#MLK50: What was the Civil Rights Movement?
Here in Memphis, we are about to roll from Holy Week and Easter Sunday into the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s assassination.
In preparation for this, I’ve been reading Where Do We Go from Here, Dr. King’s last book published in 1968. This phrase—Where Do We Go from Here?—is the tag used by MLK50 for its year-long remembrance. Not until I bought the book did I realize the slogan was the title of a book Dr. King wrote. The full title is Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?
Dr. King is explaining the arc of the civil rights movement in a way I’ve never heard before. Basically, good white people couldn’t stand to see the terror and violence in the South—the fire hoses and dogs and killings—and they insisted it stop. The country enacted laws to remedy wrongs. But when the crisis passed, so did the emotional involvement. The laws lay unenforced and, when time came for the next step—away from “brutality and unregenerate evil” and towards “brotherhood”—forward motion stalled.
Why? That would cost money.
“There are no expenses, and no taxes are required, for Negroes to share lunch counters, libraries, parks, hotels and other facilities with whites.” But equality? “Depressed living standards for Negroes are not simply the consequence of neglect … They are a structural part of the economic system in the United States. Certain industries and enterprises are based upon a supply of low-paid, under-skilled and immobile nonwhite labor.”
Dr. King saw the civil rights movement, up to that point, as establishing a foundation for change. Not the end, the beginning. “From issues of personal dignity they are now advancing to programs that impinge upon the basic system of social and economic control.” (emphasis mine). “At this level Negro programs go beyond race and deal with economic inequality, wherever it exists.”
I sold Dr. King short. As much as I’ve read over the years about the civil rights movement, I saw it as a battle in a point in time to end segregation. I knew Dr. King was “shifting his focus” to economic ills when he died, but that’s a mischaracterization. The remedying of economic ills was part of the civil rights movement’s long, complex plan for bringing about equality. Attacking Southern racism at its roots was what I’ll call Phase 1. Phase 2 was to change the system.
These days, it seems we are in a thicket of re-fighting Phase 1. As Dr. King said, white opposition “remained a formidable force capable of hardening its resistance when the cost of change was increased.” Waves of backlash constantly appear in this country, forcing us to play Whack-a-Mole with those assaulting the personal dignity of African-Americans. But while we are so occupied, what becomes of systemic reform? The question remains: Where Do We Go from Here?
I’ll write more as the week goes on.