I’m going to say something shocking about Martin Luther King, Jr., an unintended consequence of his greatness – which is indisputable. I consider him the only non-president who ranks in leadership achievements with the greatest of our presidential leaders: Washington, Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt. MLK wasn’t a perfect man; for no perfect man cheats on his wife or enters plagiarized elements into his doctoral dissertation. All the same, he was a great man if ever there was a great man.
And now for my “shocking” assertion. While there is no question that MLK did tremendously good things for all African Americans, both in his own time and the decades that have followed, I think it can plausibly be argued that he – or at least his memory – has also done considerable harm recently to American black people.
Let me explain. After World War II, it gradually became clear for those with eyes to see that America’s long and shameful history of anti-black racism was on the way out. Three signs of this: Jackie Robinson’s entry into major league baseball, “America’s national pastime” (1947); President Truman’s racial integration of the armed forces (1948); and the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision (1954). But it was MLK, more than any other single individual, who struck the final blow.
He first appeared on the national scene as the leader of the Montgomery bus boycott (1955-56), and for the next decade or so he was without question the number one leader of the Civil Rights Movement. His climactic achievements came when Congress, prodded by President Lyndon Johnson, passed the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965). That put an end to legal segregation; blacks now had full legal equality. With that, King turned his attention to the struggle for full social and economic equality. This work was abruptly cut off when he was murdered – martyred – in April 1968.
After his death, many black leaders aspired to replace him. None succeeded, because nobody possessed his exceedingly rare combination of talents – courage, intellect, moral clarity, and extraordinary oratorical skills: if his words were poetry, his voice was music.
If there has been no new MLK, there have been many MLK imitators. These imitators are sometimes ministers, lawyers, professors, journalists, sports or entertainment celebrities, etc. Their idea of how to imitate MLK is by engaging in energetic battles against white racism. That’s what King did, didn’t he? You don’t have to do this in the name of Christianity (as King did), and you don’t have to do it while proclaiming nonviolence. Just fight against white racism, and you’re a mini-MLK.
Or at least that’s the assumption. But wait. What if King was actually successful in his double ambition (a) to free blacks from the unjust burden of white racism and (b) to free whites from the un-American and un-Christian burden of their own racism. What if anti-black racism, which was so great a thing during most of MLK’s short life, is no longer so? What if anti-black discrimination has almost disappeared from employment and promotion in commerce, industry, government, the military, and education; from admission to schools, colleges, graduate programs; from the legal, medical, and other professions; in short, from all the places where it flourished just a few decades ago?
To believe that white racism is still the great monster it once was in America, you have to believe that MLK was pretty much a failure.
Remember the saying attributed to Voltaire: “If God did not exist, we would have to invent him.” MLK imitators think along similar lines: “If white racism is now a much-diminished thing, we’ll have to re-invent it as a major thing. We’ll have to pretend that America is a fundamentally racist society, the same as it was in 1619, 1719, 1819, and 1919; that it is steeped in systemic racism; that any kind of racial inequality is due to white racism; that whites (with a few honorable exceptions) are incurably racist.”
Christians, particularly Catholics, are right to be sensitive to racism, even in its lingering, greatly lessened form today. But there are other Christian truths that deserve an urgent hearing at the current moment and get ignored when churches, as they mostly now do, give credence to exaggerated movements in the earlier mode such as BLM.
Black Americans today would be considerably better off if, instead of poor MLK imitators, they had as leaders many Booker T. Washington imitators. Until King appeared, there was something like universal agreement that BTW (1856-1915) was the greatest figure in African-American history. But BTW, unlike MLK, was not a vocal crusader against white racism. He was an accommodationist. In effect, he said to the white segregationists of the South, “We can work together.” And so, as MLK’s anti-racism campaign advanced, BTW’s reputation went into decline. He’s now almost a forgotten man.
BTW was a realist. An effective one. His long-term goal was full equality for blacks, but he understood that this would not soon be possible. Two great obstacles stood in the way: (a) white racist intransigence, which could only be undermined gradually; and (b) black backwardness, a legacy of slavery, which would have to be gradually removed. He was convinced that whites would never “give” blacks full equality. So he preached a program of “self-reliance” and “self-improvement.”
His program was widely followed by Southern blacks; so much so that when MLK appeared, they were capable of following him, something their earlier emancipated ancestors could never have done. BTW prepared the ground for MLK.
It’s a tragedy that (poor) MLK imitators abound today, telling black kids, in effect, that it’s almost impossible for them to get ahead in a profoundly racist America. And a pity that there are not more BTW imitators who will tell those kids what all good parents tell their kids: that to get ahead in an often-hostile world, you have to be self-reliant and work hard at the lifelong project of self-improvement.
That’s an uplifting message, for all of us.
*Image: Booker T. Washington in his office at Tuskegee Institute, c. 1900 [Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.]
You may also enjoy:
Matthew Hanley’s A Real Model of Social Justice and Racial Harmony
Robert Royal’s The Bishops Misfire on “Racial Equity”