MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. DAY – “We Shall Overcome” – HAVE WE?
January 13, 2012
The Civil Rights Decade is bracketed by the Supreme Court Oliver Brown et. al . decision of 1954 ordering that schools were to be desegregated with “all due and deliberate speed”. The decade’s bookend is marked by the Civil Rights Act signed July 2, 1964 by President Johnson in the presence of Martin Luther King Jr. The decade is also remembered as Second Reconstruction, The Black Revolution, Second American Revolution, or The Death of Jim Crow. A split in the Civil Rights movement occurred ca. 1965 with the emergence of Black Nationalism with a different strategy and tactic. Rather than non-violent resistance Black Nationalism placed emphasis on a proactive independent racial separation of self-determination. Most Americans with a scant grasp of American history were not aware Black Nationalism as strategy was as old as American History. Fear griped many non-black Americans. The objectives of both approaches was the same, namely, first class citizenship for the African-American.. One strain sought integration following the leadership of the NAACP, the Urban League, and Martin Luther King. The other fostered Black Nationalisn and leadership of Macomb X, Black Panthers, and such as Stokely Carmichael. The Civil Rights Era comes to a close with the conservative national direction chartered by the administration of Richard Nixon.
Already several days before the Martin Luther King Jr. Day observance the civil rights song “We Shall Overcome” is frequently heard. More than a half-century since the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement and the close of the era some forty years ago one may analyze how far and in what way we have or have not “overcome”. Have problems addressed in the civil rights struggle been overcome?
An approach to the question is making an analysis of predictions made by scholarship during the era of the struggle itself. The classic statement regarding that question is the classic report of the Carnegie Foundation’s study of the role the negro played in American life. The report submitted in 1944 by Gunnar Myrdal, a Swedish economist and the committee chair, is the classic “An American Dilemma”. The depressed economic and social position of the American Negro, the study stated, was the “white man’s problem”. Americans are committed to the creed of democracy and the ideology and practice of freedom. They disapprove of a racial practice counter to that creed. The conflict between ideal and practice is the split in the white man’ moral personality. This is the negro’s ally and augers positively for the betterment of racial relationships.. And the American negro knows this.
The twentieth anniversary in 1964 of the publication of “An American Dilemma” Myrdal’s colleague Rose published a condensed version of the classic as: “The Negro in America” . Rose stated that Myrdal’s predictions of racial relationships betterment had been born out. Formal and informal segregation, Rose predicted, will be gone by 1975, by 1980 only a shadow of prejudice will exist, and by 1990 racial attitudes will be similar in scope with viewpoints when he wrote of protestant and catholic attitudes of one another.”The Negro in America” was written at the close of the decade of “The death of Jim Crow” de jure (bylaw) but it must be also understood not dead nationally de facto (in fact). Four presidents, Truman – Eisenhower – Kennedy – John son, along with all branches of the government had chipped away at the underpinnings of legal segregation. Nineteenth century racial ideas no longer had academic respectability having been undercut by science. Myrdal in 1944 predicted violence in the South, surely true, but far less than in his overlooked North. Racism was endemic in the North in large degree throughout American history. Furthermore Myrdal saw labor unions as champions for racial change. George Wallace’s presidential campaign in 1968 made clear and indicated hostility of white labor threatened by the competitive economic threat of black labor. There is an error of omission in Myrdal’s analysis how change would come. Martin Luther King’s leadership of non-violent resistance to Jim Crow sprang from the 1955-1956 Montgomery Bus Boycott. This was in the South – not the North This was not due to outside agitators from the North. King represents the key leadership of Southern black clergy and black church. Myrdal’s theory of change as a “principle of accumulation” proved naive. Writing during the “good war” in 1944 he was suggesting that merely change the ideas supporting racism and change will come.
Caste and class are different things. Middle class respect for African-Americans is desirable but not enough. A source of prejudice has to do with competition. Whites have their white skin serving as a social floor. One has only to study the attitudes of the White -Anglo-Saxon-majority (WASP) caste in the 19th and early twentieth century and their opposition to integration of non-WASP immigrants. They were seen by WASP labor as an economic and religious threat to American values. Myrdal did not weigh the importance of compensatory equality and the need to make more level the economic floor. If perceived physical difference seen as important when couples with rivalry, it indicates, discrimination results.
MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. DAY – “We Shall Overcome” – HAVE WE?? SHAPED BY HISTORY, a personal reminiscence written in 2008 , I observed: “Having lived through the Civil Rights Revolution and the struggle for political, economic, and social equality during the Sixties I am confident regarding the closer achievement of that struggle. The grip of racism is weaker and no longer supported by law,however, not banished from the heart. Study of American history has shown the redemptive nature of the American reform tradition urging American reality to reflect more clearly American idealism.” The question of race no longer disqualifies anyone from consideration for the nation’s highest office as Barack Obama’s presidency attests. Without question the American ideal of freedom, justice, and equality is closer to reality today than it was half a century ago. “America’s Struggle With Ongoing Freedom”, I wrote, “suggests that struggle itself is a key to achieving the ‘American Dream””. We must learn and teach not to be prejudiced. Prejudice is not rational. Belief in equality must be buttressed by law as the civil rights struggle made clear in the decade of “The Death of Jim Crow”. We must be taught to reject prejudice of any kind, racial or otherwise.