Listening to the ugly, inflammatory rhetoric of some of the candidates in this presidential campaign season, I sometimes feel that the progress clock has rolled back, not just a few years, but half a century or more. Certain candidates cavalierly dismiss the hard-won gains in civil rights of the last 50-75 years as mere “political correctness.” Those same candidates call for increasing our society’s disposition to violence by arming more citizens with guns; for pretending to make everyone feel more secure by raising fences higher and keeping out people who don’t look like “us” whomever that may be — how can you tell who looks like “us” or who worships like “us” in a nation deliberately composed of people from just about every race, religion, nationality, custom and culture in the world? The Civil Rights Movement succeeded in the 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s because of a strong national belief that democracy demands the unyielding commitment to freedom and justice for all people; that our diversity is our strength.
That belief in the moral imperative of justice for all did not just emerge in peaceful osmosis; generations of human suffering in slavery, the slaughter of the Civil War and atrocities against African Americans committed in the decades after emancipation exposed the human consequences of the evil of racism and hatred. In the 1950’s, this nation was also coming to grips with the realities exposed at Dachau and Auschwitz, the Holocaust, the heinous effort of one xenophobic dictator who managed to convince millions of his own citizens to commit unfathomable acts to eradicate an entire race of people in an effort to build a “racially pure” society. We all should go back to class to study the lessons of History more carefully.
On this 2016 observance of the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I find myself wondering what he would say to the politicians who are stoking the coals of racial and ethnic fear and suspicion once more, who are engaging in reckless rhetoric that encourages more violence and raises the spectre of repression of human rights and civil liberties in the name of national security.
In April 1957, after the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education but years before the force of the civil rights movement led to the enactment of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke to the Citizens Committee of Greater St. Louis. In a prescient speech that has so many themes that echo still today, Dr. King warned of the tendency to think that a few gains, such as school desegregation, ended the quest for real civil rights. “Peace is not merely the absence of tension, but it is the presence of justice,” he declared.
He warned of becoming complacent in the face of still-overwhelming evidence of violence against Black persons (“Men and women are being shot because they merely have a desire to stand up and vote as first class citizens…”) and extreme poverty afflicting the Black community.
In 1957, Dr. King noted that, “…just twelve percent of the Negro families of America make five thousand dollars or more a year, while forty percent of the white families of America make five thousand dollars or more a year.” I wonder what he’d say about a 2013 Pew Research Study that shows the racial wealth gap wider than ever, with White households having a median net worth of $141,000 while Black households have a median net worth of just $11,000. He would say, as he said in 1957 in St. Louis, “We’ve come a long, long way, but we have a long, long way to go in economic equality.”
Dr. King’s 1957 speech could be given today. He said that, “We must face the fact that segregation is still a reality in America” and so it is today in too many neighborhoods and public schools. He noted that, “The underlying philosophy of segregation is diametrically opposed to the underlying philosophy of democracy and Christianity.” Yet, he also was realistic about resistance to change: “History has proven that social systems have a great last-minute breathing power and the guardians of the status quo are always on hand with their oxygen tents to keep the old order alive.”
The “old order” is rearing its ugly head in the 2016 presidential race, nearly 60 years after Dr. King spoke in St. Louis. The Supreme Court has already undermined the Voting Rights Act, and Congress looks the other way. In 1957, Dr. King forewarned the rise of reactionary organizations — “the White Citizens’ Councils” — determined to maintain segregation. Iin 2016 the reality of whites-only organizations may be found everywhere from militias in some regions even to secret organizations on university campuses.
In 1957 in that speech in St. Louis, Dr. King noted that the majority of the world’s citizens are people of color, and that oppression (colonialism, imperialism in the language of those times) is an international problem. He said that the oppressed peoples of the world look to the United States for leadership, but so long as the U.S. treats its own people of color disgracefully, the threat exists that the world’s oppressed people will look elsewhere for leadership and liberation: “Oh, the hour is getting late. The clock of destiny is ticking out. We’ve got to say this to the nation that we are not fighting for ourselves along, we are fighting for this nation. For if America doesn’t wake up, she will one day arise and discover that the uncommitted peoples of the world have given their allegiance to a false…ideology…. the civil rights issue is not some ephemeral, evanescent domestic issue that can be kicked around by reactionary and hypocritical politicians. but it is an eternal moral issue which may well determine the destiny of our nation in its ideological struggle…”
The ideology at the center of the struggle in 1957 was communism. Today that ideology is the nihilism of terrorism as practiced by ISIS, Al Quaeda and other rogue international groups. These groups feed off the fear of people who feel oppressed and maltreated by governments.
If he were alive today, Dr. King would surely call upon the presidential candidates to tone down their rhetoric of fear and violence and racial hatred. Even more, he would demand that equality and justice be put back into the center of political discourse, that the primary goal of the election should be to find a leader who can restore America’s moral authority in the world as a place of true justice and equal opportunity for all.