A kinder, gentler Martin Luther King, Jr.

Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a freelance journalist and blogger. He considers Bob Dylan and Walter Sobchak to be the two great Jewish thinkers of our time; he thinks Kafka was half-right when he said there was hope, "but not for us"; and he can be reached through the twitter via @eliasisquith or via email. The opinions he expresses on the blog and throughout the interwebs are exclusively his own.

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48 Responses

  1. I agree with most of the sentiment expressed in this post.Report

  2. Tom Van Dyke says:

    When MLK became a left-ideologue activist, his polls went down. Not mysterious. He was treated like everyone else.

    Like many great victorious warriors, after 1964, MLK and his movement were at loose ends, casting about for their next war. The other side of this coin is the untold story how the movement fell apart when it shifted from human rights to “social justice.”

    The beginning of the end was 1965, and the Chicago Freedom Movement, shifting the battle lines from the modest towns of the south to America’s second city.

    It was largely seen as a failure: MLK’s foil was Mayor Daley and his machine. It was downhill from there, partly a victim of its own success, partly a victim of its turn to more radical political solutions, which was subsumed by more radically chic entities like the Black Panthers.


    The verdict of failure circled the Chicago movement even before it came to an end. Dissatisfied activists helped to fuel such a reading when in the wake of the Summit Agreement—a pact reached in late August 1966 between Martin Luther King, Al Raby (convenor of the CCCO) and other civil rights leaders, and Mayor Richard J. Daley and civic, business and religious elites to bring a halt to the open-housing marches and to take concrete steps to end the racial divide in the region—they decided to stage a march in Cicero, long known for its hostility toward blacks.

    As Robert Lucas, who led the march in Cicero in September 1966, has stated, “King went up against Richard J. Daley, and he lost.” Over the decades, this assessment has been the dominant one in Chicago. Surveying the state of the city’s West Side 20 years after the Chicago Freedom Movement, one African-American resident concluded, “Nothing really happened.” And recently, Leon Despres, a supporter of civil rights who opposed the Daley administration during the 1960s, has said that results of the Chicago campaign were “not much of a victory for Martin Luther King, Jr.”

    This bleak reading of the Chicago Freedom Movement shaped the perspective of the first major biography of King, written by David Levering Lewis in 1970. “The Chicago debacle” was how Lewis categorized its outcome. Many later scholars arrived at the same conclusion. In America in Our Time, published in 1976, Godfrey Hodgson stated that “Martin Luther King went to Chicago and was routed . . .” Nearly a decade later, Alonzo Hamby, in Liberalism and its Challengers, concluded that the Chicago Freedom Movement “undeniably was more failure than success.” In the early 1990s, in his survey of the Civil Rights Movement, Freedom Bound, Robert Weisbrot argued that “In many respects, the Chicago freedom movement had emerged as a debacle to rival the Albany [GA] movement.”Report

    • Mike Schilling in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

      That is, opposing discrimination was much more popular in the North when it was focused solely on the South.Report

      • Jeff in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        It’s been very instructive to me to contrast racism in the North to that in South. Southern racism **tends** to be more blatent, slavery, worshipping the Confederate flag, “whites only”, etc. But most of the “Sunset Towns” were in the North, and there was (and still might be — I’m not sure) a significant KKK presence in the North. (Anaheim, just south of where I’m typing this, was founded by members of the KKK.)

        And I can’t forget that one of the biggest battles over seggregation occured in Boston (the “school bus” nonsense).Report

        • Kolohe in reply to Jeff says:

          One aphorism I always heard was that white people in the South liked certain black people in particular, but disliked black people generally, while white people in the North liked black people generally, but disliked black people in particular.

          I.e., in the South, black people could be nannies or cooks or what have you, as long as they went to their side of the tracks after dark. In the North, black people could do whatever they wanted, as long as they did it somewhere else.Report

        • Art Deco in reply to Jeff says:

          I would not take James Loewen as authoritative. It also has not been the practice in the Southern United States to have ‘whites only’ signs on doorways for forty-odd years now.Report

      • Likely.

        One also suspects that the residents of Chicago did not consider their experience of the usual frictions and anxieties one has in multi-ethnic urban environments to be precisely equivalent to Southern caste regulations – in 1966 or today.Report

  3. Steven Donegal says:

    I’m pretty sure racism didn’t play any part in this. Those folks in Chicago, Cicero and Boston were just protesting for limited government.Report

    • Matt in reply to Steven Donegal says:

      No, you’re wrong. They were manifesting unalloyed, capital-E Evil.

      The fact that their stated fears were that desegregation would ruin property values, public schools, and public safety are irrelevant. As, in fact, are the accuracy of those predictions in the old working-class white neighborhoods of Chicago.

      Nope, nothing to see here but Evil.Report

  4. MFarmer says:

    “More insidiously—and this is an inextricable part of the same process—is the implication that it’s ever been thus. Abraham Lincoln was unanimously elected; Martin Luther King, Jr. was always recognized as our martyr for love.”

    For those us alive then, we see something different, and we don’t think it’s always been thus, and that was the point of MLK. They had the first service during his burial across the street where I went to high school. There was a lot of tension — I was attacked by a group of blacks going to school a week the burial. Many whites resented King during that time, and King fought to overcome that resentment, not just the resentment at him, but toward blacks fighting for civil rights. Things started to change shortly after, and I watched America change regarding race relations and civil rights issues. During the summer months, my parents shipped me and my brother to my grandmother in the country in a small town. We made friends with a couple of black kids, and when we’d be out running around the small town, if we wanted to get a soda, we’d have to go in while the black kids stayed outside — they weren’t allowed in the stores, except a few stores where they could go to the back door and the owner would sell stuff to them out back. Yes, great changes took place, and MLK was a major part of that. I can’t be cynical about great changes that have taken place before my eyes, and everyone has a right to feel good about that — it doesn’t ring true that feeling good about it is narcissistic — it’s a great accomplishment that almost everyone helped materialize in some small or big way. The difference today is like night and day.Report

  5. BSK says:

    Bravo. All too often, heroes of the civil rights movement (and I’m sure many other individuals, but the CRM is what I’m most knowledgeable about) are oversimplified in this way. If MLK was just a friendly guy who wanted people to get along, it is easier to downplay his opponents. If we view him as the intelligent, angry, calculating, determined man that he was, we must also acknowledge the anger and the determinedness and calculus of his opponents. It is easier to think that the racism of our past just sort of happened rather than it being something deliberate, something defended academically, something fought for.

    Great piece.Report

  6. Can you really blame them for not liking King? Equal opportunity for blacks meant equal opportunity for blacks to take white people’s jobs. It’s always been in the economic interest of poor whites to oppose equality for African Americans. It’s always been in the economic interest of rich whites to support equal opportunities for African Americans. It’s not surprising that that pattern is what history reveals. Eventually we’ll look back at present polling on immigration and see the same thing.Report

    • Mike Schilling in reply to Christopher Carr says:

      Actually, it’s in the interest of rich whites to demonize blacks, so that poor whites won’t figure out who the real enemy is. It’s not surprising that *that* pattern is what history reveals.Report

      • Abolitionist were predominately white and wealthy.Report

        • Wayne in reply to Christopher Carr says:

          Don’t bother Chris,
          I have often pointed out that Lincoln was a republican, that (in more recent days) republicans have had more black cabinet members appointed than dems, Roosevelt was anti-Semitic before he became a friend of the new Israel (for which the dems won forever the American-Jewish vote) and other fact are lost on those who are so blinded by hate (having been completely brainwashed and manipulated by the media and their own “leaders” ) that the can not see the historic facts ….yes the founding fathers had slaves…they founded the country that did more to put an end to slavery (of the african/american version) than any other ….blame it on the schools and how (what passes for) history is taught!Report

          • Tom Van Dyke in reply to Wayne says:


            “By the early 1960s, public attitudes had shifted in surveys. In 1964, some 62 percent supported a law to guarantee blacks “the right to be served in any retail store, restaurant, hotel or public accommodation,” according to the Harris survey. An ORC poll a year earlier found even stronger support of up to 80 percent for equal rights in education, employment and voting (but only half supported equal rights in housing). And public opinion had turned against overt resistance to civil rights. Seventy percent supported President Kennedy’s decision to use federal marshals to enforce integration in Alabama. Only one in five said they sided with Alabama authorities when police broke up a protest march in Selma in 1965 (half said they sided with civil rights groups).

            Yet most Americans told pollsters they still had doubts about the civil rights movement. In May 1961, most people (57 percent) told the Gallup poll that sit-ins at lunch counters and the “Freedom Riders” would hurt African Americans’ chances for integration. In 1964, Harris found 57 percent who disapproved of the “Freedom Summer” effort by civil rights workers to organize black voters in Mississippi. And while majorities supported the Civil Rights Act, the public still seemed reluctant to push the issue. Only 23 percent told Gallup that the Civil Rights Act should be “strictly enforced from the beginning,” while 62 percent preferred a “gradual, persuasive approach.” ”


            • BSK in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

              That’s because of the notion that freedom, equality, and rights for black people was something that was to be given by white people, not something that the black folks deserved and CERTAINLY not something they ought to try to take for themselves. The nerve of some people…Report

              • Jaybird in reply to BSK says:

                The idea that the seat of Human Rights is in “society” rather than in “the individual” is one of the most insidious and ugly ideas throughout history.

                It pollutes everything it touches.Report

          • Mike Schilling in reply to Wayne says:

            Hold on — you’re saying the the US did more to end slavery in the US than any other country did? I’d have to agree with that.

            Though I’d have to disagree with a few of your other statements. If Jews voted purely based on friendship to Israel, they’d vote Republican these days. That’s not generally the case.

            And I think FDR was pretty indifferent to the state of Israel. He had other concerns by 1948.Report

          • Mike Schilling in reply to Wayne says:

            What you say about cabinet officials is false too.


            11 appointed by Democrats, 7 by Republicans.Report

        • BSK in reply to Christopher Carr says:


          Except, of course, all the black folks who were fighting for their own rights and freedom.Report

          • Jaybird in reply to Elias Isquith says:

            I think we’re all in agreement that the Uncle Toms were black.

            Edit: And now I’m irritated at the thought that this post could be read to assume that I’m taking a side that I’m not, in fact, taking.

            There were a lot of strange and ugly dynamics going on at the time. Those who fought against their so-called “economic interest” in the service to a higher morality are to be cheered. At least in this case.

            It’s a far, far greater sin that was going on at the time, though. The fact that there were some awesome, moral people is good… but they weren’t as good as the sins were bad.

            Maybe that’s the nature of sin.

            In any case, seeing the argument bubble up about folks doing stuff in their own economic self-interest (and, in recent posts, it’s been posited that doing such is stupid) is something that we really ought to understand. Additionally, not doing stuff in their own economic self-interest in service to a higher morality is something that, certainly in this case, is to be lauded.

            Historically, the folks who tended to do stuff in their own economic self-interest were called worse things than the things we’re calling people who aren’t doing stuff in their own economic self-interest now. I think we *REALLY* ought to be careful when we talk, in other contexts, about the silliness of people who don’t do stuff in their own economic self-interest.Report

            • Tom Van Dyke in reply to Jaybird says:

              “Martin Luther King is just a 20th century or modern Uncle Tom, or a religious Uncle Tom, who is doing the same thing today, to keep Negroes defenseless in the face of an attack, that Uncle Tom did on the plantation to keep those Negroes defenseless in the face of the attacks of the Klan in that day.”


              • BSK in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

                Point being?Report

              • Elias Isquith in reply to BSK says:

                I’ll let Tom speak to that, but I assume everyone here knows that X changed a lot from the man we see there before he was murdered. Among other things, he formed a friendship of sorts (and much mutual respect) with King.Report

              • Absolutely, Elias. And when Malcolm moderated, The N of I murdered him.

                And the point of all this is to dig into the dynamics of the time, BSK. I’m just sharing my reading: ignore if you wish.

                What we see is more than just villains and heroes. Most Americans believed equal rights was “An Idea Whose Time Has Come” [as the great Everett Dirksen put it]. The real question was how and how fast. Whites, unsurprisingly, wanted slower, and things like the Watts riots of 1965 and the rhetoric of black radicals indeed result in what they called “backlash” in the day.

                If people want to keep it at white oppressors and black innocents, fine. I’m interested in the real story, and am passing on what I find. There are always lurkers who enjoy that sort of thing.Report

              • BSK in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

                But offering a quote and a YouTube video without any commentary doesn’t add much to the conversation, especially when there are different points that such a quote/video can be used to make. So I asked.

                I don’t think anyone here said it is white oppressors and black innocents. However, I think it is far to say that most of the oppressors were white and most of the innocents black.Report

              • I think people are probably aware of that, BSK. The other stuff I linked to, maybe not as much.Report

              • BSK in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

                Possibly so. But A) it is one data point of many, which as others have pointed out, offers far from the full picture of the relationship between Malcolm X and Dr. King and B) it is still unclear what “point” you are trying to make, outside of simply offering more or new info, which in and of itself isn’t much of a position. Anyone could offer a tangentially related quote. What I’m trying to get at is whether you are offering it in order to demonstrate that criticism of Dr. King extended to the black community or that not all black leaders in the Civil Rights movement used laudable methods (i.e., Malcom X).Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

                I don’t know that I have where to stand to judge either Malcolm X or Martin Luther King Jr.

                If you re-read Letter from a Birmingham Jail (and you should), you’ll see this paragraph:

                I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

                There are certain enemies where Ghandi and Jesus can teach you how to fight and how to win.

                There are certain enemies where they cannot.

                I don’t know how to judge the unreconstructed (and the parts that considered themselves reconstructed) South. I can certainly understand coming to either conclusion.Report

              • Mike Schilling in reply to Jaybird says:

                There’s a story by Harry Turtledove (can’t recall the title), where, after the UK lost WWII, Gandhi tried use passive resistance against India’s new rulers. It did not go well.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Mike Schilling says:

                I’d like to think that Ghandi was smart enough to know the difference between the crown and the chancellor… but it’s an excellent point nonetheless.Report

              • I’ve just always thought that X and King needed one another, that any movement for social change on the scale (and against the kind of opposition) of the civil rights movement is going to require a soft touch as well as a fist.

                ETA: to Gandhi, unfortunately (I guess?) it seems like had it come to that, he would have indeed followed the same path. At the least, that’s what he had said the Jews should’ve done. Well, actually, he said they should’ve committed mass suicide, which isn’t quite the same…Report

              • Mike Schilling in reply to Mike Schilling says:

                It’s called The_Last_Article.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Mike Schilling says:

                Masada makes for a much better story than example.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Jaybird says:

                Another wrinkle:

                It’s possible to use the above letter as justification for the invasion of foreign countries to depose tyrants.

                There’s a lot of stuff going on in there.Report

              • Elias Isquith in reply to Jaybird says:

                Yeah. Definitely one of my favorite pieces of writing ever. It’s a masterpiece in both politics and prose.Report

              • Stillwater in reply to Jaybird says:

                Jaybird, these last are an excellent sequence of comments. Is it worth suggesting a longer post fleshing them out some?Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Stillwater says:

                I dunno. Maybe. I’ll have to think about it.Report

        • Mike Schilling in reply to Christopher Carr says:

          So was the King of England.

          Were there many plantation aristocrats who were abolitionists?Report

  7. Art Deco says:

    We become complacent, self-righteous, and hubristic in the extreme.

    But you do not really mean to include yourself in the ‘we’, do you?Report