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The King to Come

The holiday and the future racial agenda

AFP/Getty Images

There were two Americans who attempted to forge one nation from the two societies created by the Founders’ failure to resolve the problem of slavery. One was Abraham Lincoln, whom we honored only implicitly on Presidents’ Day (the billing being shared with George Washington). The other was Martin Luther King Jr., for whom there is a national holiday. The reason we honor King and not Lincoln lies in the strategies and tactics that each man employed in attempting to make this a single nation. Lincoln, one of our history’s most heroic figures, has not been voted a holiday of his own because of the burning of Atlanta and Sherman’s scorched-earth march to the sea that left a wide swath of destruction; because of the North’s mistreatment of Southern prisoners of war, including the withholding of adequate food and medical care; and because of the economic brutalization of the South for years after the war. Lincoln’s legacy was a miasma of hatred and resentment that made it impossible ever after to achieve the political consensus necessary to establish a Lincoln national holiday.

At a time when racial issues have returned to the fore in America, King’s contribution to the struggle for racial equality cannot be overstated. But with the killing at Howard Beach and the demonstrations at Forsyth County in mind, it is still important to recognize that it was King’s struggle above and beyond the push for racial equality that was his greatest accomplishment. The King holiday is not a holiday solely for blacks; if it were, we would not have achieved it. It is a holiday to which all Americans of goodwill are committed largely because King’s strategy and tactics, imbued with the spirit of nonviolence, love, and affections, finally made feasible the emergence, under law, of a single nation—the states truly united.

Beyond this, King made three major contributions to our society that are seldom mentioned. First, wherever a stratified social structure exists, inevitably those on the bottom fear those at the top. Following the Civil War, black fraternal organizations, churches, and newspapers admonished blacks to stand up against fear. W. E. B. DuBois, Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, and other black leaders carried on in the same tradition. But it was King who helped shift the psychological balance between fear and contempt, and in so doing became an enduring symbol of that shift. By leading blacks into the streets, hand-in-hand with whites, he demonstrated that fear on the bottom could be overcome simultaneously with the destruction of contempt on the top. This was truly miraculous.

Second, King used the strategy of passive resistance in a unique way. Unlike Gandhi, who used nonviolence with the support of the majority against British colonial rule. King applied it to a situation where a small minority was seeking to wrest concessions from a majority. This inversion was a remarkable achievement. With it. King brought down old bigoted institutions and helped to create new democratic ones. He understood that human conflicts—in the family, community, nation, or the world—could be reconciled only if one party was prepared to take great risks. He understood that the more enlightened had to take burdens upon themselves, and that security springs from the voluntary acceptance of insecurity. His approach demonstrated that if people of goodwill sat in together at a segregated theater, restaurant, hotel, or bus, and were prepared to persevere despite repeated arrests and violence, such institutions would be dissolved and new, more democratic ones would emerge.

Third, King’s tactics came to be used by every oppressed group in the United States, and will continue to be. The Hispanics learned from him, and they went into the streets. The women’s movement did the same. The students of this nation, those who demonstrated peacefully, were following his lead. Homosexuals lost their fear, came out of the closet, and marched for their rights as equal citizens. And those who were beating on homosexuals learned that they could no longer do so with impunity. In other words. King’s tactics aimed to destroy the old framework of societal interactions and create a new one.

But, as the successes of the civil rights movement demonstrate, every advance that a society makes is accompanied by new problems. The legislative victories of the early 1960s resulting from King’s courageous efforts had both positive and negative consequences. They gave blacks a legal basis for social and economic mobility. However, this led to a decline in black entrepreneurial activities and to the isolation of the black poor.

Before the civil rights acts, the only way black people could go into business was to serve black people where they were forced, either de jure or de facto, to live. Thus, black ministers preached to black congregations, black schoolteachers taught black children in black schools, black restaurateurs served black people in black establishments. When King’s movement helped dismantle segregation, making it possible for blacks to move into the mainstream economy, the ghetto economy began to unravel. The hotels that were black disappeared. The first-class black restaurants went under. The theaters left the black ghettos. The best black teachers and educators and students, now able to go to Harvard, Princeton, and Brown, left the black schools.

A second byproduct of King’s revolution was the flight of the black upper and middle classes from the ghettos, leaving behind a hard-pressed working class and a hardcore underclass. Some in the black community decry this phenomenon, implying that those who left somehow betrayed those left behind. This is nonsense. Class mobility is not an exclusively black characteristic. It is a characteristic of the sociological grasshopping that makes America. The minute Jews could get out of New York’s Hester Street, they did. The minute Irish could get out of Hell’s Kitchen, they did. The minute Italians could get off Mott Street, they did. Leaving inner-city tenements to own homes in the emerging suburbs was a dream shared by all upwardly mobile groups in America. It is naive to believe that all blacks were going to stay on Harlem’s 125th Street as it deteriorated.

Shortly before he was killed, King had an inkling of the problems that would emerge partly as the result of his early successes. He sensed that the passage of civil rights legislation had shifted the focus from purely racial concerns to the broader and less tractable issues of political empowerment and economic justice. Addressing these issues was the next big step toward freedom. Had King lived a few years longer, he may have developed effective strategies to deal with the next phase of the revolution. Indeed, he had proposed what came to be known as the Poor People’s Campaign, which never really got off the ground.

The difficulty with that campaign was not rooted in its perception of the problem, but in its strategy and tactics. It had been relatively easy to rally blacks to abolish, with the help of the federal judicial system, segregationist laws that subjected them daily to humiliation and intimidation. It was another thing to motivate people to march for jobs, for training, and for economic justice, none of which could be legislated by the stroke of a pen or the taking down of “Colored Only” signs. For example, trade unions needed to spend millions of dollars to organize workers to stand up for their economic interests. Unlike the struggle against segregation, the struggle for economic equity would require huge resources and a national consensus to spend billions of dollars essential to address the problems of the poor.

What King cold not have foreseen is that this nation is creating what will be, in the next 20 years, millions of economic untouchables. These are men and women who will never work, for whom there will be no work, and whom society will regard as something less than human. In Western industrial societies, one is defined largely by one’s work. Mrs. Jones on welfare is a non-person in the eyes of society, and as a result she is likely to see herself as such.

Unable to find work and stripped of their humanity in relation to society at large, the underclass then faces the additional onus of latent racism rising to the surface. Ironically, this development comes at a time when the changing nature of the economy has hurt a growing segment of Americans of all races. Under these circumstances, racial conflict is all the more tragic, since the victimizers have more in common with their victims. The unemployed white teenager in Queens and the unemployed black youth in Harlem should be natural allies, not enemies. Neither the dispossessed farmer, nor the laid-off white factory worker in Detroit, nor the idle black steelworker in Pittsburgh can improve his or her condition without recognizing that they all must join in a common struggle.

The old form of racism was based on prejudging all blacks as somehow inherently undeserving of equal treatment. What makes the new form more insidious is its basis in observed sociological data. The new racist equates the pathology of the poor with race, ignoring the fact that family dissolution, teenage pregnancy, illegitimacy, alcohol and drug abuse, street crime, and idleness are universal problems of the poor. They exist wherever there is economic dislocation and deterioration--in the cities, for example, dotting Britain’s devastated industrial north. They are rampant among the white jobless in Liverpool as well as among unemployed blacks in New York, And if the American underclass seems more violent, it is only because we, as a nation, are more violent.

The new forms of racism cannot be attacked frontally. Society will not combat the new racism, as has been naively suggested in the press, by asking people to be good or asking teachers to teach new courses on tolerance. Nor can it be attacked by adopting the strategy and tactics used so effectively by King in the 1960s.

To combat bigotry and injustice today requires an analysis of structural changes in the economy that have contributed to the growth of the poor underclass, and a national agenda to address the ramifications of these changes. The technological revolution, automation, cybernation, and robots have taken jobs away from the poor and uneducated. And though some of these innovations create work, they do not create work for those without skills or, worse, those unable to attain them. Labor-intensive industries, which were prime vehicles for economic advancement for generations of white immigrants and black former slaves, have gone overseas, never to return.

To honor King we must look ahead, beyond the racial equality dream, to economic equity. It must be remembered that the civil rights King struggled for did not cost the American public one penny. Nor did it cost the American people anything to permit blacks to go to universities with equality, or into theaters and hotels, or to have the right to vote. Even the much maligned Great Society programs of the Johnson era were relatively inexpensive given the robustness of the economy at the time.

By contrast, the second phase of the revolution envisioned by King will require billions of dollars. But they are not dollars that will be spent on an exclusively black agenda. Continuing black economic progress and equal opportunity are not contingent on the government providing “special treatment” to blacks. Any preferential approach postulated along racial, ethnic, religious, or sexual lines will only disrupt a multicultural society and lead to a backlash. However, special treatment can be provided to those who have been exploited or denied opportunities if solutions are predicated along class lines, precisely because all religious, ethnic, and racial groups have a depressed class who would benefit.

Black economic progress is contingent upon the national economy performing well for all Americans. That can only happen if the federal government commits billions in resources to a comprehensive program that addresses this nation’s deteriorating economic position and the erosion of education and research and development. We need a national commitment to excellence in education and to federal vocational and job-training programs to help blacks and others enter an increasingly specialized and competitive job market, and to move on to new jobs when technological innovation eliminates old jobs. Those who argue that such programs would be expensive must realize that for every one million people unemployed, the cost to the United States is a staggering $24 billion annually in lost federal taxes.

There must also be a national commitment to formulate and implement a strategy for reducing poverty and easing the suffering of the underclass. We must accept the obvious fact that there are many among the poor who are psychologically unequipped to deal with the harsh realities of making it in society, but these people cannot be simply dismissed or left to wander the streets. And we must accept that the programs will be costly. In the long term, however, they will be less expensive for society than keeping people in jails, mental institutions, and drug rehabilitation centers.

Finally, there must be a national commitment to safeguarding civil rights and anti-discrimination regulations that have been indispensable to social and economic progress for blacks, women, Hispanics, and other minorities. The Reagan administration is zealously seeking to roll back many of the gains King gave his life to achieve.

If we truly want to honor King, we must bear in mind the basic lessons he taught us. First, we must avoid polarization. King helped win the battle against segregation because he forged a general consensus based on the notion that its elimination was in the interest of all Americans, Today’s struggle must be based on a non-racial program for economic justice that would facilitate the formation of coalitions based on mutual need. Second, King realized that the government will never bring about social change without the manifestation of a national will for change. And finally. King never lost sight of his immediate purpose: the abolition of racist laws barring blacks from normal participation in mainstream society. Even as the tactics to achieve economic equity have, by necessity, shifted from protest to politics, even as the struggle has moved out of the streets into the corporate boardrooms and national political organizations, these fundamental principles of the King legacy remain an integral part of the struggle.

Bayard Rustin is president of the A. Philip Randolph Educational Fund. This article was adapted from a speech delivered at Harvard University Chapel on January 19.