The “costs of canonization” of Martin Luther King, Jr., as Brandon Terry notes, have been the stripping of much of the civil rights leader’s political thought and praxis. We cherry-pick the quotes, refusing the broader indictment he leveled at the country. And we trap King in the South, missing his challenge to northern injustice and the limits of American liberalism from the beginning of the 1960s.
Our popular rendering of King makes it seem like he only recognized the racial problem outside of the South after the 1965 Watts riots. Yet King had crisscrossed the North and West in the early 1960s, joining with movements there and criticizing the willful disregard of black protest long before the uprisings. He was severely attacked for it—often, as he pointed out, by people who supported his work in the South. King doubled down, insisting that racial problems outside the South did not begin with the riots of the mid-1960s—as citizens, political officials, and the media suggested—but with the long history of injustice and frustrated black struggle that preceded them. Ignoring this component of King’s activism furthers the myth, popular then and now, that U.S. racism is peculiarly southern, brutal, and redneck rather than national, firm, and stubborn.
In a 1960 speech in New York, King made clear that racism “is not a sectional but a national problem” and called for “a liberalism in the North that is truly liberal, that firmly believes in integration in its own community as well as in the deep South.” Over the next few years, King crisscrossed the country, taking part in rallies, meetings, and marches that highlighted the scourge of school and housing segregation, job discrimination, and police brutality outside the South. While his efforts in the South were praised by many in these cities, whites balked as soon as he called out local inequality.
Take Los Angeles. In 1961 King made the first of many trips to the city to join with a growing freedom movement in the city around job discrimination, housing and school segregation, and police brutality, speaking before a crowd of 28,000. He returned again in May 1963, addressing 35,000 people at Wrigley Field: “You asked me what Los Angeles can do to help us in Birmingham. The most important thing that you can do is to set Los Angeles free because you have segregation and discrimination here, and police brutality.” In 1964 Los Angeles’s freedom movement had to shift its energies to defeat a menacing ballot initiative. Proposition 14 sought to repeal California’s new Rumford Housing Act, which banned racial discrimination in the sale and rental of property—a law activists had fought for years to achieve. King came multiple times to join the fight, saying its passage would be “one of the most shameful developments in our nation’s history.” Many white Angelenos labeled him a communist for this work against their “property rights,” picketing with signs such as “King Has Hate, Does Travel.”
In November 1964, 75 percent of white Californians “voted for ghettos,” as King put it: Proposition 14 passed by a two-to-one margin, even as Californians voted by a similar margin to return Lyndon Johnson to the White House. The message was stark: civil rights were good, as long as they did not come home to California.
This was true in New York and Boston as well. After people rose up in Harlem in 1964 when a police officer killed fifteen-year-old James Powell, King called for a civilian review board that would make police accountable to the public. City leaders basically ran him out of town. Similarly King made multiple trips to Boston in the mid-1960s to join a burgeoning school desegregation movement there. He met with Boston’s school committee to urge desegregation, but organizer Ellen Jackson described the meeting, which lasted less than an hour, as a “disaster.”
A long history of struggle and civil rights organizing preceded the uprisings of the mid-1960s in cities across the North and West but this is not the way the decade is remembered. King himself repeatedly reframed the issue of riots before northern audiences, highlighting the long history of ignoring black grievances and countenancing systemic injustice.
[A] riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.
King flipped the question of whether blacks were breaking the law by zeroing in on the white illegality that produced unjust conditions in the first place:
When we ask Negroes to abide by the law, let us also demand that the white man abide by law in the ghettos. Day-in and day-out he violates welfare laws to deprive the poor of their meager allotments; he flagrantly violates building codes and regulations; his police make a mockery of law.
King thus made clear that a focus on black criminality was both a way to take attention away from white culpability and a way to blame black people for their own situation. Rejecting the cultural arguments that officials and white citizens proffered to explain black poverty, he instead faulted the “white majority . . . [for] producing chaos” and repudiated the notion that if black people simply behaved better, success would come. He took U.S. social science to task for its focus on cultural explanations for inequality: “All too many white Americans are horrified not with conditions of Negro life but with the product of these conditions—the Negro himself.”
Fundamentally King understood black rebellion as a rational response to the bad faith of white liberals.
Negroes have proceeded from a premise that equality means what it says, and they have taken white Americans at their word when they talked of it as an objective. But most whites in America in 1967, including many persons of goodwill, proceed from a premise that equality is a loose expression for improvement. White America is not even psychologically organized to close the gap — essentially, it seeks only to make it less painful and less obvious but in most respects retain it.
But these aspects of King’s philosophy—his critique of the North for its disingenuous embrace of black southern activism and its tolerance of white illegality—are too often jettisoned in our national celebrations of him. We prefer to celebrate a King who focuses on southern racists than one who exposes the limits of northern anti-racism, one who dreams about black and white together rather than exposes the cruel illogic of liberal explanations for inequality.
This essay is featured in Boston Review’s print issue, Fifty Years Since MLK. Order your copy today.