As we commemorate the 45th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., I think it’s important for us–as a nation–to grapple with the incisive radicalism of MLK writings, analysis, and vision.
And so I offer to you his spring 1966 evaluation of the Civil Rights Movement, printed in The Nation. Titled “The Last Steep Ascent,” it is a King we are rarely connected to, one who problematizes the future of which we are a part.
The period which has been completed, though attended by turmoil and spectacular events, was relatively easy to accomplish. Negroes not only furnished the drive but by disciplined adherence to nonviolence swiftly educated and won millions to the righteousness of their demands. For the white majority there were few hardships, and the lifting of some burden of guilt adequately compensated for any limited inconvenience.
The future is more complex. Slums with hundreds of thousands of living units are not eradicated as easily as lunch counters or buses are integrated. Jobs are harder to create than voting rolls. Harmonizing of peoples of vastly different cultural levels is complicated and frequently abrasive.
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.