As you are probably aware, Friday was the 40th anniversary of the murder of civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The usual eulogies have been made, but there has not been much dispassionate evaluation of King’s legacy. It’s acknowledged he was tired of his mission. It’s acknowledged the times had passed him by, that more aggressive leaders were taking over and his Gandhian non-violence was viewed with derision.
What is never even considered is that he did terrible, and probably irreversible damage to his cause after around 1965 or so by changing his message, from one the vast majority of Americans had to agree with, if not always enthusiastically, to one which alienated another vast majority.
The message of the early civil rights movement was simple and compelling. “Look,” it was said. “All we want are the same rights all other Americans have- to vote, and to have access, only access, to jobs and services. Nothing more. What honestly good reason do you have for denying us that?”
And nobody outside the South had an answer for that. Well, what difference did it make if Negroes (as blacks were then called) voted? The voted up North and nothing terrible happened. If they wanted to drink from a water fountain or use a restroom or sit at a lunch counter, what difference did that make to anybody?
The Southern arguement- that racial separation was natural and required- didn’t fly up north, or out West. People there jostled closely everyday with strangers, even if they retreated to monoethnic neighborhoods at night. The libertarian arguement- that if you didn’t want to serve blacks at your restaurant, or hire them for your business, that was your right whether it was rational or not- also didn’t persuade many people. After all it wasn’t fair, and most people like the idea of fairness. Wasn’t one man’s money as good as the next? And if you needed somebody to load boxes, or tote figures, or shuffle paper what did it matter what they looked like?
Southerners had great power in Congress and they held the legislation back a few years but its passage was inevitable. By 1965 blacks had all kinds of legal guarantees to full participation. In the typical white person’s view, blacks had been fully emancipated.
But as it turned out this was only the beginning. Blacks outside the South had a completely different set of grievances, that were largely unaddressed. I’ll be charitable and describe it from their standpoint- the police were oppressive, their white neighbors hostile, and economic improvement unavailable despite civil rights legislation. And they demanded, and got, a relaxation of criminal law and vast patronage.
In other words a Gramscian program of liberation was instituted. And King was the loudest advocate of all. Blacks were to be heavily funded, indulged in violence and criminality, and paid the greatest obeisance. And if you didn’t agree with this program, well you were just an old style, Bull Connor, Klan member racist.
Unfortunately, vilification or not, a great many people did oppose this program. Working class white people were directly harmed by the shifting of public benefits to blacks, the entry of lower class blacks into their neighborhoods, and the explosion of black criminal violence. They could bear the vilification in any case, and as their vital interests were in mortal danger, they reacted strongly against this.
The Boston busing case is the most famous example of this. But in any case what was now called “civil rights” was a vicious, humiliating, often terrifying attack against all the rights, interests and affections of millions of Americans, people generally regarded as being of no consequence but not without a few champions and not entirely without recourse to protect themselves.
First they vacated the cities, leaving them to poor blacks and black politicians. They then abandoned the Democratic Party, their political patrons since they stepped off the boats. They withdrew their support for programs for blacks, and supported instead politicians who would protect them from criminal activity, almost all Republicans.
Black politicians and their close supporters have collected spoils as a key constituency of the Democratic machine. Blacks in general? An orderly integration of black Americans into the wider society has never occured. Blacks who adhere to traditional mores and educate themselves do well with affirmative action but the majority of blacks are physically, socially, and politically isolated from mainstream society and are likely to stay that way.
The King of 1968 was a far different man from the King of 1963. And I’m afraid he undid a great deal of what he accomplished.