There are two MLKs.
by Michael Harriot Root Jan 20, 2019
There once was a man named Martin Luther King Jr. who actually lived and breathed. He was a radical who believed in the redistribution of wealth, argued for slave reparations, and wrote moderate whites who didn’t speak out on racism were just as bad as the Ku Klux Klan. 75 percent of Americans disapproved of this man when he was killed by a white supremacist in 1968.
I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate.
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.”
Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality.
Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”
Then, there is the Martin Luther King Jr. who exists in the collective white memory. Through a complex combination of whitewashing, self-guilt, and the intentional rewriting of history to absolve themselves of hatred, they have painted a sanitized, impressionist portrait of a civil rights icon whose dreams were fulfilled by America’s unwavering commitment to justice and equality.
Out of whole cloth, they managed to fabricate a fantastic hologram of King that is ahistorical, but still “based on a true story.” Their Martin was a lover, not a fighter. They remember a socially conservative, respectable reconciler; not an anti-establishment revolutionary. And, for their sake, his doctrine of nonviolent resistance was eventually reduced to simple “nonviolence.”
This is the King they will remember this weekend.
There are two Americas.
There once was a country who stole whole human beings from another continent, dragged them across an ocean and kept them as property out back while they created a country based on the universal laws of freedom and liberty. Even when that country, in theory, realized the hypocrisy of its ways, the only way it could end slavery was by fighting what still stands as the bloodiest war in that country’s history. Then Jim Crow… yadda yadda… The civil rights movement…blah blah blah… The Civil Rights Act and, viola —equality!
Then there is the America that exists in the white mind.
Even the most obstinately delusional acolyte for post-racial America will not say that racism has been eliminated. They will, however, tell you how much better things have gotten. They honestly think that most white people are not racist and that America is not a racist country. They believe that everyone in America has access to the “American dream” that only exists in the Caucasian imagination.
On Saturday, the Boston Globe published a piece by writer Jeff Jacoby explaining that racism in America has been reduced to only a “minor problem” that has grown “less toxic and less entrenched.”
Jacoby laughably supported his argument by cherry-picking polls and statistics to reveal how white people are now willing to allow negro families to live next door; how whites have more black friends than they once did, and how black people are now free to date outside their race.
Seriously, that’s his entire body of evidence.
Jacoby concludes his picture of this utopian America by writing:
None of this is to claim that racial ugliness has vanished outright, or that racial concerns can be safely ignored. It is to claim that despite the occasional eruption of racist hatred or cruelty, and despite the coarse racial crudeness of the incumbent president, the American people are far removed from the bigots of yesteryear. In less than two generations, the United States transformed itself from a largely racist society to a largely non-racist one. “We shall overcome,” King and the civil rights heroes vowed. Inspired by their courage, uplifted by their moral leadership, Americans did just that.
I can’t blame Jacoby and those of his ilk for stanning for that version of America. It sounds like Wakanda for white people. Oh, how beautifully reassuring it must be to believe that the combination of hard work and hope can turn fiction into a tangible thing and that hatred and cruelty have been reduced to “occasional eruptions.”
I want to live in that America, too.
Every day, the staff of The Root lays out a list of the stories we will cover. As the list grows, at least once a day, someone will announce that they have discovered a brand new story that we missed. Many times, that story has been covered by another writer on staff, or it has already been discussed. When this happens, someone will invariably quote one of two recurring inside jokes.
Either they will say “Michael Harriot doesn’t read The Root,” (Yes, I am probably the most frequent butt of this joke) or they will just point to the long list of stories we have decided to cover and say:
Apparently, Jeff Jacoby doesn’t read The Root, the news, anything written by or about Martin Luther King Jr. or American history.
If he did, he’d know a little more about racism, MLK or America’s past and present.
Even white liberals and progressives believe racism is an invisible feeling of hatred and intolerance that only exists in the minds of Nazis, Klansmen and people named Donald Trump. Like white people have done with the memory of Martin Luther King Jr., Jacoby has finessed the definition of racism until it has become microscopically narrow. They think it is as abstruse as liberty or freedom. But racism is a tangible, measurable thing.
Instead of postulating about feelings and sentiment we can examine the actual words in Dr. King’s most famous speech and see how much progress America has made on race.
In his “I Have a Dream” speech, King said:
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
If there exists a “table of brotherhood” in Georgia, it is the voting booth. In 1964, the year before the passage of the Voting Rights Act, an NAACP report said black voting registration numbers were kept low because of “systematic programs of repression, reprisal, trickery and intimidation.”
54 years later, Georgia’s black voters were kept from sitting at the table of brotherhood by former secretary of State and current governor, Brian Kemp, who used a new-millennium system of voter suppression that targeted black voters with “reprisal, trickery and intimidation.”
There is non-debatable data and accessible court rulings that show how Kemp and others purge black voter registrations, disproportionately toss out ballots in majority-black districts and disqualify black voters. No one can quantify how white Georgians feel about black people but, again, racism has little to do with feelings.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
According to the Sentencing Project, 7.4 percent of African Americans in this country are disenfranchised because of felony convictions. Mississippi’s black felony disenfranchisement rate is twice the national average and the state incarcerates three black people for every white person it sends to prison. Black receive prison sentences that are 20 percent longer than whites who commit the same crime. In 2018, this “largely non-racist” utopia continued to arrest, incarcerate and kill black people disproportionately.
So much for the dream about an oasis of justice and freedom.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
A 2014 study published in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology revealed that black boys are viewed as older and less innocent than whites kids the same size and age. A 2017 study found the same is true for black girls.
I wonder why Jacoby left that out?
I have a dream that one day down in Alabama — with its vicious racists, with its Governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification — one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
Almost every expert and academic agrees that American schools are as segregated now as they were in the 1960s. In 1968, at the time of King’s death in 1968, 23 percent of black children in the South attended schools that were 50 percent white. In 2018, the UCLA Civil Rights Project used Department of Education data to show that 23 percent of children in the south attend schools that are at least 50 percent white.
In 2018, a federal appeals court struck down a decision that allowed white parents in Gardendale, Ala. to segregate their white neighborhood schools from a majority black school district. The judge noted that “the Gardendale Board acted with a discriminatory purpose to exclude black children from the proposed school system.”
It’s hard to hold hands from that far away.
America is now as it was then. It is two things.
For white people, this country is a beautiful illusion. It remains a land of bounty, filled with endless possibilities for them. It fertilizes their hopes and turns their dreams into reality. And, in their minds, nothing as incredibly fantastic as this can be simultaneously racist.
For us, America is simply a place. We have never been able to afford the rose-colored glasses that filter out our nation’s blemishes. It is impossible for us to forgive and forget this country’s original sin — not because we bear the scars — but because this country, year after year — continues to pour salt into the wound.
But before Jeff Jacoby, the Boston Globe and the believers in the “largely-non-racist America” take their idealized icon’s advice to “join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: ‘Free at last. Free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last,’” perhaps they should do one thing:
Scroll up, homeboy…