William Raspbery, who died Tuesday at age 76, was a longtime Post columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner. This column was written after the Washington riots of 1968.
We may never know in detail what goals the martyred Dr. Martin Luther King had in mind for his spring campaign that was to start here in two weeks.
He had called it a “Poor People’s Campaign for Jobs or income,” which says a lot in general but little in specific terms about what he had hoped to accomplish and how.
But maybe it tells us all we really need to know. The details might not have mattered that much to Dr. King. I suspect that what he wanted was not so much specific programs but a commitment by this Nation that it will begin to move, and move massively, to undo what racial discrimination has done to black Americans.
Too many of us, I am afraid, have recognized only the surface effects of those evil decades. We see defeated men, now 40, who are the products of bad schools and bad jobs and hopelessness. We confess that they are victims of the American system, and victims mainly because they are black.
But when we see young Negroes who refuse to rush through newly opened doors, who decline to do the hard work that has made it possible for members of other races to lift themselves up, we conclude that there must be a flaw in the character of these young Negroes.
It is easier to see their lack of ambition than to see that society is, in large measure, responsible for it. Society cannot spend centuries teaching people that they are worthless and then be surprised when they show signs of believing it.
Negro leaders clamored for years for the Nation to cease its discrimination against blacks, to give them an equal chance at dreaming the American dream, Now the doors are beginning to open, and we are dismayed to hear young blacks saying, “We don’t want your jobs; we don’t want to be integrated into your institutions; we want no part of you.”
Until recent years, society has not cared all that much. If many Negroes chose not to take advantage of the new opportunities, if they showed too little ambition, why, it was the Negroes themselves who suffered for it.
The riots have changed all that. Now society itself is suffering at the hands of the monster it created.
But if society’s chickens are coming home to roost, it is little cause for joy among the Nation’s Negroes. That white people are suffering, too, makes the Negro’s suffering no less real.
What Dr. King was saying, I believe, is that society must begin to work very hard at reclaiming the people it has alienated, both because it is right to do so and because there is no other way for society to save itself.
It was a commitment to this end that Dr. King’s campaign was designed to spark.
The question now, after the weekend of violence that his assassination triggered, is whether the country can bring itself to make that kind of commitment.
The answer is uncertain, but some clues should be available soon. What, for instance, will happen to all our plans for summer jobs and summer recreation? What will happen to our efforts to improve police-community relations, to build better schools, to increase opportunities of all kinds of Negroes?
We started most of these programs not so much to meet the needs of Negroes as to keep them from rioting. What will the leaders do now that rioting has established itself as essentially unpreventable?
Congress will soon have to provide a part of the answer. If it continues to jettison programs for improving the lot of the Nation’s poor, if it concentrates its efforts only on strengthening the police — reinstituting the kind of repression that followed Reconstruction a century ago — or if it merely does nothing, the answer will be clear
It should be said again that only a small percentage of the Negroes here and elsewhere took part in the recent violence. But many of those who didn’t are convinced that they have a stake in this country.
That conviction can be spread to all Negroes, but it will take more than the gradual opening of doors. It will take a major and deliberate effort at reclaiming the alienated. It will take the kind of commitment that Dr. King had sought.
Many of my militant friends tell me that I am a dreamer, that the American system will never work for any but a chosen few Negroes.
I hope for the sake of us all that America will prove them wrong.