes' problem cannot be solved unless the whole of American society takes a new turn toward greater economic justice" (p. 586). King believed that the best method to eradicate poverty was to do it directly by providing a guaranteed income for all Americans. He insisted that "the curse of poverty has no justification in our age. It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization, when men ate each other because they had not yet learned to take food from the soil or to consume the abundant animal life around them. The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty" (p. 617).
King argued for a new political coalition composed of poor blacks, poor whites, the labor movement, and sympathetic elements of the middle class which he hoped could enact structural changes in American society in order to bring about a more equal distribution of wealth and power. King fully recognized that he was calling for changes "that impinge upon the basic system of social and economic control" (p. 565). As he said:
We must honestly admit that capitalism has often left a gulf between superfluous wealth and abject poverty, has created conditions permitting necessities to be taken from the many to give luxuries to the few, and has encouraged smallhearted men to become cold and conscienceless so that, like Dives before Lazarus, they are unmoved by suffering, poverty-stricken humanity. The profit motive, when it is the sole basis of an economic system, encourages a cutthroat competition and selfish ambition that inspire men to be more I-centered than thou-centered (p. 629-630).
While King had become a critic of capitalism, he was staunchly anti-communist and strongly criticized the many shortcomings of Communist countries. After all, a man who had spent most of his adult life fighting for civil rights was not going to be enamored of a social system which denied these basic liberties. However, while King recognized the dangers of an all-powerful state, he also realized that the vast inequalities of wealth and the concentrated economic power which existed in the United States, were also a threat to freedom and democracy. King hoped for a system that would go beyond both capitalism and communism, arguing that each only represents a "partial truth" (p. 630.) What King wanted was a "socially conscious democracy which reconciles the truths of individualism and collectivism" (p. 630.) Although King did not go beyond these somewhat vague generalities, he was after all articulating a vision rather than laying out a blueprint, he clearly believed in the possibility of a thorough-going social democracy that could reconcile individual freedom with the demands of social justice.
To sum up, I want to make some observations as to why I think American culture has chosen to forget this aspect of King's message and work. I think we neglect the more radical elements of King's message because most Americans are unwilling to even acknowledge the extent of the problems King pointed to in American society. While intelligent people can disagree about the accuracy of King's analysis or the viability of the solutions he proposed, most Americans are unwilling to even believe that we can solve the problems of poverty. I think our unwillingness to acknowledge that King came to believe far-reaching structural changes in our society were necessary to move us toward racial justice, is a reflection of our own lack of faith in our collective abilities to solve our problems. In our collective memory we have turned King into someone who helped solve the problems of our past, rather than someone who challenges us to solve the problems that still remain in our present, in order that we may create a more just and equitable future.
I have drawn on the ideas of other historians in fashioning the arguments I put forth in this paper, and I would like to acknowledge my debt to the work of Vincent Harding, Leon Litwack, Leslie Brown, and Clayborne Carson. The King quotes and page references are from the excerpted version of Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. edited by James M. Washington.
The Quincy Unitarian Church Home
The list of Selected Sermons.