The Inauguration Of Intolerance

John Lewis is pictured at the far right.
John Lewis is pictured at the far right.

In the final chapter of his book Stride Toward Freedom (1958), the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote:

Ever since the signing of the Declaration of Independence, America has manifested a schizophrenic personality on the question of race. She has been torn between selves — a self in which she has profoundly professed democracy and a self in which she has sadly practiced the antithesis of democracy. ... This determination of Negro Americans to win freedom from all forms of oppression springs from the same deep longing that motivates oppressed peoples all over the world. The rumblings of discontent in Asia and Africa are expressions of a quest for freedom and human dignity by people who have long been the victims of colonialism and imperialism. So in a real sense the racial crisis in America is a part of the larger world crisis.

Representative John Lewis, who worked and marched with Dr. King, said in an interview a few days ago that in his opinion the successor to President Barack Obama is illegitimate, to which the president-elect responded that Rep. Lewis ought to focus on his own constituency, which he described as “falling apart” and “crime infested.” Facts no longer appear to matter, at least not for the man who will soon swear to defend and uphold the Constitution of the United States, so it is of no consequence to casually, mendaciously declare that one of the many heroes of the Civil Rights Movement, who became a member of Congress revered by both parties, is “all talk, talk, talk — no action or results. Sad!”

Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of African and African-American studies at Duke University, said that he does not “think we have ever had a president so publicly condescending to what black politics means,” as quoted by Yamiche Alcindor on the front page of the New York Times today. Through what is arguably the most powerful twitter feed, Alcindor wrote, he “is giving the world access in real time to his unvarnished thoughts,” which are rightfully characterized by Prof. Neal as “raw, unsophisticated, ignorant and uninformed.” Toward the end of the book, King drew his attention toward “another group with a vital role to play in the present crisis ... the white Northern liberals.” As he explained,

The racial issue that we confront in America is not a sectional but a national problem. The citizenship rights of Negroes cannot be flouted anywhere without impairing the rights of every other American. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. ... The mere fact that we live in the United States means that we are caught in a network of inescapable mutuality. Therefore, no American can afford to be apathetic about the problem of racial justice. ... There is a pressing need for a liberalism in the North which is truly liberal, a liberalism that firmly believes in integration in its own community as well as in the Deep South. It is one thing to agree that the goal of integration is morally and legally right; it is another thing to commit oneself positively and actively to the ideal of integration.

In a speech not usually taught or mentioned to schoolchildren in social studies class, Dr. King spoke at Riverside Church in April 1967, delivering an address titled “Beyond Vietnam.” (You can read it in full here, including an audio recording.) His final campaign was what would have been a rally known as the Poor People’s March on Washington. King condemned “the deadly Western arrogance that has poisoned the international atmosphere for so long.” Ten years earlier, he reminded them,

a sensitive American official overseas said that it seemed to him that our nation was on the wrong side of a world revolution. During the past ten years we have seen emerge a pattern of suppression which has now justified the presence of U.S. military advisors in Venezuela. This need to maintain social stability for our investments accounts for the counterrevolutionary action of American forces in Guatemala. It tells why American helicopters are being used against guerrillas in Cambodia and why American napalm and Green Beret forces have already been active against rebels in Peru. It is with such activity that the words of the late John F. Kennedy come back to haunt us. Five years ago he said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”

He exhorted the US military to cease its “computerized plans of destruction.” In the same year King orated at Riverside against militarism, colonialism, inequality, and conformity to an ideology that exalts the materialistic individual above all else, Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton wrote Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America. Carmichael and Hamilton, remembered as militant and nationalist, believed that “black and white can work together in the white community where possible,” whereas “it is not possible ... to go into a poor Southern town and talk about ‘integration,’ or even desegregation.”

Integration was not their goal, although they wrote that “it is hoped that eventually there will be a coalition of poor blacks and poor whites. This is the only coalition which seems acceptable to us, and we see such a coalition as the major internal instrument of change in the American society.” The progenitors of the Black Power movement explicitly wrote that “white activists who support indigenous black movements across the country” have a role: “not to lead or to set policy or to attempt to define black people to black people. Their role is supportive.” This is because “in the past, white allies have often furthered white supremacy without the whites involved realizing it, or even wanting to do so.”

“Almost immediately after the protest started we had begun to receive threatening telephone calls and letters,” King wrote in 1958, among them including “mimeographed and printed materials combining anti-Semitic and anti-Negro sentiments. One of these contained a handwritten postscript: ‘You niggers are getting your self in a bad place. The Bible is strong for segregation as of the jews concerning other races. It is even for segregation between the 12 tribes of Isareal [sic]. We need and will have a Hitler to get our country straightened out.’” In a matter of days, the white nationalists will have their leader, for whom the Constitution has no meaning, sworn in.