Martin Luther King Jr.'s Most Powerful Insight About Politics

The civil rights icon was both a prophet and a brilliant political strategist.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks at "Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom" at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks at "Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom" at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Paul Schutzer via Getty Images

As we mark the 50th anniversary of the murder of Martin Luther King Jr., let’s recall two paradoxical things about MLK. Despite attempts to airbrush him into a benign idealist who had a dream, King never stopped being a radical. And despite the fact that his was above all a crusade for racial justice, he understood that racial progress required racial coalition.

King appreciated that the next great struggle had to be economic. The full name of the famous August 1963 March on Washington was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. When King was murdered on April 4, 1968, he was in Memphis, Tennessee, to march with striking sanitation workers, most of whom were black, but he was increasingly looking to class to help overcome barriers of race.

At times, King used rhetoric that today might be considered a reminder of “white privilege” and even a call for reparations. King could give a powerful speech reminding his listeners of all the ways that government, going back to the Homestead Acts and land-grant colleges of the 1860s, had intervened to subsidize white people, concluding, “we are coming to get our check.”

But King could appreciate that a call for common uplift was also better politics: Rejecting proposals for a “Bill of Rights for the Negro,” King suggested instead a “Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged.”

When I graduated from Oberlin College in 1965, King was our commencement speaker. That was the spring of the Alabama march from Selma to Montgomery and Lyndon Johnson’s astonishing “We Shall Overcome” speech. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 had just been passed. Not long afterward, Congress would finally pass the Voting Rights Act.

King warned that the nation had a long way to go. “For while we are quite successful in breaking down the legal barriers to segregation, the Negro is now confronting social and economic barriers which are very real,” he said. Yet King was emphatic that the struggle for racial justice had to be a struggle for universal justice:

A doctrine of black supremacy is as dangerous as a doctrine of white supremacy. God is not interested in the freedom of black men or brown men or yellow men. God is interested in the freedom of the whole human race, the creation of a society where every man will respect the dignity and worth of personality.

Fifty years have gone by since his death, and far too little has changed. Police still kill young black men with impunity. In King’s era, blacks could be arrested or killed in the South for trying to exercise their civil rights. Today, they can be arrested or killed in the North for walking down the street.

Fifty years ago, much was left undone, but we had a national government and federal courts committed to advancing racial justice. Today, the Supreme Court has gutted the enforcement mechanism of the Voting Rights Act, and instead of a Justice Department resisting state and local efforts at black voter suppression, Trump’s Justice Department operates as an enabler.

“More than ever, we need a politics of both/and.”

The year 1968 was also the year that Congress passed the Fair Housing Act. But our neighborhoods are as racially segregated as ever. The mortgage collapse of 2008, caused by subprime mortgages targeted substantially at black home ownership, wiped out much of the black home equity that had been built up over decades. And it devastated many working-class white homeowners as well.

In King’s day, a majority of whites found him too radical, while some black separatists considered him not radical enough. But history suggests that King got the delicate balance about right.

King, arm in arm with his chief aide, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, leads marchers as they begin the Selma to Montgomery civil rights march from Brown's Chapel Church in Selma, Alabama.
King, arm in arm with his chief aide, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, leads marchers as they begin the Selma to Montgomery civil rights march from Brown's Chapel Church in Selma, Alabama.
Bettmann via Getty Images

Today, when a broad coalition is needed more than ever, the relative roles and responsibilities of black and white leadership continue to provoke dissension. More than ever, we need a politics of both/and.

America may soon become a “majority minority” country, but that cannot mean a politics of writing off the white poor. Neither can the desire for coalition become an alibi for excusing white racism.

Fortunately, there are myriad efforts to bridge racial division and increase trans-racial compassion, groups with names like Coming to the Table and the national initiative of the Kellogg Foundation on Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation.

Groups such as Black Lives Matter are right to ask that whites look deeper into their own hearts and histories, and appreciate a history of black suppression and white privilege. Any white person, even a relative newcomer to America, is surfing on a legacy of laws and policies that long gave preference to whites over blacks and protects whites from random police excesses.

But this doesn’t mean that a rhetoric of “white privilege” or “reparations” is useful as general political language. Most whites are prepared to accept that African-Americans are owed compensatory policies, but not prepared to accept a politics of collective guilt.

As Richard Kahlenberg of The Century Foundation reminds us in a recent report, despite a racially reactionary Republican Party, American public attitudes are actually far less racist than they were in the 1960s at the time of King’s murder.

In 1967, 27 percent of whites thought blacks and whites should go to separate schools, a figure that dropped to 4 percent by 1995, after which point the question stopped being asked. In 1967, about half (48 percent) of whites said they would not vote for a “generally well qualified” black candidate, a figure that declined to 5 percent by 1997. In 1968, a solid majority (56 percent) said there should be laws against intermarriage between blacks and whites, a figure that dropped to 10 percent by 2002. Fully 73 percent of whites in 1972 said they disapproved of interracial marriage; by 2011, the number had plummeted to 14 percent.

The successes of the 1960s were built one part on the courage of the movement on the ground and its sometimes contentious coalition of black and white activists; one part an alliance with a friendly national administration; one part a capacity to shame other whites into accepting that the civil rights revolution was the right thing to do; and one part using the power of law to crush white racism when shaming failed.

Today, President Donald Trump is serving to unite decent Americans of all races into a movement for social justice. All movements are messy, and no less this one.

Martin Luther King Jr. was a prophet, but above all he was a strategist. That legacy is just as important as his moral legacy.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and a professor at Brandeis University’s Heller School. His forthcoming book is Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism?

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