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Martin Luther King’s Understanding of Racism
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Martin Luther King’s Understanding of Racism

King’s sophisticated understanding of racism bridges two worldviews: that racism is primarily systemic and as well as interpersonal.

· 13 min read

Racism used to be an easy thing to define in America. We knew it was geographically concentrated in the southern states and fundamentally interpersonal. If there were racist laws on the books, it was because people were racist. Thanks to the teachings of the inspirational Martin Luther King Jr. and to the movement he led, that racism was defeated. Or so the story went. Today, however, the American progressive Left thinks of racism in terms that are less interpersonal and more systematic. Racism, in this view, is fundamentally resistant to moral persuasion. Most Americans today associate Dr. King with the paradigm of racism as an interpersonal problem. But, in his sophisticated and holistic understanding of racism, Dr. King’s thought bridges the two worldviews.

Dr. King was the product of his time, place, and social class. Given that he was born in Atlanta, Georgia on 15 January 1929, just before the start of the Great Depression, one might assume that Dr. King experienced the depths of poverty and racism from an early age.

Class matters, however. Dr. King grew up in a comfortable middle-class home, the son and grandson of respected ministers. His experiences of racism as a child were far less direct and visceral than those of the young Malcolm Little (later Malcolm X), who grew up poor, haunted by rumors that his father had been murdered by white supremacists. This doesn’t mean that Dr. King didn’t experience racism growing up, however. In his 1958 memoir, Stride Towards Freedom: The Montgomery Story, he writes:

While I was still too young for school I had already learned something about discrimination. For three or four years my inseparable playmates had been two white boys whose parents ran a store across the street from our home in Atlanta. Then something began to happen. When I went across the street to get them, their parents would say that they couldn’t play. They weren’t hostile; they just made excuses.

Martin King Sr. was the son of a sharecropper who had witnessed racism in its simplest, most brutal form. Martin Luther King Jr. was spared that experience. Instead, he was left to piece together the nature of racism through the enquiring mind of a gentle child. Growing up in the Jim Crow South, he noticed that people treated him differently from white children, in ways that were subtly but painfully demeaning. For example, he was barred from attending a certain amusement park; a shop assistant refused to fit him for shoes for his growing feet. His parents had to explain why. He writes: “Every parent at some time faces the problem of explaining the facts of life to his child. Just as inevitably, for the Negro parent, the moment comes when he must explain to his offspring the facts of segregation.”

The Civil Rights movement of the mid-twentieth century was different from the antiracism movements that would follow in that it was overwhelmingly led by the black middle class, a group that had been expanding following the economic boom and new labor rights that followed the Second World War. More concerned with social opportunity and less affected by poverty than the majority of African Americans, the civil rights activists saw racial integration as their key social goal.

As sociologist William Julius Wilson has explained, “One major effect of the changes in the black occupational structure after 1940 was the revival of the integrationist ideology and concern for civil rights that had preoccupied black leaders prior to … the turn of the century.” The educated black leadership of the Reconstruction Era had tried to make desegregation a reality—but their idealistic project could not survive the hard realities of the resurgence of racial oppression in the post-war South.

The young Martin Luther King Jr. focused on a more specific ideal of social integration that was influenced by the theological teachings that had come down to him from the elders on both sides of his family. Both his own father King Sr. and his mother’s father, Adam Daniel Williams, were highly regarded Baptist ministers. Williams had provided his daughter—Dr. King’s mother, Alberta Williams King—with a quality education. Dr. King, then, grew up in a community deeply rooted in Gospel teachings. He later studied Classical Greek philosophy and the non-violent resistance methods of Mahatma Gandhi and synthesized what he learned into a vision of what he called the “beloved community.” The hallmarks of this vision were the idea of agape (love as overarching and unconditional good will) and moral redemption: themes that also characterize the profoundly uplifting social sermons through which Dr. King would later touch the conscience of the United States. In a 1966 essay for Ebony Magazine entitled “Nonviolence: The Only Road to Freedom,” Dr. King encapsulates his vision:

Only a refusal to hate or kill can put an end to the chain of violence in the world and lead us toward a community where men can live together without fear. Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.

Dr. King wrote these words not long after riots had upended a number of American cities, following violent collisions between black people and the police. Despite the heightened tensions, his language was little changed from what it had been nine years before, not long after he first appeared on the national scene as a social leader, when he told UC Berkeley students:

the nonviolent resister does not seek to humiliate or defeat the opponent but to win his friendship and understanding … our aim is not to defeat the white community, not to humiliate the white community, but to win the friendship of all of the persons who … perpetrated this system in the past … The aftermath of nonviolence is reconciliation and the creation of a beloved community.

Martin Luther King Jr. believed in the power of persuasion—and in the post-Civil Rights era, so did Americans like me. The story we told ourselves was that moral persuasion had triumphed and transformed the racial attitudes of the nation.

Photo by History in HD on Unsplash

When he signed Martin Luther King Day into law on 2 December 1983, President Ronald Reagan proclaimed that “Dr. King’s work is not done, but neither is his witness stilled. He urged again and again that all of us come to love and befriend one another, to live in brotherhood and reconciliation, to nourish each and every individual’s dignity and self-respect.” A single line from Dr. King’s seminal speech of 1963 came to be almost universally recognized in America as the thesis statement defining his work and legacy: “I have a dream my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

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This was the sort of call to conscience that President Reagan and mainstream America chose to remember from among the many insights of Dr. King—and rightly so, since such sentiments were foundational to who Dr. King was and what he believed. Dr. King viewed racism as, in essence, a spiritual sickness that had taken root in the hearts of too many white Americans and that produced a reactionary sickness of racial hatred among far too many black Americans. Yet each of these same human beings had an innate capacity for good, a capacity that could be unlocked through an appeal to his or her conscience. Dr. King believed in the power of agape to cure this sickness and reach the conscience. This philosophical conception of love informed his approach to speaking truth to power and to addressing the bigoted population of the Jim Crow South and beyond.

Despite the clear political triumphs of Dr. King’s movement, his philosophy of social change was deemed naïve by many. After his death in 1968, even as so many across the nation, both black and white, mourned him, there was no shortage of black militants who felt well rid of Dr. King’s philosophy. To them, the very fact of his death was proof positive of his failure.

A couple of generations later, while acknowledging the significance of Dr. King’s accomplishments, Ibram X. Kendi would reject the efficacy of Dr. King’s philosophy of moral persuasion. As he writes in his 2019 book How to Be an Antiracist: “Moral and educational suasion breathes the assumption that racist minds must be changed before racist policy, ignoring history that says otherwise.” Kendi viewed the cultural changes that followed Dr. King’s victories in the Civil Rights struggle as the consequences of the movement’s political gains—and not the other way around. In support of this, Kendi cites Dr. King himself, in a speech from 1967: “We’ve had it wrong and mixed up in our country, and this has led Negro Americans in the past to seek their goals through love and moral suasion devoid of power.”

But Kendi’s assessment completely misapprehends the nature of politics and of coalition-building. Though it is certainly true that the passage of the Civil Rights Act (1964), Voting Rights Act (1965), and Fair Housing Act (1968) furthered the culture of integration, the multicultural, bipartisan composition of the coalition that powered through the passage of those bills was itself a testament to the efficacy of moral persuasion. Kendi’s chosen quotation also misrepresents Dr. King by suggesting that, in later life, he abandoned his philosophy of non-violence, which rests on moral persuasion as its fundamental mechanism of change. But in fact, Dr. King urged America to pursue justice by means of non-violence right up to the very end.

Still, Kendi is correct to highlight the tension between an agenda of moral persuasion and a power-focused activism bent on changing systems. Dr. King often sought to reconcile this tension between power-based and love-based approaches:

Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.

In a 1971 debate with Michel Foucault, against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, Noam Chomsky—whose rise to prominence largely coincided with Dr. King’s—considers a related tension in reflecting upon civil disobedience. Intellectuals in pursuit of social justice must “construct a vision of a just and free society on the basis of some notion of human nature,” Chomsky explains. Yet, in Chomsky’s view, human nature is ambiguous enough to make civil disobedience a risk-laden enterprise. In addition, it can provoke a dangerous backlash. “Civil disobedience in the USA,” argues Chomsky, “is an action undertaken in the face of considerable uncertainties about its effects. For example, it threatens the social order in ways which might, one might argue, bring about fascism.” Would civil disobedience lead Americans towards some fuller embrace of true justice through the influence of the better angels of their nature? Or would it simply invite a massive authoritarian response? Chomsky did not feel confident enough in our understanding of human nature to say. “Yet at the same time it is of critical importance,” he stated, “that we know what impossible goals we’re trying to achieve, if we hope to achieve some of the possible goals.”

Dr. King was more confident about human nature than Chomsky. He believed that human beings were inclined towards love, if they could be liberated from hate through moral persuasion. 

Yet there was an unmistakable gap between the world Dr. King wished to see and the efficacy of the tools of moral persuasion for achieving that world. It was a gap laid bare, ironically, by the very successes of Dr. King’s movement, such as the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. For though desegregation of schools, public accommodations, and guarantees of the right to vote were vital gains, the benefits of these improvements accrued exclusively to black Americans in the Jim Crow South. The problems of underperforming schools, police brutality—and especially of the poverty that plagued urban black communities in places like Harlem, Chicago, and Watts—were untouched by these political wins.

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Meaningful economic equality proved especially elusive. Those allies in government and among prominent white Americans who had aided the Civil Rights movement when its focus was on civil liberties proved less loyal when the focus shifted to economics. In both structural and psychological terms, the economic front of the Civil Rights struggle proved far more complicated.

Over the last three years of his life, Dr. King’s criticisms of white American attitudes towards racial equality became both broader and more pointed. He was even critical of erstwhile allies. As he told NBC in a 1967 interview:

Honesty impels me to admit that America has broad racist elements still alive, North and South. There has never been a single, solid, determined commitment of large segments of white America on the whole question of racial equality. Many of the people who supported us in Selma and in Birmingham were really outraged about the extremist behavior towards Negroes. But they were not at that moment—and they are not now—committed to genuine equality for Negroes. … It’s much easier to integrate a lunch counter than it is to guarantee an annual income, for instance, to get rid of poverty for Negroes and all poor people. … I think we are in a new phase of the struggle, where we have moved from a struggle for decency, which characterized our struggle for ten or twelve years, to a struggle for genuine equality, and this is where we’re getting the resistance because there was never any intention to go this far.

People were shocked by and willing to fight to end the brutal treatment of blacks meted out by the likes of Bull Connor and Jim Clark, Dr. King believed, but many of those former allies were not committed to “acting in good faith for the realization of genuine equality.”

In a 1968 speech at the annual convention of the Rabbinical Assembly, Dr. King criticized the earlier tendency of the Civil Rights movement—and perhaps there was also an implied self-criticism in this—to talk about integration in “esthetic or romantic terms” alone. Such an approach, Dr. King reflected, “ended up as merely adding color to a still predominantly white power structure.” Strikingly, in this speech, Dr. King partially endorses the sort of strategic segregation that was to be embraced more fully by the rising Black Power movement, as a means towards more meaningful integration, “where there is sharing of power.” Dr. King describes segregation as, in certain instances, “a temporary way-station to a truly integrated society.” Such segregation was certainly not the end goal; Dr. King made that clear. Yet he had become wary of traditional approaches to desegregation after witnessing schools and teachers’ associations in which “the Negro is integrated without power”—in which black teachers and community leaders lost the prominent positions and influence they had enjoyed in their previously segregated institutions.

In a recent debate between Coleman Hughes and Jamelle Bouie, Hughes argues that Dr. King and other luminaries of the Civil Rights Era eschewed identity politics and shied away from the sort of racial-quota-based policy prescriptions that characterized the affirmative action promoted by later leaders. But while this is true in general terms, at the time of his death, MLK was enthusiastic about the targeted boycott campaigns of “Operation Breadbasket,” designed to force all-white businesses to hire a minimum proportion of African Americans. It is not hard to imagine Al Sharpton pursuing such a strategy.

As William Julius Wilson has shown, Dr. King was one of the first mainstream black leaders to seriously address the issue of poverty. The tools that Dr. King implemented to do so were designed to impact what Dr. King called the “white power structure,” a structure that he believed was reinforced by the ambivalence and paternalism of even those white Americans who recoiled at the explicit mistreatment of African Americans. This sounds surprisingly like an analysis of “systemic racism,” even in the aftermath of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts.  

One hears in Dr. King’s analysis the very beginnings of modern antiracism. The notion of “implicit bias” that informs works like Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility (2018) psychologizes an idea that Dr. King had begun to take seriously: that white Americans are generally not concerned about meaningful racial equality, even when they pretend (and perhaps even believe) that they are. Kendi’s concept of “assimilationist racism”—in essence, a liberal paternalism that allows blacks to be integrated without truly being equal—also finds some echo here.

The philosophical underpinnings of modern antiracism, then, are not wholly disconnected from the trajectory of Dr. King’s own thought as he neared the end of his life. Intellectual honesty requires that we acknowledge this. Dr. King saw racism as permeating society through systems and institutions. He observed racism in subtle hypocrisies extended across the bulk of white society in ways of which white people themselves might often be unaware.

Yet, Dr. King’s understanding of racism also reflected a broader and deeper faith in human nature and liberal idealism that makes him a paragon of Enlightenment humanism and Christian ethics alike. Dr. King believed that racism thrived in ignorance. Though he had discovered that racism had deeper social and historical roots and would be harder to eradicate than he had realized in 1956, during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Dr. King did not believe it was beyond the capacity of white people (or of any group of people) to overcome racism within themselves. To this end, Dr. King sought to build multiracial coalitions of equals, and worked to help both white and black overcome challenges they shared. For example, he invested precious resources to organize poor white people in the rural south in his 1968 Poor People’s Campaign.  

As an avid student of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, Dr. King believed in the ability of virtue and reason, fostered by education, to empower the individual. Racial categories were of more practical importance to Dr. King than those who ascribe to a colorblind ethos today may be comfortable acknowledging. But Dr. King was deeply concerned about the sort of identity politics that centers race as if it were some primal category. “I regret that the slogan Black Power came into being,” he said in 1966. “It often connotes the quest for black domination rather than black equality. … America must be made a nation in which its multi-racial people are partners in power.”

To Dr. King, human identity mattered much more than race. Human value was anchored in divinity. The roots of racism lay in the fact that black people had been treated as commodities, depersonalized. Racism deviates from the view that all men are made in the image of God. This truth transcends anything that can be gleaned about humanity from our racial categories. “Let us be dissatisfied until that day when nobody will shout ‘White power!’—when nobody will shout ‘Black power!’—but everybody will talk about God’s power and human power,” Dr. King declared in 1967, in the last year of his life. His views and tactics had evolved as he continued to push for transformational moral and material change in a country deeply steeped in injustice. But his fundamental convictions were the same at the end of his life as they had been right from the beginning. 

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