Martin Luther King Jr. At Eighty-Two

On this day that, were he alive, Martin Luther King Jr. would be eighty-two, I find myself pondering the question: what would he make of the state of “race relations” at present?

A challenging, and I think irresolvable, question — but doubtless of some use. Perhaps the first observation many would yield is the recent entry of “post-racial” into the political phrasebook. The American establishment is now populated, if somewhat sparsely, by black politicians who do not speak of the oppression of dark-skinned persons by “white people.” The themes and locutions of the civil rights era, even those derived of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s non-violent and integrationist faction, have been mostly displaced in America by generic calls for unity, justice, hope, and social and personal responsibility.

Or have they? King was murdered in 1968 at age thirty-nine, which means that in theory he had a good amount of potential evolution in his unrealized future. Yet even at what would likely have been the early phase of his career, King had began to move away from the mere politics of race and toward an internationalist, economic-based conception of human liberation struggles. No, maybe “move away” is a misleading metaphor. Rather, he came to take up matters of race into a comprehensive critique of power, not only state power but the power of human agency. We’re encouraged on many sides to regard King as a preacher and inspirationalist, but reading his later speeches, I am struck especially by their practical materialism.

Consider one of his most famous, often-cited and also final speech of April 3, 1968. This is known by the title “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” The occasion of this speech was the Memphis Sanitation Strike, and it contains the usual tropes, biblical stories and allusions and such. But then there are remarkable passages such as these, which I think I ought to quote at length:

… we are asking you tonight, to go out and tell your neighbors not to buy Coca-Cola in Memphis. Go by and tell them not to buy Sealtest milk. Tell them not to buy — what is the other bread? — Wonder Bread. And what is the other bread company, Jesse? Tell them not to buy Hart’s bread. As Jesse Jackson has said, up to now, only the garbage men have been feeling pain; now we must kind of redistribute the pain. We are choosing these companies because they haven’t been fair in their hiring policies; and we are choosing them because they can begin the process of saying, they are going to support the needs and the rights of these men who are on strike. And then they can move on downtown and tell Mayor Loeb to do what is right.

But not only that, we’ve got to strengthen black institutions. I call upon you to take you money out of the banks downtown and deposit you money in Tri-State Bank — we want a “bank-in” movement in Memphis. So go by the savings and loan association. I’m not asking you something that we don’t do ourselves at SCLC. Judge Hooks and others will tell you that we have an account here in the savings and loan association from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. We’re just telling you to follow what we’re doing. Put your money there. You have six or seven black insurance companies in Memphis. Take out your insurance there. We want to have an “insurance-in.”

Now there are some practical things we can do. We begin the process of building a greater economic base. And at the same time, we are putting pressure where it really hurts. I ask you to follow through here.

It seems to me that this business of the economic boycott and the strengthening of black institutions, and so on, is less often regarded than is the calcified icon of the civil rights preacher, the spiritual man who inspires goodness and unity, mostly through appeal to the Bible. Partly this no doubt is a consequence of the facts that he was indeed a preacher, and that today religious persons wishing to establish themselves as leaders derive from his precedence a certain moral authority. A good degree of the civil rights movement’s membership and momentum derived from secular, atheistic, Jewish, and in other ways non-Christian sources, but it is difficult to imagine any of these elements being brought to the fore by any figure who wishes to evoke the legacy of this era.

Given what I have presented thus far, you won’t be surprised that I suspect King would be fine with the post-racial age, but only provided it was characterized by the broader consciousness and efforts toward which he was working. From this does it not follow that he would be disturbed by the failure of America’s leaders, of all shades, to address the imbalances and injustices of the economic system? King was already going somewhere beyond race analysis in 1968, somewhere much bigger and much more transformational: but who in today’s black leadership, religious or secular, has followed him there?

The enormous and growing chasm between the rich and the poor, the continuation and indeed expansion of the military-industrial complex, and the hypocrisy of black religious leaders (of which, let’s be candid, the womanizing King was himself guilty) would I think meet with his disapproval and disappointment. I doubt the great wealth of a few black rap artists and industrialists would much redeem for him the structural and systemic economic distortions of American finance capitalism. But then I am extrapolating from the thirty-nine year-old King, whereas given the time to evolve and ripen he may well have reconciled himself to such matters. Many leaders have.

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