On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed by James Earl Ray. Ray was a segregationist who had volunteered for the campaign of George Wallace (who served four terms as Governor of Alabama and ran four times for President) and had dreams of emigrating to Ian Smith’s white-minority regime in Rhodesia.
I’ve been asked to participate next month on a panel sponsored by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization that King helped to found. He went on to serve SCLC as its first president. Among the subjects of the discussion is the last book of King’s that was published before his death, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community. While I had read excerpts before, I had never taken to time to read the book cover to cover. Shame on me. After completing it, I have to add shame on us.
While our country has certainly made progress in the last fifty years in the arena of civil rights and equal opportunity, there’s just too much that is familiar today to stand up and be all that proud of. As King wrote then, the absence of brutality is not the presence of justice. He continued: the majority of Americans consider themselves committed to the idea of justice for all, regardless of race, creed, or color. And they believed then (as they certainly do now) that America is a country that is essentially hospitable to fair play and equal opportunity. We are also inclined to engage in what he calls the fantasy of self-deception. We want so ardently to believe that certain things are true, that we decide they have to be true when reality loudly tells us otherwise.
King, in 1967, takes an inventory of equality and justice that includes access to decent housing, medical care, and education. He looks at educational attainment and college attendance and completion, employment rates and family income. He examines the issues of residential and educational segregation. Not surprisingly, back in the 60’s, on the heels of the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, the equality scorecard is miserable on every count. What’s utterly depressing is how little has changed a half a century later. Whether that is all that surprising depends, I imagine, on how deep our fantasy of self-deception is.
In Chapter 3, King begins to play the role of historian for us, recounting how deeply entrenched the roots of racism lie in America. And while he is very careful to note that not all of white America is racist by any means and to point out how much progress has been made on that front, he is also relentless about insisting we face our history. Slavery was a national institution on whose back the economic ascendency of this country was founded. Our Founding Fathers were, of course, deeply committed to the institution. And as we all know, God became the white man’s partner in crime in perpetuating this evil. Being a Black person in America, at the time of his writing and today, I would assert, means being scarred by the history of slavery and the history of intentional family disintegration that we engineered to go along with it. African families were first destroyed across the ocean and then again while crossing the ocean. They were divided on the auction block, by the abolition of the institution of marriage for slaves, and by rampant sexual abuse by slave masters. America is a country of immigrants, for sure, where people from other lands have come and met with varying degrees of success, but none were brought here in chains, burdened by the stigma of color, facing a vicious and calculated plan to destroy family life.
In the face of all this history, we insist now more than ever that that we live in a post-racial country. The schools our children attend are as segregated as they were at the time of King’s death. At the university level, we have seen a massive de-funding of public education over the last thirty years, with access to minority students to a quality education becoming more and more restricted. New voter ID laws are proliferating. It sure looks like to me that despite the symbolic majesty of such things as the election of our first African American President, we are heading backwards in so many ways. Like I said, shame on us.