HM - Apr. 2016 - Butler

The History File


"Nonviolent Coexistence or Violent Coannihilation?
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., De Facto Segregation,
and Their Contemporary Relevance"

 by Michael Butler
Flagler College
St. Augustine, FL

Forty-eight years ago this month, an escaped convict and avowed racist murdered the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. Dr. King’s death marked an end to the most celebrated and transformative stage of America’s long civil rights movement, the popular Montgomery to Memphis narrative, and it elevated King to a level of civic martyrdom that few figures in American history occupy. Most public dialogue concerning Dr. King’s life and untimely death use them to celebrate how far we have come in eradicating the segregation and overt racism that King confronted throughout his adult life. Serious reflection on the state of contemporary race relations, consequently, often gives way to a self-congratulatory belief that our collective national greatness has made the societal ills that King confronted a thing of the past. The sanitized oversimplification of his life and legacy is often reduced to the "I Have a Dream" speech in our collective historical memory and obscures several insights King made both then and later concerning the civil rights movement. His opinions on the struggle, in short, changed tremendously between the 1963 March on Washington, D.C. and his 1968 assassination and remain pertinent when confronting and comprehending racial tumult in 2016. King outlined those issues in his final book, the penetratingly insightful but often overlooked Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?

“Give Us the Ballot”
Courtesy of Getty Images
Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his speech at the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom
gathering before the first major civil rights demonstration in Washington, D.C.

The "I Have a Dream" speech is a watershed moment in American history for many reasons, not the least of which because it confirmed King's position, according to historian John Kirk, "as the leading black spokesperson in the nation."1   As such, King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) highlighted the necessity of federal legislation in securing civil rights. The emphasis and subsequent campaigns in Mississippi, St. Augustine, and Selma influenced passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Yet eight days after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law, an urban riot ignited the predominately black Watts community in Los Angeles and initiated a new phase of the civil rights movement. King visited the area several days after the violence began. The experience convinced him that the movement had to now confront the economic inequalities and emotional hopelessness that permeated urban areas outside of the south and led to the SCLC's 1966 Chicago campaign. Stung by a perceived failure of the Chicago movement, the rise of "Black Power," continued urban unrest, and America's deepening involvement in Vietnam, King took a two-month sabbatical from SCLC responsibilities to complete his fourth and, ultimately, final book. It was published in June 1967 and described a movement in the midst of transition that remains timely.

King noted that with the Selma campaign and subsequent Voting Rights Act, "one phase of development in the civil rights revolution came to an end."2 Up to that point, the movement targeted de jure forms of discrimination, which was segregation by legal code in the form of Jim Crow laws and voter disenfranchisement statutes. The shift in movement goals to de facto forms of racism is what King addressed in his final book and spent the remainder of his life combatting.  De facto forms of inequality were –and remain – much more socially ingrained, complex, and pervasive than codified segregation. African Americans experience these issues at a disproportionate rate to the white majority,  possess higher unemployment and infant mortality rates, are more likely to drop out of high school and live in substandard housing than whites, and face much higher incarceration rates than other minority groups. "The curse of poverty," King maintained, perpetuated the discrimination that our poorest citizens faced after the movement's first phase ended and fueled the country's persistent racism.3  His solution to the greater problem of racial inequities, the guaranteed annual income, represented "a radical restructuring of the architecture of American society" and a "genuine revolution of values."4

The federal government, King argued, had an "unenforceable obligation" to wage an "all-out war against poverty" that is "more person-centered than property and profit-centered."5  The Vietnam War undoubtedly impacted King's thinking on these issues, and critics took the minister to task for – among other things – not clearly outlining how the government could develop and implement the social programs that he believed necessary to end de facto discrimination. King knew his employment and economic recommendations would not be well received by those in power and anticipated a critical backlash. Yet the continued failure to make the political, economic, and cultural sacrifices needed to bring meaningful social change, King warned, "will merely encourage turmoil" between the races.6

As another anniversary of Dr. King’s death comes and goes, and we reflect on the meaning of his legacy in contemporary America, I cannot help returning to the final two sentences in his last book: "We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent coannihilation. This may well be mankind's last chance to choose between chaos and community."7 The popular image of King on the Lincoln Memorial steps overshadows his stark warnings less than four years later concerning the "curse of poverty" that he believed our nation must eradicate for true equality to exist in America between all people, regardless of class and race.  Would a greater understanding of King's reasons for highlighting squalid living conditions in Chicago, organizing a national Poor People's Campaign, and supporting a Memphis sanitation workers’ strike eradicate the hopelessness and desperation that is the source of most interracial conflict in contemporary America? Absolutely not. But teaching our students the differences between de facto and de jure forms of discrimination leads to an understanding that the movement is not over, and that the struggle to overcome racial prejudices is still evident in the forms of inadequate educational opportunities, police brutality, and the emergent "school to prison pipeline." Unless we make historical movements like the black freedom struggle relevant to students and demand an educated dialogue concerning the socioeconomic roots of racial unrest that still surface all too frequently, the true hopes and dreams of Dr. King – those that brought him to Memphis in 1968 – will remain tragically unrealized.

[1] John A. Kirk, Martin Luther King, Jr. (London: Pearson Education, Limited, 2005), 98.
[2] Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? (Boston: Beacon Press, 2010), 3. For more on the work, see David J. Garrow, "Where Martin Luther King, Jr., Was Going: Where Do We Go From Here and the Traumas of the Post-Selma Movement," Georgia Historical Quarterly 75, no. 4 (Winter 1991): 719-736.
[3] King, Where Do We Go From Here, 175.
[4] King, Where Do We Go From Here, 141, 201.
[5] King, Where Do We Go From Here, 100, 188, 142.
[6] King, Where Do We Go From Here, 22.
[7] King, Where Do We Go From Here, 202.

Dr. J. Michael Butler is a Professor of History at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida and is the author of the forthcoming book Beyond Integration: The Black Freedom Struggle in Escambia County, Florida: 1960-2000