MLK Day is always a difficult “holiday” for me. As a historian of the 20th century U.S., and as a person who is deeply committed in both my work and personal life to meaningful progress in eradicating racism, I recognize there is a danger in celebrating King as a “paper tiger,” as Michale Eric Dyson once wrote. When we remember him as nothing but a bearer of love and integration we negate the sheer radicalism of his life–not only “back then” but now.
I recommend you spend some time today reading “The Last Steep Ascent,” an essay King wrote for The Nation. Beginning in 1961, King wrote a piece for the magazine every spring, assessing the status of civil rights in the nation. This one, published on March 14, 1966, was his sixth.
For those who might think the removal of legal protections for segregation was “the end” of the movement, King wrote:
The quality and quantity of discrimination and deprivation in our nation are so pervasive that all the changes of a decade have merely initiated preliminary alterations in an edifice of injustice and misery. But the evils in our society oppressing the Negro are not now so heavy a social and moral burden that white America cannot still live with them. That is the dilemma of 1966, for which the white leadership has no clear and effective policy. The logic of growth means that the civil rights odyssey must move to new levels in which the content of freedom is security, opportunity, culture and equal participation in the political process. Negro goals are clearly defined, their tactics are tested, suitable and viable. The lag is appearing in the white community which now inclines toward a détente, hoping to rest upon past laurels. The changes it must accept in the new circumstances, however logical, have not been faced nor accepted as compelling.
To those who might think that progress for some can be ahcieved without sacrifice, he reminds us:
It is easy to conceive of a plan to raise the minimum wage and thus in a single stroke extract millions of people from poverty. But between the conception and the realization there lies a formidable wall. Someone has been profiting from the low wages of Negroes. Depressed living standards for Negroes are a structural part of the economy. Certain industries are based upon the supply of low-wage, underskilled and immobile nonwhite labor. Hand assembly factories, hospitals, service industries, housework, agriculture operations using itinerant labor, would all suffer shock, if not disaster, if the minimum wage were significantly raised. A hardening of opposition to the satisfaction of Negro needs must be anticipated as the movement presses against financial privilege.
Indeed, his words are as meaningful then as they are now. As an advocate for humane work and living conditions for the 2 million farmworkers in this country, I can find purpose and courage in his concluding remarks:
Negroes expect their freedom, not as subjects of benevolence but as Americans who were at Bunker Hill, who toiled to clear the forests, drain the swamps, build the roads—who fought the wars and dreamed the dreams the founders of the nation considered to be an American birthright.
You can–and should–read the piece in its entirety by visiting the following link.