The political life of Martin Luther King, Jr. roughly follows the arc of the heroic period of the civil rights movement: between the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which allowed for desegregation, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which was passed just days after King’s assassination in April of that year. This era represents the Second Reconstruction of America, the postwar social movement for racial and economic justice.
As the movement’s chief political mobilizer and leading figure, King regularly confronted racist opponents in government, business, the church hierarchy, and all aspects of American society-many of whom would likely have been proud to join those who stormed Capitol Hill. The roots of the tree of white supremacy that blossomed in Trump’s day run deep, and King fought these forces in his day with a moral clarity that made him a radical political agitator who broke with his former political ally, President Lyndon B. Johnson, on the issue of Vietnam, and a revolutionary human rights leader who promised to help end militarism, racism, and materialism before they destroyed American society.
Many Americans have rightly expressed their dismay, horror and anger at the images of the white rioters who ravaged the United States Capitol last week, killing five people, including a Capitol Police officer, and the subsequent images of National Guard soldiers sleeping on the marble floor of the Capitol rotunda during a debate in the House of Representatives to protect it from further riots, and then being indicted for the second time by the President of the United States.
As King’s Day approaches, however, it is important that we face up to the ugliest aspects of our recent history, which we continue to ignore in the face of our own national, political and moral danger.
King’s political courage against racism, poverty, violence and US imperialism in foreign policy shows us the way forward. Now more than ever, America needs a revolutionary king. This king, always committed to non-violence, pursued the people like a pillar of fire, an acknowledged Old Testament prophet, and fled – as he does now – into a nation that embraced him more in death than in life.
In his last year of political and organizational activism, King demanded of Americans a maturity that we have not yet achieved. The mature nation that King proposes has had the grace to turn inward, acknowledge and evaluate its mistakes, and move forward by facing a past filled with troubling injustices and glorious examples of progress rooted in social movements that pushed the boundaries of democracy.
This year again invites us to strive to renew what King called these great sources of democracy, not by ignoring our past mistakes, but by embracing our complex and tangled history with all its flaws. If we do, we will never again be shocked, surprised, or surprised by attacks on democracy that are deeply rooted in an inability to recognize how America’s past continues to shape its present, and to imagine that things could really be different.
King delivered his final Sunday sermon in Washington, D.C., amid growing racial and civil unrest that bears a striking resemblance to our own. During the kingship, Richard Nixon, George Wallace, and Barry Goldwater competed for political power, causing white voters to fear that a victory by a black American would mean a loss of prestige, privilege, and power for whites.
Once in power, President Trump turned racist appeals to a longtime base of angry white voters into a political art form that fueled a divisive movement that threatened the very citadel of American democracy.
There is a striking parallel between 1968 and 2021. In both cases, the nation was at a political crossroads, defined by an ongoing debate and struggle between building a beloved community or maintaining a status quo based on racial injustice, economic inequality, and the marginalization of groups without privilege or power.
In 1968, America chose Nixon’s law and order over Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of a multiracial democracy – building a criminal justice system that disproportionately undermined blacks rather than investing in reforms that would promote justice and equality.
The attempted coup on Capitol Hill reveals in a deeply disturbing way the bitter fruits of a harvest of segregation whose immediate historical antecedents became apparent after King’s death.
Nevertheless, King’s contemporary legacy is still alive and well in today’s America. The fifth. In January 2021, Reverend Raphael Warnock, who holds the former King’s Chair at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, became the first black elected to the U.S. Senate from the state of Georgia. Dr. King’s call in March in Washington for Georgia and the rest of the country to forget the embarrassment caused by Stone Mountain’s commitment to white supremacy and the Confederacy resonated widely in Georgia during last year’s presidential election and the last two senate elections earlier this month.
King, the revolutionary, faced directly the challenges of his dream to transform the nation into a beloved community. It is the sad truth that for the vast majority of white Americans, racism is a way of life, spoken and unspoken, acknowledged and denied, subtle and sometimes not so subtle – the disease of racism pervades and poisons the body politic, as he laid out in his brilliantly provocative Sunday sermon at the Washington National Cathedral on the 31st. March 1968 said.
This king is conveniently forgotten by many, especially conservatives who insist on using his words to defend white supremacy.
The white riots outside the Capitol remind us that King’s warnings about the dangers of racism to American democracy are still valid. This latest assault on democracy can rightly be compared to the rise of white supremacy during America’s first Reconstruction, an appropriate time after racial slavery and the Civil War, when attempts to guarantee black citizenship, dignity, and the right to vote were poorly matched by racial terror, voter suppression, and the Jim Crow laws that renewed racial segregation as a matter of preference at the local and state level, without constitutional guidance.
But last week’s uprising, which included a striking image of a rebel holding a Confederate flag on Capitol Hill, is reminiscent of the broader aspects of violent opposition King faced in his time. The formation of white civic councils composed of citizens, clergy and businessmen in the South, following the court-ordered desegregation of schools, triggered what has been called the mass resistance to black citizenship and dignity.
Mass resistance became a euphemism for white supremacy, and the White Citizens’ Council sowed racist sentiments tangential to the Ku Klux Klan and other more clandestine racist terrorist groups.
This generation of Americans has the opportunity to choose a different path. It is a path that may be more difficult than we want to imagine, because it is a path that the nation has not yet taken.
The greatest testament to Dr. King’s legacy this year will be a collective effort to redefine America, mature enough to explain the events of last year and this year, and not merely a stop on the road to democratic perfection or an aberration on an otherwise healthy body. King will no doubt avoid using his holiday as an example of American exceptionalism – and instead urge us to work hard to establish, for the first time in our country’s history, a racial democracy that will ensure that this latest assault on the sacred citadel of American democracy will be the last.