Most of You Have No Idea What Martin Luther King Actually Did

By New York World-Telegram and the Sun staff photographer: Albertin, Walter, photographer. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Growing up as I did on television in the 1970s and ’80s, I got the distinct impression that racial discrimination was something that had been dealt with, that the problem was one of the past except for a few ignorant people. What I saw on television was my only understanding of racism because, while I lived in a town that had people from pretty much any ethnic background you can imagine, there were no black people there. It really never occurred to me that racism was still an issue until my senior year when a single black girl began attending my high school. I don’t know how many people were involved in the racism that followed but it was a shock to me that any of the people I went to school with would have a problem with someone of another race. After all, we had people in our school who were Oriental, Pacific Islander, Latino, Slavic, Arabic, and many others. So why, if I’d never seen racism toward any of these people, would black be any different? I still can’t tell you why black is different from any of those other races, all I know is that it was, for at least a few people, very different for someone to be black.

I said all of that to show that I really had no idea about the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The first time I remember hearing his name very much was when I was a freshman in college in Montgomery, Alabama. The law creating Martin Luther King Jr. Day had only gone into effect four years earlier in 1986 and whether the school should observe that day was a major controversy. It was still many more years until I had any real appreciation of what he had helped to accomplish. However, until I read the article I’ve reproduced below, I never came anywhere near an understanding of what Dr. King’s work meant to black people at the time. No one else, that I’m aware of, puts the reality of what the non-violent Civil Rights Movement accomplished in the kind of stark terms that someone, like myself, who is white, male, and too young to have been alive during this period of history, can understand.

Most of You Have No Idea
What Martin Luther King Actually Did

by Hamden Rice

This will be a very short diary. It will not contain any links or any scholarly references. It is about a very narrow topic, from a very personal, subjective perspective.

The topic at hand is what Martin Luther King actually did, what it was that he actually accomplished.

What most people who reference Dr. King seem not to know is how Dr. King actually changed the subjective experience of life in the United States for African Americans. And yeah, I said for African Americans, not for Americans, because his main impact was his effect on the lives of African Americans, not on Americans in general. His main impact was not to make white people nicer or fairer. That’s why some of us who are African Americans get a bit possessive about his legacy. Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy, despite what our civil religion tells us, is not color blind.

I remember that many years ago, when I was a smartass home from first year of college, I was standing in the kitchen arguing with my father. My head was full of newly discovered political ideologies and black nationalism, and I had just read the Autobiography of Malcolm X, probably for the second time.

A bit of context. My father was from a background, which if we were talking about Europe or Latin America, we would call, “peasant” origin, although he had risen solidly into the working-middle class. He was from rural Virginia and his parents had been tobacco farmers. I spent two weeks or so every summer on the farm of my grandmother and step-grandfather. They had no running water, no gas, a wood burning stove, no bathtubs or toilets but an outhouse, potbelly stoves for heat in the winter, a giant wood pile, a smoke house where hams and bacon hung, chickens, pigs, semi wild housecats that lived outdoors, no tractor or car, but an old plow horse and plows and other horse drawn implements, and electricity only after I was about 8 years old. The area did not have high schools for blacks and my father went as far as the seventh grade in a one room schoolhouse. All four of his grandparents, whom he had known as a child, had been born slaves. It was mainly because of World War II and urbanization that my father left that life.

They lived in a valley or hollow or “holler” in which all the landowners and tenants were black. In the morning if you wanted to talk to cousin Taft, you would walk down to behind the outhouse and yell across the valley, “Heeeyyyy Taaaaft,” and you could see him far, far in the distance, come out of his cabin and yell back.

On the one hand, this was a pleasant situation because they lived in isolation from white people. On the other hand, they did have to leave the valley to go to town where all the rigid rules of Jim Crow applied. By the time I was little, my people had been in this country for six generations (going back, according to oral rendering of our genealogy, to Africa Jones and Mama Suki), much more under slavery than under freedom, and all of it under some form of racial terrorism, which had inculcated many humiliating behavior patterns.

Anyway, that’s background. I think we were kind of typical as African Americans in the pre-civil rights era went.

So anyway, I was having this argument with my father about Martin Luther King and how his message was too conservative compared to Malcolm X’s message. My father got really angry at me. It wasn’t that he disliked Malcolm X, but his point was that Malcolm X hadn’t accomplished anything as Dr. King had.

I was kind of sarcastic and asked something like, so what did Martin Luther King accomplish other than giving his “I have a dream speech.”

Before I tell you what my father told me, I want to digress. Because at this point in our amnesiac national existence, my question pretty much reflects the national civic religion view of what Dr. King accomplished. He gave this great speech. Or some people say, “he marched.” I was so angry at Mrs. Clinton during the primaries when she said that Dr. King marched, but it was LBJ who delivered the Civil Rights Act.

At this point, I would like to remind everyone exactly what Martin Luther King did, and it wasn’t that he “marched” or gave a great speech.

My father told me with a sort of cold fury, “Dr. King ended the terror of living in the south.”

Please let this sink in and and take my word and the word of my late father on this. If you are a white person who has always lived in the U.S. and never under a brutal dictatorship, you probably don’t know what my father was talking about.

But this is what the great Dr. Martin Luther King accomplished. Not that he marched, nor that he gave speeches.

He ended the terror of living as a black person, especially in the south.

I’m guessing that most of you, especially those having come fresh from seeing The Help, may not understand what this was all about. But living in the south (and in parts of the midwest and in many ghettos of the north) was living under terrorism.

It wasn’t that black people had to use a separate drinking fountain or couldn’t sit at lunch counters, or had to sit in the back of the bus.

You really must disabuse yourself of this idea. Lunch counters and buses were crucial symbolic planes of struggle that the civil rights movement used to dramatize the issue, but the main suffering in the south did not come from our inability to drink from the same fountain, ride in the front of the bus or eat lunch at Woolworth’s.

It was that white people, mostly white men, occasionally went berserk, and grabbed random black people, usually men, and lynched them. You all know about lynching. But you may forget or not know that white people also randomly beat black people, and the black people could not fight back, for fear of even worse punishment.

This constant low level dread of atavistic violence is what kept the system running. It made life miserable, stressful and terrifying for black people.

White people also occasionally tried black people, especially black men, for crimes for which they could not conceivably be guilty. With the willing participation of white women, they often accused black men of “assault,” which could be anything from rape to not taking off one’s hat, to “reckless eyeballing.”

This is going to sound awful and perhaps a stain on my late father’s memory, but when I was little, before the civil rights movement, my father taught me many, many humiliating practices in order to prevent the random, terroristic, berserk behavior of white people. The one I remember most is that when walking down the street in New York City side by side, hand in hand with my hero-father, if a white woman approached on the same sidewalk, I was to take off my hat and walk behind my father, because he had been taught in the south that black males for some reason were supposed to walk single file in the presence of any white lady.

This was just one of many humiliating practices we were taught to prevent white people from going berserk.

I remember a huge family reunion one August with my aunts and uncles and cousins gathered around my grandparents’ vast breakfast table laden with food from the farm, and the state troopers drove up to the house with a car full of rifles and shotguns, and everyone went kind of weirdly blank. They put on the masks that black people used back then to not provoke white berserkness. My strong, valiant, self-educated, articulate uncles, whom I adored, became shuffling, Step-N-Fetchits to avoid provoking the white men. Fortunately the troopers were only looking for an escaped convict. Afterward, the women, my aunts, were furious at the humiliating performance of the men, and said so, something that even a child could understand.

This is the climate of fear that Dr. King ended.

If you didn’t get taught such things, let alone experience them, I caution you against invoking the memory of Dr. King as though he belongs exclusively to you and not primarily to African Americans.

The question is, how did Dr. King do this—and of course, he didn’t do it alone.

(Of all the other civil rights leaders who helped Dr. King end this reign of terror, I think the most under appreciated is James Farmer, who founded the Congress of Racial Equality and was a leader of nonviolent resistance, and taught the practices of nonviolent resistance.)

So what did they do?

They told us: Whatever you are most afraid of doing vis-a-vis white people, go do it. Go ahead down to city hall and try to register to vote, even if they say no, even if they take your name down.

Go ahead sit at that lunch counter. Sue the local school board. All things that most black people would have said back then, without exaggeration, were stark raving insane and would get you killed.

If we do it all together, we’ll be okay.

They made black people experience the worst of the worst, collectively, that white people could dish out, and discover that it wasn’t that bad. They taught black people how to take a beating—from the southern cops, from police dogs, from fire department hoses. They actually coached young people how to crouch, cover their heads with their arms and take the beating. They taught people how to go to jail, which terrified most decent people.

And you know what? The worst of the worst, wasn’t that bad.

Once people had been beaten, had dogs sicced on them, had fire hoses sprayed on them, and been thrown in jail, you know what happened?

These magnificent young black people began singing freedom songs in jail.

That, my friends, is what ended the terrorism of the south. Confronting your worst fears, living through it, and breaking out in a deep throated freedom song. The jailers knew they had lost when they beat the crap out of these young Negroes and the jailed, beaten young people began to sing joyously, first in one town then in another. This is what the writer, James Baldwin, captured like no other writer of the era.

Please let this sink in. It wasn’t marches or speeches. It was taking a severe beating, surviving and realizing that our fears were mostly illusory and that we were free.

So yes, Dr. King had many other goals, many other more transcendent, non-racial, policy goals, goals that apply to white people too, like ending poverty, reducing the war-like aspects of our foreign policy, promoting the New Deal goal of universal employment, and so on. But his main accomplishment was ending 200 years of racial terrorism, by getting black people to confront their fears. So please don’t tell me that Martin Luther King’s dream has not been achieved, unless you knew what racial terrorism was like back then and can make a convincing case you still feel it today. If you did not go through that transition, you’re not qualified to say that the dream was not accomplished.

That is what Dr. King did—not march, not give good speeches. He crisscrossed the south organizing people, helping them not be afraid, and encouraging them, like Gandhi did in India, to take the beating that they had been trying to avoid all their lives.

Once the beating was over, we were free.

It wasn’t the Civil Rights Act, or the Voting Rights Act or the Fair Housing Act that freed us. It was taking the beating and thereafter not being afraid. So, sorry Mrs. Clinton, as much as I admire you, you were wrong on this one. Our people freed ourselves and those Acts, as important as they were, were only white people officially recognizing what we had done.

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Should I Stay or Should I Go?

When I was younger I was taught (and fully believed) that Progressive Christians weren’t real Christians. They were dangerous people who didn’t want to sacrifice their comfortable worldly lives and so perverted the Church to make it more like the world. They were to be avoided and even despised for the harm they were bringing upon the Church. People who doubted the resurrection, those who sought to discover the “historical Jesus,” those who felt the Church should evolve, and anyone else who wanted anything that didn’t look like what we conceived of as “real Christianity” needed to stop confusing people by calling themselves Christians and just. get. out.

While my idea of what “real Christianity” looked like changed some throughout my adult life, the fundamentals always remained intact: the words of the original manuscripts of the books of the Bible are inspired by the Holy Spirit, the books were written by the people that tradition told us wrote them, the incidentals of each story in the Bible are factually accurate, miracles happened just like they’re described to us, the world is about 10,000 years old, angels, demons, and the devil are all actual beings that roam the earth fighting a spiritual battle amidst which we are caught, sin is real, hell is real, the need for “redemption” is real, the resurrection really happened, and people can really have a “relationship” with a man who’s been dead for nearly 2,000 years. All of that and more made perfect sense to me for somewhere between 25 and 30 years.

However, at some point in 2012, my faith began to waver. The things that had always made sense to me and had given my life structure and purpose just didn’t seem to connect with me anymore. The “answers” weren’t seeming to match the questions. Having been diagnosed with clinical depression, I take several prescriptions to keep my brain chemistry closer to what most people would consider “normal.” One of the shortcomings of these prescriptions is that, every so often, they stop being effective at relieving the symptoms. When that happens it leads to what is usually, at least, a multiple month process of trying medications, adjusting dosages, and waiting for results. So, my first thought was to wonder whether it was time for me to undergo this process. So I talked to my psychiatrist. Over the next nine months or so she tried various ways of changing my medications but none of the changes in  medication changed the feeling that life had become devoid of meaning.

As I began to realize that these thoughts were not the by-product of medication but were legitimately how I felt, one of the thoughts I had was what this would do to my marriage. My wife and I met 15 years ago on AOL (back when that was a thing). We had grown up in the same denomination and struck up a friendship that grew into love and, eventually, marriage. Where did that leave things with my wife? Our faith brought us together and it was the common ground on which our marriage was built. I knew she harbored none of these new doubts that I now had. I really hoped (and continue to hope) that things between us do not change so much that she decides to call it quits. To be fair, she’s not ever told me there was anything I could do to make her give up on me but, for some reason, I have always had a lingering fear of being abandoned by the people I care about most.

I find that, quite often, my motivations for why I do certain things, believe certain things, or behave in certain ways are a mystery to me as well as to others. I often have to go about collecting clues from myself by reading, writing, and reflecting so I can begin to piece together what’s going on deep in my subconscious. So, to begin that process, I thought it best to start with the books that had helped shape my worldview years earlier. So I purchased copies of The Closing of the American Mind, The Image, and Amusing Ourselves to Death to get started. These books had played a substantial role in convincing me that Western Civilization was on the decline. That the correct ways of learning and understanding were being jettisoned in favor of new and untested approaches. And yet, despite the promise that the new methods were better, they seemed to be making society worse. The twentieth century had seen the rise of tremendous violence, the breakdown of the family unit, the upheaval of the “traditional” male and female division of labor, the rise of youth culture, the sexual revolution, and the increasing use of drugs, to name some of the more often cited problems that had only arisen since these new methods had taken root.

To my dismay, instead of rekindling my faith in the traditional views of things, re-reading these books brought me to the conclusion that the presuppositions that my entire worldview was built on were wrong. I hope to write something specifically on that experience later but, for now, let me just say that I was led to the conclusion that there had been an equal number of positive changes that had happened in the twentieth century that were only possible because we abandoned the old ways of doing things. So, clearly, I needed to rethink everything and find a new philosophy on which to rebuild my shattered worldview and hope it would be sufficient to keep my marriage intact.

By this point I had pieced together the fact that one of the reasons my faith was faltering was realizing how these traditional views I had held were mixing with conservative Christianity and the increasingly unchristian Republican politics and politicians. As Republicans have unleashed wave after wave of radical about faces in public policy in an attempt to undo the best changes to come out of the twentieth century, conservative Christians have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with them. They have towed the line with Republican legislatures in taking away workers’ right to collective bargaining, and, in my home state of Michigan, they have sat idly by while the City of Detroit (run by the appointee of the Republican governor) filed for bankruptcy in federal rather than state court for the express intent of skirting provisions in the Michigan state constitution that protect and guarantee the pensions of the city’s workers.

So, I launched a search to find a new philosophical system that would take these issues seriously. Starting where everyone begins their searches for nearly everything these days, I began by doing a Google search on post-modern philosophies. In my search results I came across an article that made the audacious claim that most of the new positive aspects of today’s society were shaped by Progressive Christians. These were the same people that I had been taught were out to destroy the Church and Christianity.  That intrigued me. Was it possible that I could remain a Christian and still take on the serious social justice issues of our day? I finally saw a glimmer of hope. Maybe being a Christian was possible without betraying the lives and fate of the less fortunate.

So, now I’m one contemplating being a Progressive Christian. And so I have to pose the question to myself: are progressives Christians even though they don’t follow in the traditions we are historically accustomed to in the West? Do I leave for purely human controlled logic and reason or do I stay in Christianity and fight for what’s right even when it contradicts our historic understanding of the faith? I don’t know that I’ve arrived at my final answer yet but more and more I’m thinking that I don’t want to go.

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