MLK Day: “Beyond Vietnam”
It remains one of the most powerfully incisive speeches in U.S. history. Delivered at Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, exactly one year before he was gunned down.
The Speech You Didn’t Hear on August 28, 1963
This week marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. Even if you are not familiar with the event, nearly every American knows about it because it is where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have A Dream” speech.
King’s speech is one of the most famous examples of oratory in the 20th century United States, as well as one of the defining events in our collective memory of him. Most of what we remember from the speech (in particular, the stirring conclusion) was improvised, as King embellished the written text with refrains he had used various times before from the pulpit or in smaller venues. Watched by millions on television (the event was broadcast live as well as re-broadcast that evening), it’s not surprising that most of the coverage this week will focus on King’s “dream.”
As a historian of the period, though, I don’t focus too much attention on the King speech when the event finds its way into my classes. The more important lesson I want students to grapple with is the larger context of the march within the civil rights movement.
One part of that is about the debate within Black America. King’s speech comes at a time when youth radicalism was eclipsing the influence of the “mainstream” movement within African American communities. This youth movement–contained most popularly in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC (“Snick”)–was more inclined toward direct confrontation politics, possessed a strong sense of urgency, and expressed a more radical critique of US racism. King and other “establishment” movement leaders were trying to bridge this generational rift, to present their movement as simultaneously relevant to young Blacks as well as the wider (white) public.
To highlight that, I often share “the best speech you never heard” from that day–the original text of the speech John Lewis intended to give. John Lewis is a member of the House of Representatives, a passionate advocate of human rights, and a hero of mine. But back in 1963, he was a 23-year-old a leader in SNCC, and the youngest person to speak on the stage that day.
Lewis and other SNCC leaders collaborated to write his speech. Because of its incendiary tone and confrontational stance, Lewis was pressured to tone it down. You can read the text of the speech he did give that day here. Below is the text of the original speech:
We march today for jobs and freedom, but we have nothing to be proud of. For hundreds and thousands of our brothers are not here. They have no money for their transportation, for they are receiving starvation wages…or no wages, at all.
In good conscience, we cannot support the administration’s civil rights bill, for it is too little, and too late. There’s not one thing in the bill that will protect our people from police brutality.
This bill will not protect young children and old women from police dogs and fire hoses, [for] engaging in peaceful demonstrations…
The voting section of this bill will not help thousands of black citizens who want to vote. It will not help the citizens of Mississippi, of Alabama, and Georgia, who are qualified to vote, but lack a 6th Grade education. “One man, one vote,’ is the African cry. It is ours, too. (It must be ours.)
We are now involved in revolution. This nation is still a place of cheap political leaders who build their careers on immoral compromise and ally themselves with open forms of political, economic and social exploitation. What political leader here can stand up and say, “My party is the party of principles”? The party of Kennedy is also the party of Eastland. The party of Javits is also the party of Goldwater. Where is our party?
In some parts of the South we work in the fields form sun-up to sun-down for $12 a week. In Albany, Georgia, nine of our leaders have been indicted not by Dixiecrats but by the Federal Government for peaceful protest. But what did the Federal Government do when Albany’s Deputy Sheriff beat Attorney C. B. King and left him half dead? What did the Federal Government do when local police officials kicked and assaulted the pregnant wife of Slater King, and she lost her baby?
It seems to me that the Albany indictment is part of a conspiracy on the part of the Federal Government and local politicians in the interest of expediency.
I want to know, which side is the Federal Government on?
The revolution is at hand, and we must free ourselves of the chains of political and economic slavery. The non-violent revolution is saying, “We will not wait for the courts to act, for we have been waiting for hundreds of years. We will not wait for the President, the Justice Department, nor Congress, but we will take matters into our own hands and create a source of power, outside any national structure that could and would assure us a victory.” To those who have said, “Be Patient and Wait,” we must say that, “Patience is a dirty and nasty word.” We cannot be patient, we do not want to be free gradually, we want our freedom, and we want it now. We cannot depend on any political party, for both the Democrats and Republicans have betrayed the basic principles of the Declaration of Independence.
We all recognize the fact that if any radical social, political and economic changes are to take place in our society, the people, the masses, must bring them about. In the struggle we must seek more than civil rights; we must work for the community of love, peace and true brotherhood. Our minds, souls, and hearts cannot rest until freedom and justice exist for all the people.
The revolution is a serious one. Mr. Kennedy is trying to take the revolution out of the street and put in the courts. Listen, Mr. Kennedy, Listen, Mr. Congressman, listen, fellow citizens, the black masses are on the march for jobs and freedom, and we must say to the politicians that there won’t be a “cooling-off” period.
We won’t stop now. All the forces of Eastland, Barnett, Wallace, and Thurmond won’t stop this revolution. The time will come when we will not confine our marching to Washington. We will march through the South, through the Heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did. We shall pursue our own “scorched earth” policy and burn Jim Crow to the ground – nonviolently. We shall fragment the South into a thousand pieces and put them back together in the image of democracy. We will make the action of the past few months look petty. And I say to you, WAKE UP AMERICA!
Demand your freedom
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.
Monday Blues (01.17.11)
Happy birthday Dr. King.
How to Celebrate King
Today is the official day we commemorate the birth of Martin Luther King Jr. Born on January 15, 1929, King would have been 80 years old last Thursday.
I will admit, I am more than a bit indifferent to such a “holiday.” The notion of “celebrating” a man who was gunned down while actively engaged in the struggle to which he dedicated his life, seems premature. After all, King never felt his goals had been met.
We often forget that King was NOT a successful figure in terms of his political struggles. This had little to do with his skils, commitments, or sacrifices. This nation and its vast majorities opposed him nearly his entire life. After rising to fame in the very successful Montgomery Bus Boycott, King met failure as he tried to desegregate department stores, work for fair housing, stand up for labor, register voters in Georgia, not to mention his unsuccessful struggle with sanitation workers in Memphis (the cause he was working on when he was assissinated).
To move to celebrate without ever having considered what it was he stood for does him an even further injustice in death.
Today, we often take a little piece of the rhetorical greatness that was King and use this as a synopsis of everything he was about. “I have a dream!” “Love your enemy!!” “…judged not by the color of his skin but by the content of his character!” These are the safe ways to remember King, the ones that leave the present status of injustice and oppression uninterrogated and unchanged.
To mark this occasion, I offer the following text of King’s last speech. Delivered in Memphis, on April 3, 1968, it is neither meant to serve as the definitive version of King’s ideas and commitments or as his best speech. It is a reminder of the way he framed his present moment, how he defined injustice and freedom. When measured with the vast writings and political organizational efforts of his life, it is clear his version of the “promised land” was much, much more than what we celebrate tomorrow.
Thank you very kindly, my friends. As I listened to Ralph Abernathy and his eloquent and generous introduction and then thought about myself, I wondered who he was talking about. It’s always good to have your closest friend and associate to say something good about you. And Ralph Abernathy is the best friend that I have in the world. I’m delighted to see each of you here tonight in spite of a storm warning. You reveal that you are determined to go on anyhow.
Something is happening in Memphis; something is happening in our world. And you know, if I were standing at the beginning of time, with the possibility of taking a kind of general and panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, “Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?” I would take my mental flight by Egypt and I would watch God’s children in their magnificent trek from the dark dungeons of Egypt through, or rather across the Red Sea, through the wilderness on toward the promised land. And in spite of its magnificence, I wouldn’t stop there.
I would move on by Greece and take my mind to Mount Olympus. And I would see Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Euripides and Aristophanes assembled around the Parthenon. And I would watch them around the Parthenon as they discussed the great and eternal issues of reality. But I wouldn’t stop there.
I would go on, even to the great heyday of the Roman Empire. And I would see developments around there, through various emperors and leaders. But I wouldn’t stop there.
I would even come up to the day of the Renaissance, and get a quick picture of all that the Renaissance did for the cultural and aesthetic life of man. But I wouldn’t stop there.
I would even go by the way that the man for whom I am named had his habitat. And I would watch Martin Luther as he tacked his ninety-five theses on the door at the church of Wittenberg. But I wouldn’t stop there.
I would come on up even to 1863, and watch a vacillating President by the name of Abraham Lincoln finally come to the conclusion that he had to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. But I wouldn’t stop there.
I would even come up to the early thirties, and see a man grappling with the problems of the bankruptcy of his nation. And come with an eloquent cry that “we have nothing to fear but fear itself.” But I wouldn’t stop there.
Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, “If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the 20th century, I will be happy.”
Now that’s a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around. That’s a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding.
Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee — the cry is always the same: “We want to be free.”
And another reason that I’m happy to live in this period is that we have been forced to a point where we are going to have to grapple with the problems that men have been trying to grapple with through history, but the demands didn’t force them to do it. Survival demands that we grapple with them. Men, for years now, have been talking about war and peace. But now, no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence. That is where we are today.
And also in the human rights revolution, if something isn’t done, and done in a hurry, to bring the colored peoples of the world out of their long years of poverty, their long years of hurt and neglect, the whole world is doomed. Now, I’m just happy that God has allowed me to live in this period to see what is unfolding. And I’m happy that He’s allowed me to be in Memphis.
I can remember — I can remember when Negroes were just going around as Ralph has said, so often, scratching where they didn’t itch, and laughing when they were not tickled. But that day is all over. We mean business now, and we are determined to gain our rightful place in God’s world.
And that’s all this whole thing is about. We aren’t engaged in any negative protest and in any negative arguments with anybody. We are saying that we are determined to be men. We are determined to be people. We are saying — We are saying that we are God’s children. And that we are God’s children, we don’t have to live like we are forced to live.
Now, what does all of this mean in this great period of history? It means that we’ve got to stay together. We’ve got to stay together and maintain unity. You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite formula for doing it. What was that? He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. But whenever the slaves get together, something happens in Pharaoh’s court, and he cannot hold the slaves in slavery. When the slaves get together, that’s the beginning of getting out of slavery. Now let us maintain unity.
Secondly, let us keep the issues where they are. The issue is injustice. The issue is the refusal of Memphis to be fair and honest in its dealings with its public servants, who happen to be sanitation workers. Now, we’ve got to keep attention on that. That’s always the problem with a little violence. You know what happened the other day, and the press dealt only with the window-breaking. I read the articles. They very seldom got around to mentioning the fact that one thousand, three hundred sanitation workers are on strike, and that Memphis is not being fair to them, and that Mayor Loeb is in dire need of a doctor. They didn’t get around to that.
Now we’re going to march again, and we’ve got to march again, in order to put the issue where it is supposed to be — and force everybody to see that there are thirteen hundred of God’s children here suffering, sometimes going hungry, going through dark and dreary nights wondering how this thing is going to come out. That’s the issue. And we’ve got to say to the nation: We know how it’s coming out. For when people get caught up with that which is right and they are willing to sacrifice for it, there is no stopping point short of victory.
We aren’t going to let any mace stop us. We are masters in our nonviolent movement in disarming police forces; they don’t know what to do. I’ve seen them so often. I remember in Birmingham, Alabama, when we were in that majestic struggle there, we would move out of the 16th Street Baptist Church day after day; by the hundreds we would move out. And Bull Connor would tell them to send the dogs forth, and they did come; but we just went before the dogs singing, “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around.”
Bull Connor next would say, “Turn the fire hoses on.” And as I said to you the other night, Bull Connor didn’t know history. He knew a kind of physics that somehow didn’t relate to the transphysics that we knew about. And that was the fact that there was a certain kind of fire that no water could put out. And we went before the fire hoses; we had known water. If we were Baptist or some other denominations, we had been immersed. If we were Methodist, and some others, we had been sprinkled, but we knew water. That couldn’t stop us.
And we just went on before the dogs and we would look at them; and we’d go on before the water hoses and we would look at it, and we’d just go on singing “Over my head I see freedom in the air.” And then we would be thrown in the paddy wagons, and sometimes we were stacked in there like sardines in a can. And they would throw us in, and old Bull would say, “Take ’em off,” and they did; and we would just go in the paddy wagon singing, “We Shall Overcome.” And every now and then we’d get in jail, and we’d see the jailers looking through the windows being moved by our prayers, and being moved by our words and our songs. And there was a power there which Bull Connor couldn’t adjust to; and so we ended up transforming Bull into a steer, and we won our struggle in Birmingham. Now we’ve got to go on in Memphis just like that. I call upon you to be with us when we go out Monday.
Now about injunctions: We have an injunction and we’re going into court tomorrow morning to fight this illegal, unconstitutional injunction. All we say to America is, “Be true to what you said on paper.” If I lived in China or even Russia, or any totalitarian country, maybe I could understand some of these illegal injunctions. Maybe I could understand the denial of certain basic First Amendment privileges, because they hadn’t committed themselves to that over there. But somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right. And so just as I say, we aren’t going to let dogs or water hoses turn us around, we aren’t going to let any injunction turn us around. We are going on.
We need all of you. And you know what’s beautiful to me is to see all of these ministers of the Gospel. It’s a marvelous picture. Who is it that is supposed to articulate the longings and aspirations of the people more than the preacher? Somehow the preacher must have a kind of fire shut up in his bones. And whenever injustice is around he tell it. Somehow the preacher must be an Amos, and saith, “When God speaks who can but prophesy?” Again with Amos, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” Somehow the preacher must say with Jesus, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me,” and he’s anointed me to deal with the problems of the poor.”
And I want to commend the preachers, under the leadership of these noble men: James Lawson, one who has been in this struggle for many years; he’s been to jail for struggling; he’s been kicked out of Vanderbilt University for this struggle, but he’s still going on, fighting for the rights of his people. Reverend Ralph Jackson, Billy Kiles; I could just go right on down the list, but time will not permit. But I want to thank all of them. And I want you to thank them, because so often, preachers aren’t concerned about anything but themselves. And I’m always happy to see a relevant ministry.
It’s all right to talk about “long white robes over yonder,” in all of its symbolism. But ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here! It’s all right to talk about “streets flowing with milk and honey,” but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can’t eat three square meals a day. It’s all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day, God’s preacher must talk about the new New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee. This is what we have to do.
Now the other thing we’ll have to do is this: Always anchor our external direct action with the power of economic withdrawal. Now, we are poor people. Individually, we are poor when you compare us with white society in America. We are poor. Never stop and forget that collectively — that means all of us together — collectively we are richer than all the nations in the world, with the exception of nine. Did you ever think about that? After you leave the United States, Soviet Russia, Great Britain, West Germany, France, and I could name the others, the American Negro collectively is richer than most nations of the world. We have an annual income of more than thirty billion dollars a year, which is more than all of the exports of the United States, and more than the national budget of Canada. Did you know that? That’s power right there, if we know how to pool it.
We don’t have to argue with anybody. We don’t have to curse and go around acting bad with our words. We don’t need any bricks and bottles. We don’t need any Molotov cocktails. We just need to go around to these stores, and to these massive industries in our country, and say, “God sent us by here, to say to you that you’re not treating his children right. And we’ve come by here to ask you to make the first item on your agenda fair treatment, where God’s children are concerned. Now, if you are not prepared to do that, we do have an agenda that we must follow. And our agenda calls for withdrawing economic support from you.”
And so, as a result of this, we are asking you tonight, to go out and tell your neighbors not to buy Coca-Cola in Memphis. Go by and tell them not to buy Sealtest milk. Tell them not to buy — what is the other bread? — Wonder Bread. And what is the other bread company, Jesse? Tell them not to buy Hart’s bread. As Jesse Jackson has said, up to now, only the garbage men have been feeling pain; now we must kind of redistribute the pain. We are choosing these companies because they haven’t been fair in their hiring policies; and we are choosing them because they can begin the process of saying they are going to support the needs and the rights of these men who are on strike. And then they can move on town — downtown and tell Mayor Loeb to do what is right.
But not only that, we’ve got to strengthen black institutions. I call upon you to take your money out of the banks downtown and deposit your money in Tri-State Bank. We want a “bank-in” movement in Memphis. Go by the savings and loan association. I’m not asking you something that we don’t do ourselves at SCLC. Judge Hooks and others will tell you that we have an account here in the savings and loan association from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. We are telling you to follow what we are doing. Put your money there. You have six or seven black insurance companies here in the city of Memphis. Take out your insurance there. We want to have an “insurance-in.”
Now these are some practical things that we can do. We begin the process of building a greater economic base. And at the same time, we are putting pressure where it really hurts. I ask you to follow through here.
Now, let me say as I move to my conclusion that we’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis. We’ve got to see it through. And when we have our march, you need to be there. If it means leaving work, if it means leaving school — be there. Be concerned about your brother. You may not be on strike. But either we go up together, or we go down together.
Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness. One day a man came to Jesus, and he wanted to raise some questions about some vital matters of life. At points he wanted to trick Jesus, and show him that he knew a little more than Jesus knew and throw him off base….
Now that question could have easily ended up in a philosophical and theological debate. But Jesus immediately pulled that question from mid-air, and placed it on a dangerous curve between Jerusalem and Jericho. And he talked about a certain man, who fell among thieves. You remember that a Levite and a priest passed by on the other side. They didn’t stop to help him. And finally a man of another race came by. He got down from his beast, decided not to be compassionate by proxy. But he got down with him, administered first aid, and helped the man in need. Jesus ended up saying, this was the good man, this was the great man, because he had the capacity to project the “I” into the “thou,” and to be concerned about his brother.
Now you know, we use our imagination a great deal to try to determine why the priest and the Levite didn’t stop. At times we say they were busy going to a church meeting, an ecclesiastical gathering, and they had to get on down to Jerusalem so they wouldn’t be late for their meeting. At other times we would speculate that there was a religious law that “One who was engaged in religious ceremonials was not to touch a human body twenty-four hours before the ceremony.” And every now and then we begin to wonder whether maybe they were not going down to Jerusalem — or down to Jericho, rather to organize a “Jericho Road Improvement Association.” That’s a possibility. Maybe they felt that it was better to deal with the problem from the causal root, rather than to get bogged down with an individual effect.
But I’m going to tell you what my imagination tells me. It’s possible that those men were afraid. You see, the Jericho road is a dangerous road. I remember when Mrs. King and I were first in Jerusalem. We rented a car and drove from Jerusalem down to Jericho. And as soon as we got on that road, I said to my wife, “I can see why Jesus used this as the setting for his parable.” It’s a winding, meandering road. It’s really conducive for ambushing. You start out in Jerusalem, which is about 1200 miles — or rather 1200 feet above sea level. And by the time you get down to Jericho, fifteen or twenty minutes later, you’re about 2200 feet below sea level. That’s a dangerous road. In the days of Jesus it came to be known as the “Bloody Pass.” And you know, it’s possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around. Or it’s possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking. And he was acting like he had been robbed and hurt, in order to seize them over there, lure them there for quick and easy seizure. And so the first question that the priest asked — the first question that the Levite asked was, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”
That’s the question before you tonight. Not, “If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to my job. Not, “If I stop to help the sanitation workers what will happen to all of the hours that I usually spend in my office every day and every week as a pastor?” The question is not, “If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?” The question is, “If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?” That’s the question.
Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation. And I want to thank God, once more, for allowing me to be here with you.
You know, several years ago, I was in New York City autographing the first book that I had written. And while sitting there autographing books, a demented black woman came up. The only question I heard from her was, “Are you Martin Luther King?” And I was looking down writing, and I said, “Yes.” And the next minute I felt something beating on my chest. Before I knew it I had been stabbed by this demented woman. I was rushed to Harlem Hospital. It was a dark Saturday afternoon. And that blade had gone through, and the X-rays revealed that the tip of the blade was on the edge of my aorta, the main artery. And once that’s punctured, your drowned in your own blood — that’s the end of you.
It came out in the New York Times the next morning, that if I had merely sneezed, I would have died. Well, about four days later, they allowed me, after the operation, after my chest had been opened, and the blade had been taken out, to move around in the wheel chair in the hospital. They allowed me to read some of the mail that came in, and from all over the states and the world, kind letters came in. I read a few, but one of them I will never forget. I had received one from the President and the Vice-President. I’ve forgotten what those telegrams said. I’d received a visit and a letter from the Governor of New York, but I’ve forgotten what that letter said. But there was another letter that came from a little girl, a young girl who was a student at the White Plains High School. And I looked at that letter, and I’ll never forget it. It said simply,
Dear Dr. King,
I am a ninth-grade student at the White Plains High School.”
And she said,
While it should not matter, I would like to mention that I’m a white girl. I read in the paper of your misfortune, and of your suffering. And I read that if you had sneezed, you would have died. And I’m simply writing you to say that I’m so happy that you didn’t sneeze.
And I want to say tonight — I want to say tonight that I too am happy that I didn’t sneeze. Because if I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1960, when students all over the South started sitting-in at lunch counters. And I knew that as they were sitting in, they were really standing up for the best in the American dream, and taking the whole nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the Founding Fathers in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1961, when we decided to take a ride for freedom and ended segregation in inter-state travel.
If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1962, when Negroes in Albany, Georgia, decided to straighten their backs up. And whenever men and women straighten their backs up, they are going somewhere, because a man can’t ride your back unless it is bent.
If I had sneezed — If I had sneezed I wouldn’t have been here in 1963, when the black people of Birmingham, Alabama, aroused the conscience of this nation, and brought into being the Civil Rights Bill.
If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have had a chance later that year, in August, to try to tell America about a dream that I had had.
If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been down in Selma, Alabama, to see the great Movement there.
If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been in Memphis to see a community rally around those brothers and sisters who are suffering.
I’m so happy that I didn’t sneeze.
And they were telling me –. Now, it doesn’t matter, now. It really doesn’t matter what happens now. I left Atlanta this morning, and as we got started on the plane, there were six of us. The pilot said over the public address system, “We are sorry for the delay, but we have Dr. Martin Luther King on the plane. And to be sure that all of the bags were checked, and to be sure that nothing would be wrong with on the plane, we had to check out everything carefully. And we’ve had the plane protected and guarded all night.”
And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?
Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.
And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!
And so I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man!
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!
Rights have a tendency of coming back
Today is the anniversary of the ratification of the 21st Amendment to the United States Constitution, overturning the 18th Amendment and giving Americans the right to manufacture, transport, purchase, and sell alcohol (again).
The 21st Amendment
Ratified December 5, 1933
Section 1. The eighteenth article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed.
Section 2. The transportation or importation into any State, Territory, or possession of the United States for delivery or use there in of intoxicating liquors, in violation of the laws thereof, is hereby prohibited.
Section 3. This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by conventions in the several States, as provided in the Constitution, within seven years from the date of the submission hereof to the States by the Congress.
This is a perfect opportunity for opponents of Proposition 8 to take heed and keep the faith. While the rights protected by this article are largely different from the ones taken away by Prop. 8, the broader picture is important here: you can’t take away a right.
It is also important to remember, as King eloquently wrote, “freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor.” The most welcome consequence of the passage of Prop. 8 has been the re-birth of a queer rights movement in which youth are constitutive. History is not inevitable, but with collaborative effort, the defeat of injustice can be.
Enough of the “Race Card”; Let’s Talk About the Whole Deck
Does the United States become more equal, more equitable, and more just over time? Is it a forward progression that never turns back? Does it just happen? Or does it take work and struggle?
As a teacher of race and ethnicity, I find all the recent political talk about “playing the race card” suggestive of what we call a “teachable moment.” This concept which has so many meanings and uses (a floating signifier of sorts) is a rich example of many of our most significant gaps in understanding with respect to “race” in both our past and present social relations.
One of the things I find most interesting about its usage is the ways it is reflective of the fervent belief that “we” as a nation have become more racially tolerant and fair over time. “Playing the race card”—whether it means accusing whites of manipulating racial prejudice, securing support via white guilt, or any number of other actions—is seen transgressive. Doing so is seemingly suggestive of our collective racial past instead of our present. We become seemingly uncomfortable if the race of the candidate is even brought up, let alone if their race is somehow used in their campaign. Progress equals silencing of racial differences.
None of this meets my mind as progressive. In fact, I don’t see it as progress at all. Most of the racially-focused political dialogue I’ve heard in the past month leaves me thinking “we” haven’t moved all that much from the past.
Last week, while re-reading Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia—a classic in U.S. historical scholarship—I was struck by the historian’s analysis, first published in 1975. He wrote:
The men who came together to found the independent United States, dedicated to freedom and equality, either had slaves or were willing to join hands with those who did. None of them felt entirely comfortable about the fact, but neither did they feel responsible for it. Most of them had inherited both their slaves and their attachment to freedom from an earlier generation, and they knew that the two were not unconnected. The rise of liberty and equality in America had been accompanied by the rise of slavery.
That two such seemingly contradictory developments were taking place simultaneously over a long period of time, from the seventeenth century to the nineteenth, is the central paradox of American history. For the historian it poses a challenge to probe the connection: to explain how a people could have developed the dedication to human liberty and dignity exhibited by the leaders of the American Revolution and at the same time have developed and maintained a system of labor that denied human liberty and dignity every hour of the day…
To a large degree it may be said that Americans bought their independence with slave labor.
As I read these lines, I thought how they seemed radical not only for their time but for mine. If these words had been written in the 1990s, they would have been met by an organized movement of conservatives, criticizing this kind of analysis as “anti-American” or “revisionist.” This movement took shape after the time Morgan’s book was published. It helped elect Ronal Reagan and, in many ways, turned back the tide on civil rights. Yes, time does not always bring with it progress and betterment.
In his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr. responded to the suggestion that civil rights protests were unrealistic in their demand for immediate change, since justice is inevitable, in time. He wrote:
Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely rational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively.
In practical terms, Morgan’s analysis isn’t precious. I mean, is far more radical things are published by mainstream academic presses every month. Yet it is hardly commonplace. To me, it served as a reminder of how social progress does not always unfold over time. That such a direct and provable assertion could still be seen as a radical revision of the traditional interpretation of the U.S. past is, in itself, sort of depressing.
Likewise, one of the sobering realities of our current political discourse is that we have failed terribly in our collective effort to learn from the struggles of the past. Acknowledgment of race was never the problem. The problem was how that acknowledgment served a system of white supremacy. Today, we can add to that the myriad ways our avoidance of acknowledging race serves that same system.
Quoted texts can be found in Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1975), 4-5; and Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” April 16, 1963. King’s letter was first published in the The Christian Century, June 12, 1963.