Graphic by Michael Purdie
February is Black History Month, it’s a time for us to reflect on the great strides that have been made in the pursuit of civil rights and racial equality in this country, and a time to acknowledge the challenges that we still face as a nation.
It’s been 63 years since the desegregation of Maryland schools, 54 since Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream”, 49 since his assassination and the subsequent national riots. It’s also been three years since the shooting in Ferguson, Missouri touched off a nationwide wave of protest, and two years since Maryland experienced its own bout of protest and rioting.
“Social and economic conditions in the looted areas constituted a clear pattern of severe disadvantage for [blacks] compared with whites . . . Our investigation arrives at the clear conclusion that the riot in Baltimore must be attributed to two elements—’white racism’ and economic oppression of [black residents].”
This analysis comes not from the 2015 riots in Baltimore City; but is taken from the “Maryland Crime Investigating Commission Report of the Baltimore Civil Disturbance of April 6 to April 11, 1968”, following the destructive multi-day riot that followed the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
It’s a complex web of historical injustice, prejudice, socioeconomic disparity and institutional breakdown which underpins contemporary issues of race and ethnicity in the United States, and this is precisely why a clear understanding of black history and minority issues is as essential as ever.
“It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society,” said Dr. King, “These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.”
Some commentators today are quick to compare current national issues; protests, twitter campaigns, Black Lives, et al, with the Civil Rights Movement of the 20th Century. Many do so unfavorably. But if we are to make these kind of connections then we also have to remember that the fight for equal rights in the 1950s and ‘60s was not brief, easy, or entirely peaceful. It was divisive, it was very often brutally violent, and nationally it generated equal parts hope, fear and anger. Dr. King was surveilled and harassed by the FBI and smeared, along with his movement, as communist by political opponents.
It is not without cause that there are those who decry the Civil Rights Movement and its leading figures as being “whitewashed”, an understandable concern that figures like Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks have been deified, that their movement has been simplified, stripped of nuance for the sake of presentability.
It’s not a new frustration, in his 1963 Letter from the Birmingham Jail, King wrote: “I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”
This message, then as now, was not a popular or easy one for white liberals to hear. Neither were King’s words in the midst of the long, violent summer of 1968: “It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.”
It is important that the struggle for civil rights, then and now, be understood factually and holistically by everyone. There are many who seem to think that with desegregation and the passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act that the campaign for equality was over, when in truth racial issues and racial tension would carry on through the decades. The issues were deeper than just legal discrimination; poverty, education, disenfranchisement, and redlining were persistent, lasting issues.
As Dr. King succinctly said: “What good is having the right to sit at a lunch counter if you can’t afford to buy a hamburger?”
As others have said, black history is American history. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. will always be recognized as a great African American political leader. But he was not content to focus only on the struggle for equal rights, titanic as that was, no, he spoke out against economic inequality, issues of poverty, and the Vietnam War. What task was he engaged in when he was murdered in Memphis? He was supporting striking garbage collectors in their fight for better pay. At the same time, he was planning a Poor People’s March on Washington. Make no mistake, Martin Luther King Jr. was a great leader for all Americans.
If it is our object to build a better, more equal, more just America, then it’s clear that we must embrace our diversity and our history, even if that history is unpleasant. That’s the only way that we can understand each other, and that’s the only way that we can really face the problems in our society.