The year was 1965, and the Voting Rights Act had just passed. Many Californians were shocked by the uprising. Gov. Pat Brown maintained that California was “a state where there is no racial discrimination.”
But Martin Luther King Jr. had come to Los Angeles numerous times before to join black Angelenos’ struggles against police brutality and school and housing segregation. In an essay three months after the Watts uprising, King called out the disingenuous surprise, knowing firsthand how Californians, New Yorkers and others had brushed off years of local black movements.
“As the nation, Negro and white, trembled with outrage at police brutality in the South, police misconduct in the North was rationalized, tolerated, and usually denied,” he wrote. Leaders in Northern and Western states “welcomed me to their cities, and showered praise on the heroism of Southern Negroes. Yet when the issues were joined concerning local conditions, only the language was polite; the rejection was firm and unequivocal.”
King’s words resonate today.
In a United States where ethnic communities are experiencing violent attacks, where white nationalists parade with tiki torches, and where disdain for people of color spews from the White House, it is easy to focus on the crassest forms of racism infecting our nation. But to take seriously King’s life and work, we also must reckon with his long-standing critique of the “polite” racism of his liberal allies, of the language and the policies they employed to excuse and perpetuate racial injustice. King called out the systemic cruelty of such racism, of allies who supported civil rights while criticizing its tactics, who denounced discrimination elsewhere but explained away prejudices at home.
This King has much to say about our contemporary moment, about this presidential campaign season and the injustices that plague our blue cities as well as our red states. More than 50 years after King called out white liberals, many are still employing the polite racism that he decried.
Presidential Democratic candidates former vice president Joe Biden, former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg and former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg have presided over policies that perpetuate racial injustice in law enforcement. All have offered glib apologies but have taken no aggressive action to correct the harm. In response to requests by the new Poor People’s Campaign (the campaign King organized just before he was assassinated), several candidates have pledged to call for a presidential debate on poverty, but none have done so — evoking King’s criticism of the “silence of our friends” as a crucial linchpin to injustice.
As polite racism seeps into the discourse of the most liberal politicians and informs the policies of even the bluest of communities, listening to King’s challenge to his allies is increasingly urgent.
In 1964, some of King’s fellow civil rights leaders called on him to denounce a planned “stall-in” by the Brooklyn Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), a civil rights group protesting job discrimination and housing and school segregation. Frustrated by local leaders’ lack of urgency and minimal change, Brooklyn CORE sought to draw attention to rampant inequality by stalling cars to block highways leading to the World’s Fair at Flushing Meadows, forcing people to stop and see the inequality and poverty they passed on the way.
Horrified, other activists attacked the idea, calling on King to do the same. But he refused.
“We do not need allies who are more devoted to order than to justice,” he wrote in a letter to civil rights leaders. “I hear a lot of talk these days about our direct action program alienating former friends. I would rather feel that they are bringing to the surface many latent prejudices which were always there.”
Similar hand-wringing has erupted in recent years over activists who disrupt meetings, stop traffic and confront politicians. Calls for “civility” have followed, even from those who profess to support the activists’ causes.
President Barack Obama’s former chief strategist David Axelrod was “appalled” when the staff of a Virginia restaurant refused to serve then-White House press secretary Sarah Sanders in the aftermath of the administration’s family-separation policy. In June, Biden called for civility by citing his conciliatory relationship with segregationist lawmakers in decades past, and amid criticism, he refused to apologize, saying, “There’s not a racist bone in my body.”
In 2016, then-Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed invoked King to chastise a Black Lives Matter group’s plan to disrupt freeway traffic, joining a chorus that has cast today’s activists as too angry and reckless, not living up to the peaceful, respectable, unified legacy of the civil rights movement.
“Dr. King would never take a freeway,” Reed said, admonishing the young protesters.
And yet, King did take a freeway, perhaps most famously in the Selma to Montgomery march in 1965. He was arrested nearly 30 times while engaged in direct-action protests and said he believed in the necessity of disruption to upset the comfortable stasis of inequality.
In his 1967 book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?,” King reflected on reactions to those direct action tactics in the North.
“Our white liberal friends cried out in horror and dismay: ‘You are creating hatred and hostility in the white communities in which you are marching. You are only developing a white backlash,’” he wrote. “As long as the struggle was down in Alabama and Mississippi, they could look afar and think about it and say how terrible people are. When they discovered brotherhood had to be a reality in Chicago and that brotherhood extended to next door, then those latent hostilities came out.”
King long had highlighted the tendency of his Northern allies to identify problems elsewhere and overlook them at home. In 1960, speaking to an interracial audience celebrating the anniversary of the Urban League, he identified “a pressing need for a liberalism … that firmly believes in integration in its own community as well as in the Deep South.”
King was familiar with being welcomed by leaders who saw themselves as liberal and anti-racist only to have them react furiously when attention turned to the need for local change. After an officer killed 15-year-old James Powell in the Harlem neighborhood of New York, sparking days of uprising in 1964, Mayor Robert F. Wagner Jr. invited King to New York to help ease tensions between residents and city leaders. But those leaders roundly rejected King when he dared suggest the city would benefit from a civilian review board to investigate community complaints against police officers.
Today, New York remains a hotbed of inequality, home to segregated school systems and neighborhoods, as well as racial disparities in criminal justice and law enforcement. But resistance to change in the region persists.
In 2014, a report from the University of California at Los Angeles reported that school segregation remains rife throughout the country 60 years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled “separate but equal” education unconstitutional. The report declared New York state’s schools the most segregated, yet Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) has shown little willingness to make concrete changes, and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) has run from the word “segregation.” They’ve engaged in blame-shifting and little action, as a movement of New York City high school students who have taken it upon themselves to call the problem out.
King also highlighted the distorted obsession with black behavior in discussions about conditions in impoverished communities. Focusing on black crime, he said, was a way to avoid looking at the much greater crime of ghettoizing people in communities with insufficient schools, jobs and city services.
“When we ask Negroes to abide by the law, let us also demand that the white man abide by law in the ghettos,” he said during a 1967 speech to the American Psychological Association in Washington, D.C. “He flagrantly violates building codes and regulations; his police make a mockery of law; and he violates laws on equal employment and education and the provisions for civic services.”
But American leaders’ focus on changing black behavior as the solution for urban problems has endured. Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative sought to push young black men into the middle class by providing them with mentors rather than providing their communities with excellent schools and job opportunities. Rahm Emanuel, then mayor of Chicago, called for “moral structure” as a solution to crime in the city’s black communities.
All too many American leaders are “horrified not with conditions of Negro life,” King observed, “but with the product of these conditions — the Negro himself.”
In the last year of his life, King increasingly pointed to the “comfortable vanity” of Americans who saw themselves as friends of racial progress but were unwilling to take the necessary, substantial steps to close the gap. King called out his allies as well as his enemies. But we are often treated to the version of the civil rights leader who is a cheerleader of improvement, asserting that the “arc of the moral universe bends towards justice.”
It is a gross misreading of King, who throughout his life explicitly called out the myth of time as an agent of progress. But there is a comfort in ignoring the minister who pinpointed our complacencies and the explanations we create to support them.
In 1967, King wrote that “most whites in America, including many of goodwill, proceed from the premise that equality is a loose expression for improvement. White America is not even psychologically organized to close the gap — essentially, it seeks only to make it less painful and less obvious but in most respects retain it.”
On this King holiday, in this election year, we need to listen to the King who called out the hypocrisy of liberal allies who praised the struggle in the South while decrying disruptive black activism at home; the King who highlighted the ways police brutality was ignored or excused by many who considered themselves friends of the movement; the King who insisted that disruption and direct action were necessary to highlight the urgency of injustice, challenging his allies to act accordingly.