II. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Color-Awareness

The most significant issue to be addressed by this essay is how Martin Luther King, Jr.'s legacy has been misused in support of the colorblind thesis. As noted in the prologue, King dreamed that one day his "four little children [would] live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." This statement has been wrenched out of the social and political context in which King lived and died and has been misappropriated by some proponents of colorblindness who erroneously argue that "if colorblindness was good enough for Martin Luther King. . .then it ought to be good enough for a society that still aspires to the movement's goals of equality and fair treatment." This incorrect and ahistorical perversion of King's statement distorts his actual views and legacy, and illustrates the dangers of the misuse of "acontextual snippets." A. King's Black Liberation Theology and Race Consciousness King "filtered his theoretical deconstruction of hegemonic theologies through his knowledge of the history and experience of oppression, and thereby made that theoretical deconstruction richer, more contextual, and ready to engage the existential realities of oppression." That theoretical deconstruction grew out of King's religious views as well as his leadership role within an undeniably "colored" institution--the African American church. The Black church was more than just a place of worship; it was "also a bulletin board to a people who owned no organs of communications, a credit union to those without banks, and even a kind of people's court." Working from the base of Black liberation theology and within an "openly and frankly religious" Civil Rights Movement, King "advocated redemptive suffering of African Americans through their own bloodshed." King also sought to bring into being a community of racial equality, while fighting against the nation's racial caste system. B. King's "Dream" and "Nightmare" Speeches On August 28, 1963, King gave the keynote address of the Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C.--his well-known "I Have a Dream" speech. Delivering the speech at the Lincoln Memorial, King began by noting President Abraham Lincoln's signing of the Emancipation Proclamation: "This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity." One hundred years after the signing of the Proclamation, however, King stated that the Negro is still not free; one hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination; one hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity; one hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself in exile in his own land. America defaulted on its promise to African Americans of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, King continued, and had "given the Negro people a bad check: a check which has come back marked 'insufficient funds'. . . And so we have come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice." Referring to the "sweltering summer of the Negro's legitimate discontent," King declared that there would neither be rest nor tranquillity in America until Blacks were granted their rights of citizenship. Nor would African Americans be satisfied as long as they were the victims of police brutality, were deprived of their dignity by "whites only" signs, or were subjected to injustices in America. King then turned to the dream aspect of his speech. Among those dreams was the following: "I have a dream my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. . . ." He expressed his hope that in Alabama, "with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification. . . little black boys and little black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. . . ." King's "I Have a Dream" speech arguably reflects his color-awareness. His recognition of the fact that African Americans were subjected to injustice and to the most base discrimination in every aspect of their lives because they were African Americans was certainly race-conscious. His dream and hope that Black children and White children would be able to join hands was race-conscious both in the identification of the discrimination that kept them apart and in the desire for an integrated future. His awareness of and objection to harsh racial realities, which were woven into the very fabric of his message, arguably demonstrated that King was color-aware. Furthermore, statements King made after his "I Have a Dream" speech more clearly suggest that his call for a transformative change in American society was color-aware. In 1965, following the Watts riots, King began to doubt that Whites were willing to work for a racially just society. Four years after the "I Have a Dream" speech, King delivered a Christmas Eve sermon at the Ebenezer Baptist Church. During that sermon, referring to his 1963 speech, King stated "[t]oward the end of that afternoon, I tried to talk to the nation about a dream I had had, and I must confess to you today that not long after talking about that dream I started seeing it turn into a nightmare." The dream turned into a nightmare when four Black children were killed in the bombing of a Birmingham, Alabama church. The dream turned into a nightmare as he "moved through the ghettos of the nation and saw [his] black brothers and sisters perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity, and saw the nation doing nothing to grapple with the Negroes' problem of poverty." Notwithstanding his "deferred dreams [and] blasted hopes," King still dreamed that "one day every Negro in this country, every colored person in the world, will be judged on the basis of the content of his character rather than the color of his skin, and every man will respect the dignity and worth of human responsibility." When viewed in light of other statements made by King, this speech evidences his color-aware approach to eliminating the subordination of minorities in the U.S. C. King's Other Color-Aware Statements and Views King's color-awareness is revealed in other speeches and writings. For instance, in his "Letter from Birmingham Jail," he expressed his grave disappointment, not with the Ku Klux Klan or the White Citizen Council, but with the White moderate devoted more to order than to justice. In another speech he recounted an incident during the Montgomery bus boycott in which a White person in Montgomery, Alabama told King that Montgomery had been a peaceful community, that "you people [Blacks] have started this movement and boycott, and it has done so much to disturb race relations, and we just don't love the Negro like we used to love them, because you have destroyed the harmony and the peace that we once had in race relations." King responded that Blacks had never had peace in the South, arguing that they were seeking a positive peace with an aim at achieving complete integration into American life, rather than a nominal integration which was little more than token democracy. Was King opposed to explicitly race-conscious and color-aware laws and policies? In a 1965 interview, he was asked whether a proposal for a multi-billion dollar program providing preferential treatment for Blacks or any other minority group was fair. King's answer merits full quotation: I do indeed. Can any fair-minded citizen deny that the Negro has been deprived? Few people reflect that for two centuries the Negro was enslaved, and robbed of any wages--potential accrued wealth which would have been the legacy of his descendants. All of America's wealth today could not adequately compensate its Negroes for his centuries of exploitation and humiliation. . . . Accordingly, King's support for affirmative action and the color-awareness of his views cannot be doubted. His response to the question of the fairness of affirmative action could not be more direct or explicit--King believed that affirmative action was appropriate given the centuries of slavery and the massive theft suffered by African Americans at the hands of those who oppressed them. In his last presidential address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, King called for the Negro to "boldly throw off the manacles of self-abnegation" and to stand up and say, "I'm black and I'm beautiful," a self-affirmation "made compelling by the white man's crimes against him." As articulated by Kwame Toure (nee Stokley Carmichael) and Charles Hamilton, Black Power meant that "black people must lead and run their own organizations. Only black people can convey the revolutionary idea--and it is a revolutionary idea--that black people are able to do things themselves. . . . They must achieve self-identity and self-determination in order to have their daily needs met." Thus, "black organizations should be black-led and essentially black-staffed, with policy being made by black people." It cannot be denied that this movement was explicitly color-aware. "Many have come seeing 'no difference in color,' they have become 'color blind.' But at this time and in this land, color is a factor and we should not overlook or deny this. The black organizations do not need this kind of idealism, which borders on paternalism." King embraced some of these aspirations of the Black Power movement, particularly the call for African Americans to amass political and economic strength to achieve their goals. Developing political awareness and strength and electing Blacks to key political positions was, in King's view, "a positive and legitimate call to action that we in the civil rights movement have sought to follow all along and which we must intensify in the future." King did not equate Black Power with Black racism: It is inaccurate to refer to Black Power as racism in reverse. . . . Racism is a doctrine of the congenital inferiority and worthlessness of a people. While a few angry proponents of Black Power have, in moments of bitterness, made wild statements that come close to this kind of racism, the major proponents of Black Power have never contended that the white man is innately worthless. This is not to say that King agreed with all of the tenets of the Black Power movement, for he clearly did not. However, his acceptance and agreement with some aspects of Black Power illustrate his color-awareness. Ten days before he was assassinated, King suggested to the convention of the Rabbinical Assembly that "temporary segregation" may have been necessary to prevent the loss of Black economic power which may have resulted from complete integration. In his last speech, given in Memphis, Tennessee on April 3, 1968, King urged Blacks to anchor direct action with the power of economic withdrawal. If fair treatment by businesses was not forthcoming, Blacks should withdraw their economic support from such businesses. King called on Blacks to support Black businesses: "[T]ake your money out of the banks downtown and deposit your money in Tri-State Bank--we want a 'bank-in' movement in Memphis. . . . You have six or seven black insurance companies in Memphis. Take out your insurance there. We want to have an 'insurance-in."'A King essay published after his assassination indicted White America for its "ingrained and tenacious racism." King said that many Whites could not understand why Blacks did not intend to remain at the bottom of the economic structure--"they cannot understand why a porter or a housemaid would dare dream of a day when his work will be more useful, more remunerative and a pathway to rising opportunity. This incomprehension is a heavy burden in our efforts to win white allies for the long struggle." As described in this section, in many significant respects King was race-conscious and color-aware; indeed, the mere mention of his name brings to mind issues of color-awareness and African American (as well as universal) rights. King spoke "not abstractly but in a particular context at a particular historical moment, and he meant to make a particular historical point, one very much connected to issues of lower caste status." Given that context, one cannot fairly derive a colorblind principle from King's total message and philosophy. Such a derivation could only be achieved by omissions, distortions, simplification, acontextuality, and an overall lack of familiarity with King's views.