Martin Luther King, Jr. | Critical Essay by Martin Duberman

This literature criticism consists of approximately 18 pages of analysis & critique of Martin Luther King, Jr..
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Critical Essay by Martin Duberman

Right. So, it's now eight years. I've many, many notebooks, but what I see when I examine the notebooks now are phases of development toward the work I'm doing at present. I see it in embryonic stages early on, and I begin to see what I thought were simply notes, because they didn't resemble my earlier work, were, actually in early form, the work that I have now begun to do … the new work, in other words. I didn't recognize it at first. I thought it was failed old work.

In terms of character alone Martin Luther King is a phenomenon. He learned long ago that white hatred of Negroes reflects white, not Negro, deformities, and this has allowed him to feel compassion for the oppressors as well as the oppressed, to grow in strength even while surrounded by vilification. But recently the personal attacks on King have come from less traditional sources and must therefore have proved a greater challenge to his equanimity. Some of the advocates of Black Power and of black nationalism have begun to treat King's insistence on nonviolence as a prehistoric relic, and to mock King himself, with his appeals to religion, to patience and to conscience, as an irrelevancy. Their scorn has been modified in recent months by King's outspoken stand against our policy in Vietnam, but ironically that same stand has brought denunciation from a different quarter in the Negro community—from the established civil rights forces led by Roy Wilkins, Ralph Bunche and Whitney Young.

Faced with abuse on all sides, King has not only remained temperate but has continued to seek reconciliation—both within the Negro community and also interms of a larger alliance with disaffected whites. At the same time, he has continued to speak his mind, refusing to let pleas for tactical caution obscure the imperative responsibility he feels (which every citizen should feel) to apply ethical standards to international as well as domestic questions. To have managed all this in the face of heavy pressures and wounding accusations bespeaks a character of rare stability, breadth and integrity. What a pity he will never be our President.

King's new book, Where Do We Go from Here?, is his attempt to summarize the recent conflicts within the civil rights movement, to consider the larger context, both national and international, which helps to account for these conflicts, and finally, to suggest possible lines for action. King is far more successful, it seems to me, in dealing with the first two of these considerations than with the third, in part because of his tendency when speaking of the future to substitute rhetoric for specificity, in part because of the difficulties of analyzing this complex, appalling moment in our nation's history. That King succeeds as well as he does is additional tribute to the unruffled intelligence of this unendingly impressive American.

The book begins with the question "Where are we?" King, in answering it, makes some subtle and needed distinctions. He rightly insists, first of all, that the disruption of the civil rights movement cannot be explained, as it so often is, by resort to pat answers. The simple equation which has the white backlash growing solely out of Watts and Black Power is inadequate. The hard truth is that the decrease in white sympathy preceded those developments. With Selma and the Voting Rights Act, one phase of the civil rights movement ended—the easy phase—where white sympathy could be readily engaged against the outright brutalities of Southern life. But as King puts it, "To stay murder is not the same thing as to ordain brotherhood." Public indignation against the Bull Connors was achieved far more easily than was the follow-up commitment to eradicate discrimination in housing, jobs and schools—in other words, to establish equal rather than improved opportunities for Negroes.

White America showed its reluctance about equality before Watts and before the emergence of Black Power, though these developments have since served as convenient excuses for still further delays. The reluctance showed in polls which indicated that 50 per cent of white Americans would object to having a Negro as a neighbor and 88 per cent to having their teenage child date a Negro. It showed in the refusal to implement vigorously civil rights legislation—a refusal which has left segregation the over-whelming pattern of our schools (84.1 per cent in the 11 Southern states), which has left Negro voter registration in Virginia, Mississippi, Louisiana and Georgia still under 50 per cent (and barely above it in four other Southern states), and which has made a mockery of open-occupancy and equal job opportunity legislation. In short, only a small minority of whites are yet authentically committed to equality, and it is this, not Negro "irresponsibility," which has prevented greater progress. The urban riots and the slogan of Black Power, as King says, "are not the causes of white resistance, they are consequences of it."

Though King's indictment of white America is as severe as it is justified, he follows it, curiously, with some optimistic predictions. The line of progress, he points out, is never straight: setbacks, disappointments, even retreats mark every movement for substantive social change. The current doldrums in which the civil rights movement finds itself were both predictable and natural, and Negroes should not, therefore, fall into pessimism or defeatism. The Negro has already won a great deal, King argues, especially in the intangible realm of heightened self-respect, and "no matter how many obstacles persist the Negro's forward march can no longer be stopped."

King bases this prediction on prescriptions which may not be filled. First, he advises black people to increase their efforts at amassing additional political and economic power. Here he agrees with the advocates of Black Power even while objecting to the way the Stokely Carmichaels have substituted for programs, slogans which imply separatism and violence.

Yet when King himself comes to spelling out a program for pooling black resources, economic and political, its stock generalities prove vulnerably close to Carmichael's sloganeering. He calls on the Negro to use his buying power to force policy changes among business concerns, but he gives no specifics as to which forms of selective buying might prove fruitful or which businesses might be the most useful targets. Likewise, when he calls on Negroes to develop "habits of thrift and techniques of wise investment," he says nothing about how thesequalities may be inculcated, about where the average Negro is to find the money with which to make wise investments, or, finally, whether such middle-class "virtues" are indeed those to be highly prized and cultivated.

King does not believe that the Negro community, even if it can be brought to unified effort, will by itself have sufficient strength to achieve its goals. He understands well the bitterness and frustration out of which many Negroes, especially younger ones, have turned to black nationalism and separatism in a search for structure and purpose in their lives. But the nationalist path, King insists, can lead only to disaster; it represents what Bayard Rustin has called the "no-win" policy, the mistaken notion that there can be a separate black road to fulfillment outside the main stream of American life. What is needed instead, King argues, is a continuing (perhaps one might better say, reinvigorated) coalition between Negroes and whites, a coalition which will be strong enough to exert real pressure on the major parties to become more responsive to the needs of the poor. Only such a coalition can requisition the billions of dollars needed to correct the hard-core inequalities from which the American poor, white and black, suffer.

King's position seems to me impeccable in theory, but it suffers, as he himself must realize, from the lack of available allies for the coalition he advocates. He speaks, for example, of a large group of poor whites who in reality share common grievances with poor Negroes. But reality, as we all know, is only one, and probably one of the weaker, wellsprings of human behavior. The real question is: Can the poor whites in America be brought to recognize their common interest with poor Negroes, or will the transcending power of racism continue to prevent such a merger? Historically, the evidence is not encouraging; with the brief and limited exception of the Populist era, poor whites have put race before all other considerations—including self-interest.

And yet what other than coalition politics can King recommend? Feeling as he does that the American Negro's future rests in his own country—not in Africa, not in a union of the dark people of the world based on some mystical abstraction like négritude—King must then find a way to encourage American Negroes to believe that they in fact have a future (that is, an equitable one) in this country. The most hopeful path continues to be the old one of coalition politics, and it is that path to which King adheres. But at this moment in our national life the brutal fact is that coalition politics is a slim hope only.

This is a fact that King, for both tactical and temperamental reasons, cannot afford to acknowledge. Its admission is impossible tactically because it might precipitate the Negro community into the arms of black nationalism, and this, in King's view, would mean a dead end. Its admission is impossible temperamentally because King's personal optimism is deeply ingrained. He believes obstacles are always surmountable, given sufficient will and faith. He believes American racism can and will be overcome, that the goal of "genuine intergroup and interpersonal living" can be reached, though the way be difficult.

Since the grounds for such hope have in reality become tenuous and since King chooses, for reasons of tactics and temperament, not to acknowledge that fact fully, he is forced to fall back on rhetoric as a substitute for argument, to rely on eloquence to camouflage the lack of supporting data. Thus his discussion of future prospects contains more exhortation than sustained analysis: "there is nothing to keep us from remolding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood"; "dark and demonic responses will be removed only as men are possessed by the invisible inner law which etches on their hearts the conviction that all men are brothers and that love is mankind's most potent weapon for personal and social transformation."

Exhortation, alas, even were it less pious, will not be enough to overcome the complacency and racism of the American majority or to restore the faith of the disheartened, alienated minority. It is far from clear what, if anything, can. The national prognosis remains poor until something—probably only an event of catastrophic proportions such as a major war or depression—plunges us to a level of despair, and thus of self-confrontation, which could, ultimately, lead to renewed health.

Martin Duberman, "Martin Luther King Jr.'s 'Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?'" in his The Uncompleted Past, Random House, 1969, pp. 181-87.

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This section contains 1,818 words
(approx. 7 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Clayborne Carson, with Peter Holloran, Ralph E. Luker, and Penny Russell