Marching On

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, Washington, DC.
Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, Washington, DC.

When you visit the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, DC, it’s not hard to see how it inspired a small controversy. This monumental King, sculpted by Lei Yixin, an artist from the People’s Republic of China, is a stern-faced titan, arms folded, with his uncompromising gaze fixed in the distance.

Critics questioned the social-realist style and wondered if this wasn’t a far cry from the King who gave the “I Have a Dream” speech and accepted the Nobel Peace Prize.

Then again, there’s something about the memorial that fits. King was uncompromising in that he refused to bend to the cries of moderates who cautioned patience (see 1963’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and his book-length argument for direct action, Why We Can’t Wait, published a year later). What’s more—like a physical structure—the memory of King and his achievements looms large over the ongoing struggle for African American civil rights.

For all that we focus on King’s masterful rhetoric, his actions were much more impressive. Under his leadership, writes David L. Chappell in Waking from the Dream, “the civil rights movement culminated in two of the greatest leaps of all time, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.” There’s a reason these laws are deemed the bedrocks of a “Second Reconstruction”; they transformed America’s relationship with its black citizens. But they—along with the Fair Housing Act of 1968, a direct product of King’s death—constituted a “streak of major victories” that was “history’s great exception.”

In the American system, there isn’t major change so much as there are slow grinds, with competing interests fighting to make incremental gains. The civil rights years were an aberration—one that largely ended with King’s life.

In Waking from the Dream, Chappell chronicles how the remaining leaders of the civil rights revolution and their heirs have attempted to live up to King’s legacy, and to navigate this second, more anodyne phase of the fight for racial equality. Along the way, he notes, they’ve managed to score political wins smaller in scale than the victories of the King era, but no less important.

It should be said that the subject of Chappell’s book is something of a challenge to the popular narrative, which holds that the civil rights movement was unable to weather the trauma of King’s assassination. In reality, the organizational structure of the movement remained intact after King’s death in 1968, with various individuals fighting for prominence and leadership, from Ralph Abernathy—King’s designated successor—to King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, to young activists such as the Reverend Jesse Jackson.

Together, these post-King leaders would attempt to make substantive gains in the face of a conservative backlash that began to pick up serious steam in the late 1960s, and would set much of the political agenda for the following generation. During the administration of Jimmy Carter, as Chappell describes, Coretta Scott King and other movement veterans made a push for a federal full-employment law. Carter was elected on the strength of his support from black voters. Even so, Chappell observes that without a movement “threatening order in any organized or sustained way in the streets,” it was hard for leaders to force meaningful action from Congress or the White House. Instead, the outcome of this initiative was a compromise bill that rhetorically embraced full employment as “the central priority of economic life” without doing anything to bring it effectively to pass. This equivocal resolution presented a disheartening lesson, Chappell writes: “When they were not organized in a disciplined mass movement, black Americans were not that potent of a force—at least not when playing offense.”

Nevertheless, in playing defense, civil rights leaders could attain smaller victories, like a national holiday to celebrate King’s life and legacy. “Small” isn’t the same as “easy,” however—winning the King holiday required a long fight that spanned two presidential administrations and sparked bitter opposition from right-wingers who correctly understood the power of enshrining King as a national hero. Would America’s children, wondered Ohio GOP representative John Ashbrook, “be misled into believing” that King was a worthy figure and learn to speak of him “with the same reverence” that they reserve for presidents like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln?

Thanks to the efforts of Coretta Scott King—in strategic alliance with Democrats and conservative evangelicals—the answer was yes. Similar coalitions took shape to safeguard King’s legacy, and to preserve the gains of the 1960s, in a series of federal measures through the 1980s and 1990s: “extension and strengthening of the Voting Rights Act,” sanctions on South Africa, the Civil Rights Restoration Act—“which reversed a major conservative Supreme Court decision”—and shoring up the Fair Housing Act. Although critics have dismissed some of these initiatives—like the King holiday—as merely symbolic, such complaints understate the extent to which they were wrestled from administrations unsympathetic to civil rights. This post-King battery of legislation also marked tangible gains in an era when conservatives made successful and sustained political attacks on policies such as affirmative action. Unfortunately, Chappell doesn’t say anything about this strategy vis-à-vis the Right’s exploitation of racial resentment in national politics, nor does he talk much about the largely court-based attempts—in the 1990s—to defend civil rights gains from right-wing assaults. Still, the story he tells—of substantive and symbolic progress—suggests that the Right’s backlash against the civil rights revolution wasn’t as sweeping as it might appear.

That’s especially true when you acknowledge the extent to which symbolism matters. Jesse Jackson’s two presidential campaigns, in 1984 and 1988, didn’t yield electoral results, but—as Chappell points out—they were a powerful emblem of the political power of African Americans, and heralded a future Democratic Party in which minorities would join with liberals and young people to nominate one of their own.

Further proof of the symbolic power of King’s image turned up in the national reaction to the revelations of his infidelity. Made public by Abernathy in a 1989 memoir, they were met with swift denunciation from civil rights figures. Chappell quotes a joint statement issued by prominent black leaders who had worked closely with King:

This is but another attempt to diminish the life and work of this spiritual genius. . . . It is time for detractors to cease their futile efforts to diminish this legacy that God has given to our time and to all time through Dr. King.

Media coverage focused on the arguments among civil rights leaders but not on the accusations themselves, which—by and large—were corroborated elsewhere. Nor was the public by that point much concerned; that King was unfaithful did little to diminish his reputation as a civil rights titan. The same is true of later revelations that—as a student—King had plagiarized large parts of his academic work. Indeed, defenders presented both scandals as evidence of King’s humanity; his failures, by this reasoning, could only heighten his greatness. As Chappell writes, “His adultery is part of nearly every American’s ready pool of instant-access information about Martin Luther King. . . . It has not dislodged him from his pedestal.”

Barack Obama doesn’t enter Chappell’s picture, but his presence looms over the entire work. This stems in part from Obama’s relationship with the civil rights establishment—by the time he came into the Oval Office in 2009, he had the blessing of its most prominent leaders. And in part, Obama’s landmark achievement can’t help but raise a critical question: How much does the presidency of Barack Obama fulfill the goals and aims of Martin Luther King Jr.?

With three years left before Obama leaves office, it’s hard to give a conclusive answer. However, we can say this: There’s little debate over Obama’s status as a powerful symbolic vindication of the civil rights movement. But if the point of electing a black president is to provide tangible benefits to black people, the relentless opposition from the Republican Party now creates daunting obstacles to such progress. Right-wing Republicans have managed to derail everything from further stimulus for the economy to a more comprehensive health-care-reform law, moves that have a disproportionately negative effect on African Americans, who suffer high unemployment and low rates of insurance. Near the climax of this fall’s shutdown and debt-ceiling showdown between the Obama administration and the House GOP, a Tea Party rally outside the White House featured a speaker deriding the president as a crypto-Muslim, as well as a supporter in the crowd waving an enormous Confederate flag. It was hard to take the scene in without wondering if a far uglier dream has taken hold among the insurgent members of the small-government Right.

In this way, Obama is a perfect representation of the fundamental dilemma faced by advocates of civil rights. At the same time that we’ve enshrined Martin Luther King Jr. as a national saint and made tremendous strides in racial acceptance, the regular grind of politics—the inert and barely incremental procedural infighting that King was able to overcome with strategy, organization, and moral will—still hampers the struggle for substantive racial justice.

Jamelle Bouie is a Washington-based staff writer for the Daily Beast.