Martin Luther King’s greatest political gift was to situate the particular, local, legal, and economic needs of (primarily Southern) black Americans within a shared vision of a multiracial and inclusive society. Over and over, the tactics of non-violence put before the (primarily Northern) white power structure of the post-war United States the jarring dissonance between the stated values of a democracy and the practical reality of discrimination and violently enforced segregation. King’s rhetoric provided an escape hatch of sorts- rather than the degrading injustice which we have, which nonviolent resistance and the immediacy of television puts before (Northern) whites in unvarnished clarity, we can choose an ennobling and greater communal life as a nation. This is done most famously in the I Have a Dream speech, but is made perhaps most explicit in an earlier speech during the 1956 Montgomery Bus Boycott:
But we must remember as we boycott that a boycott is not an end within itself; it is merely a means to awaken a sense of shame within the oppressor and challenge his false sense of superiority. But the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform.
The victories of the Civil Rights movement were victories, by-and-large, for procedural justice, and for the stated goals of the Declaration Of Independence and the 14th Amendment- that all men were created equal, and were therefore equal before the law. The tension that nonviolent resistance utilized was not merely the obvious hypocrisy of a supposedly Christian Southern power structure brutally suppressing fellow Christians protesting for equal rights. It was also the tension between the letter of our civic creed- our American patriotic religion- and between Constitutional law and radically unequal practice. For all the ways that racial injustice was baked into the cake of America from the beginning- the ways in which slavery was enshrined in the Constitution, protected by the Supreme Court, and gave a burgeoning empire its largest single source of wealth- it is equally true that the Founders and Framers were men enamored of the promise of moral equality- among white men of property, it is true, but still a drastic change from the aristocratic and feudal society that proceeded them. This belief was more than an ideological pose. The economic historian Deirdre McCloskey has argued at length that a belief in equal dignity for and among the bourgeois was critical for the explosion of wealth that has characterized the modern world:
The modern world cannot be explained, that is, by routine sources of brick- piling, such as the Atlantic trade or banking or the savings rate or the slave trade or the exploitation of the workers or the original accumulation of capital, whether of physical or of human capital. Such routines are too widespread in history and too feeble in oomph to explain the ten- or thirty- or one hundred-fold enrichment unique to the past two centuries. The Great Enrichment, 1800 to the present—the most surprising secular event in history—is explained instead by bettering ideas. The ideas were at first massively borrowed from China and other economies to the east and south of northwestern Europe. But from the seventeenth century onwards, and especially after 1800, they were shockingly extended, in Holland and Britain and Belgium and the United States. The Great Enrichment is not to be explained by the material interests of race, class, gender, power, culture, religion, genetics, institutions, or nationality. On the contrary, the entirely fresh ideas of democracy and of engineering led to voting rights and gasoline automobiles, primary schooling and central heating.
It’s worth remembering that the Civil Rights protesters, knowing they would be on television, always adopted the costume of the respectable bourgeoisie, suit and tie for men and staid dresses and hats for women. Figures like Rosa Parks were chosen for key roles not merely out of happenstance but because they were irreproachably respectable members of the community. A key moment in the historical march from Selma (though not last year’s Hollywood version) was when the small, actual black middle class of the town- the teachers and small business owners- joined in. While King often used the rhetoric of Christian poverty and meekness to describe his movement, the visual impression that Civil Rights leaders cultivated was that the protesters were wealth-creating bourgeoisie doing their best to bring the foot-dragging South into the modern age.
You don’t have to go to Howard Zinn-inspired historical revisionists, of course, to find sources who disagree stridently with McCloskey on the sources of Anerican wealth, and locate it instead in various forms of exploitation and subjugation. Such critiques are as old and American as apple pie. Here, for example, is a famous passage from Abraham Lincoln’s second Inaugural Address:
Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
This is Old Testament stuff. Since King’s death, perhaps no question has been more central to American life than whether de jure equality is sufficient to offer retribution for the evils of earlier injustice.
As Lyndon Johnson said in 1965, arguing for affirmative action,”You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say you are free to compete with all the others, and still just believe that you have been completely fair.”
But, he also said this in 1965, at the very moment of the onset of de jure equality for black Americans. The following five decades have been marked by a series of explicit and implicit policies to smooth the edges of de jure equality to benefit disadvantaged groups. As John McWhorter wrote this week (in response to an attack by Ta Nehisi Coates on Bernie Sanders for not supporting race-based reparations):
Affirmative action has been reparations. No one denies it has transformed the lives of countless black people — if it hadn’t, there wouldn’t be so many people so furious at the prospect of its demise. In the late 1960s, welfare payments to poor black women were expanded, made easier to get, and subject to less oversight over time. This was explicitly intended by its advocates as reparations.
The Community Reinvestment Act of 1977 was reparations, beyond the Fair Housing Act of 1968, for redlining practices that denied blacks the opportunity to own homes outside of slums. Scholarships nationwide for black students are reparations. Museum exhibits about slavery and the horrors of the black experience represent a nation deeply concerned with psychological reparation.
Educated white Americans’ focus of late on atoning for white privilege is reparations. The American intelligentsia’s reception of Coates’ book is reparations.
Whether each of the policies that McWhorter labels as reparations has in fact made the lives of black Americans better is a separate question. But few could doubt that in the main they represent departures from de jure equality, equality before the law, and gestures in the direction of equality of outcome, equality assured by the power of the state, instead. That they are so divisive and that the state of “race relations” is so stubbornly recalcitrant year after decade after year is not merely the result of what Ta Nehisi Coates ubiquitously terms white supremacy, and only partially the result of white America’s diminishing generosity of spirit towards blacks in a time of stagnant or deteriorating white living conditions– it is also the result of the deep tension most Americans feel between a culture that embraces equal “opportunity”- or at least equality before the law- and the attempt at equal outcomes that these policies represent. This is made even clearer by the increasing political salience of other racial groups outside the black-white dichotomy- East Asian and Hispanics primarily- for whom the institutionalization of racial preferences in college admissions or other departures from de jure equality are of uncertain benefit.
It is probably silly to speculate whether an elderly King who survived the 1968 assassin’s bullet would embrace the policies that McWhorter dubs reparations today, or approve of Coates’s favored monetary reparations themselves. Quite likely he would, not only because his extant work suggests mingled disquiet with and open revolt from capitalism, but because those of King’s political confidantes and allies who survived him are almost universally supportive of race-conscious policies. The question is whether an appreciation for King’s legacy demands that we also embrace such policies, and absorb a historiography in which capitalism is the source instead of the solution to racial injustice, in which the de jure equality delineated by the Constitution is a trap instead of a way out.
McWhorter has written that anti-racism is the flawed new religion of America’s educated class:
For example, Ta-Nehisi Coates, now anointed as James Baldwin’s heir by Toni Morrison, is formally classified as a celebrated writer. However, the particulars of his reception in our moment reveal that Coates is, in the Naciremian sense, a priest. Coates is “revered,” as New York magazine aptly puts it, as someone gifted at phrasing, repeating, and crafting artful variations upon points that are considered crucial—that is, scripture. Specifically, Coates is celebrated as the writer who most aptly expresses the scripture that America’s past was built on racism and that racism still permeates the national fabric.
While McWhorter presents anti-racism as superseding Christianity, it would be perhaps more accurate to say that it is in opposition to the traditional American civic and secular religion of de jure bourgeois equality. King understood and utilized this old civic religion, and his speeches were carefully shaped to appeal to it while also keeping Christian symbols front and center. It is hard to know how in the future we will remember King- as the founding prophet of our new religion or a saint of the old one.