The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

From MLK’s death to Trump’s election, racism continues to scar America’s identity

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I decided to write about Martin Luther King Jr.’s death because I wanted to learn something new about his life. My book, “The Heavens Might Crack,” ended up focusing less on King himself and more on how he influenced others.

I came to see King’s death, on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on April 4, 1968, as a tipping point in our nation’s history, dooming any last hopes for a multiracial America. In the end, King’s assassination exposed a virulent white racism, which turned his ideal of the “beloved community” into a fanciful dream.

To study the final days and months of King’s life is to confront the fact that millions of white Americans loathed him. From our current vantage point, at a time when white supremacist groups feel emboldened and empowered, the discovery of a deep racial hatred should not come as a great surprise. Yet King is so canonized today that the intensity of this hatred can still startle and stun.

Every American knows that King stared down vicious racists in places such as the Alabama cities of Birmingham and Selma when he led crusades to topple segregation. But by 1968, the Jim Crow signs had come down, and African Americans were exercising their right to vote in much of the South. Yet whites’ hatred for King persisted. I had not fully understood the depths and the endurance of that revulsion. Some whites celebrated King’s death, everywhere from Mississippi and Memphis to Michigan and the Bronx.

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It was not just the older generation of whites that rejoiced at King’s assassination. Young whites absorbed the hatred of their parents and made it their own. A teacher at a Memphis-area high school asked his students to write about their responses to King’s assassination. Their comments are archived in the library at the University of Memphis. Most of the students responded with satisfaction or glee. One student described his immediate reaction to King’s death: “I thought it was one of the greatest feats of Americanism I have ever heard of.” Another explained that because of King’s death, the country would be “better off in the long run.”

At the time of his death, King was one of the last leaders who still labored to forge unity — between blacks and whites as well as within the various factions of the civil rights movement. No other leader spoke so hopefully about America’s ability to transcend the horrors of its racial history — nobody, that is, until Barack Obama came along.

I began working on this book early in Obama’s second presidential term. Obama spoke to an optimism about race in America that I have long held. I have clung to the belief that America derives its power from its diversity and that it might one day become a truly multiracial society. I wrote two previous books detailing the grim facts of our nation’s racial history, yet I nevertheless kept faith in this fundamentally hopeful notion. Obama’s election nurtured those hopes, and his reelection cemented them.

As a child, I attended public schools that were quite integrated. The city of Springfield, Mass., was equal parts white, African American and Puerto Rican, and for much of my childhood I remained unaware of the job losses and white flight that were deepening the racial inequality in my city. Because I spent my days in multiracial classrooms and my weekends on integrated basketball courts, I didn’t think of the city as a deeply segregated place. But as I grew older, the spatial segregation became more obvious, the income gap more apparent, and racial tensions bubbled more furiously to the surface. At the very least, my experiences in Springfield made me want to explore the history behind America’s persistent racism and segregation.

My research on this third book brought me deeper into the abyss of our nation’s vicious racism, just as I watched with my own eyes as our country sank into that terrible pit. I refer, of course, to the fact that American voters recently elevated to the Oval Office a man who boosted his political career by becoming the leading voice in the birther movement, peddling vile lies about our first black president. Since he has taken office, nativism and racism have surged back to the center of our public life while white supremacist groups have leaped from the shadowy fringes of our society into its forefront. Those of us who believe that all people are entitled to a basic dignity now find ourselves on the defensive. That belief suddenly seems naive. So I have emerged unsettled from the process of writing “The Heavens Might Crack” — scarred by the violent racism in our country’s past as well as its persistence.

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It has been almost 10 years since Obama’s election, and it seems so hard to remember the hopefulness of that moment. “Bull Connor’s world fell as the fortunes of Barack Obama rose,” wrote Ta-Nehisi Coates in 2011. The collapse of that world was “assured” in November 2008. Yet it seems clear that Connor’s world never fell. Obama’s victories lulled many of us into thinking that, even if racism had not gone entirely away, it had at least gone underground — had become an ugly remnant of another age. Not only did the racism of the Jim Crow era fail to ever go away, but perhaps it never even went underground. That racism remains a through line in American history, an ugly and incredibly resilient part of our nation’s identity.

Fifty years after King’s death, we need him more than ever. In this hateful atmosphere, I would even settle for the King of cliche — the dreamer who longed for a day when his children would be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. Our country seems to have rejected even that unthreatening ideal of colorblindness.

We King scholars tend to highlight King’s radical vision — his crusade for economic justice, his lacerating speeches that denounced American imperialism, his embrace of democratic socialism — and to bemoan the way that he is so often reduced to a gentle spokesman for integration and interracialism. I think it’s worth remembering that even at his most moderate, King offered a vision that was revolutionary. He used rhetoric that could seem compromising. And yet he always delivered a message that promised radical shifts in power. That was King’s genius.

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