Part III: The War to Be Civil
Careless seems the great Avenger; history’s pages but record One death-grapple in the darkness ‘twixt old systems and the Word; Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne, — Yet that scaffold sways the future, and, behind the dim unknown, Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own. “The Present Crisis” by James Russell Lowell
Martin Luther King, Jr. – great moral leader, charismatic tactician, and official Father of the Civil Rights Movement – was a brilliant politician.
The moment above displays his political skill at its finest. In two minutes, he situates his nonviolent campaign within the national narrative of abolition and racial progress, mingling James Russell Lowell and Julia Ward Howe with Bible verse and philosophy to make a forceful call for justice.
The moment is also, perhaps, the zenith of King’s movement. The speech was delivered on March 25, at the conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery March. Eighteen days before, on Bloody Sunday, 600 protesters had been gassed, beaten and jailed when they attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge; eight days later, President Johnson announced before the full Congress his plan to push for a voting rights bill. King, through nonviolence, had forced action.
However, darker events presaged a radically different speech. Members of the Nation of Islam assassinated Malcolm X, a frequent and popular critic of King, on February 21. During his life, he was often portrayed as the radical yang to King’s nonviolent yin, though the leaders had begun to converge in thought. February also marked the beginning of Operation Rolling Thunder and the dramatic escalation of the conflict in Vietnam.
The months to follow would belie the moment of brief triumph. Watts erupted in August 1965, the week after the Voting Rights Act was signed. It was the largest and most costly in a series of urban rebellions, provoking an immediate backlash, which provoked more riots. By the end of October 1966, Stokely Carmichael, leader of SNCC and future Black Panther, had supplanted King with a message of Black Power. And he was quoting Camus and Sartre.
These three figures – King, Malcolm X, and Carmichael – frame the official story, indeed the cultural consensus, on how the Civil Rights Movement “lost its way.” The myth was recently dusted off for “The Butler,” a movie that is essentially “Forrest Gump” if he was Forest Whitaker, and a butler at the White House. In a pivotal dinner scene, the main character and his wife throw out their son, who has become a Black Panther. Watch the scene more closely, however, and you see within the political dispute an allegory for black respectability – the son has no respect for his father, has dropped out of school, and is dating someone “low-class.” And he had the nerve to besmirch the good name of Sidney Poitier.
Our Civil Rights myth has been filtered and molded through tropes of black respectability that date back to the collapse of Reconstruction. Frederick C. Harris, writing for Dissent Magazine, notes that
For more than half of the twentieth century, the concept of the “Talented Tenth” commanded black elites to “lift as we climb,” or to prove to white America that blacks were worthy of full citizenship rights by getting the untalented nine-tenths to rid themselves of bad customs and habits.
The mythic conception of the widespread black social unrest of midcentury – the sepia-toned version of Trumbull’s Declaration of Independence – has served its political purpose; the end of legal segregation has enabled generations of black Americans to achieve things inconceivable fifty years ago. But it has also locked the contemporary debate over black uplift into the same straightjacket of respectability politics – the well-trod binary of Washington vs. DuBois, Martin vs. Malcolm, Cosby vs. Dyson.
Harris writes that “the current incarnation of the politics of respectability—where uplift entails transforming individuals rather than transforming communities… operates as common sense in most quarters of black America,” appealing to all social classes despite its origin in elite ideology. It is reflected in the views of a diverse array of figures, from Clarence Thomas to Louis Farrakhan.
But as the gap between the Talented Tenth and the 90 Percent widens, there’s been more climbing, and less lifting. The message of self-improvement has curdled into up-by-your-bootstraps admonishment. Black leaders often feel compelled to go after deadbeat fathers, gangbangers, and various other tropes of “black” improper behavior in the name of community uplift. A particularly egregious example can be seen in Rev. Al Sharpton’s eulogy for Michael Brown, where Sharpton used the occasion of a child’s funeral to castigate those who “decide it ain’t black no more to be successful. Now you wanna be a nigga and call your woman a ho, you lost where you come from.” How this was at all relevant to the killing of Brown by a city police officer was unclear.
Antiquated notions of “respectability” color how we remember our leaders as well. King’s message of inclusion aside, the elites that made up the Civil Rights establishment saw fit to exclude some that did not fit their exacting, conservative and Christian mold. Wanting to present the dignified best of Black America to the country’s mainstream, they left many pivotal figures out of the official story. Bayard Rustin, the man who introduced King to Gandhian nonviolence and organized the 1963 March on Washington, was denounced by other leaders for being openly gay. Claudette Colvin – arrested on a Montgomery bus nine months before Rosa Parks and star witness in the legal case to desegregate Montgomery buses – was passed over as a national standard-bearer because she became pregnant out of wedlock.
Moreover, the civil rights establishment was overwhelmingly male. In the decades that followed the 1960s, Rosa Parks was elevated along with King as a symbol of longsuffering black womanhood. In reality, Parks’ involvement in the movement anteceded the Montgomery Bus Boycott by at least a dozen years; her advocacy in 1944 on behalf of young mother and sharecropper Recy Taylor, who’d been gang-raped and left for dead by a group of armed white men, was a galvanizing effort which paved the way for King’s later success.
Instead of continuing to have the same narrow debates over flawed premises, we need to embrace new thought and rediscover the old. We need to value the broad diversity of voices within the black community, rather than marginalizing our own or adhering to traditional presumptions. We could start, for example, with Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael; considered radicals in their time, they held ideas situated in contemporary mainstream thought. X drew upon the same “organic” black conservative tradition as King. Anyone familiar with the views of Bill Cosby (or Rush Limbaugh for that matter) will recognize them in Malcolm X’s “Message to the Grass Roots”:
Instead of waiting for the white man to come and straighten out our neighborhood, we’ll straighten it out ourselves. This is where you make your mistake. An outsider can’t clean up your house as well as you can. An outsider can’t take care of your children as well as you can. An outsider can’t look after your needs as well as you can. And an outsider can’t understand your problems as well as you can. Yet you’re looking for an outsider to do it. We will do it or it will never get done.
But X elevated his critique above the “twice as good” pabulum that exhorts black men to pull up their pants by unflinchingly assailing the corrupt institutions that created the ghettos:
Yes. There are some good policemen and some bad policemen. Usually we get the bad ones. With all the police in Harlem, there is too much crime, too much drug addiction, too much alcoholism, too much prostitution, too much gambling…The more cops we have, the more crime we have. We begin to think that they bring some of the crime with them.
We won’t organize any black man to be a Democrat or a Republican because both of them have sold us out.
Carmichael built on the themes of black self-improvement and deep skepticism of political institutions pioneered by X, adding an element of economic justice that resonates today:
The question is, how can we build new political institutions that will become the political expressions of people on a day-to-day basis…how can we build institutions where those people can begin to function on a day-to-day basis, where they can get decent jobs, where they can get decent houses, and where they can begin to participate in the policy and major decisions that affect their lives?
Now we maintain that we cannot afford to be concerned about six percent of the children in this country, black children, who you allow to come into white schools. We have ninety-four percent who still live in shacks.
If we want to move past old debates, we need to stop targeting each other and begin questioning the institutions around us. We need to stop preaching self-help and start building better communities. A movement is something we do together.
Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X were, of course, imperfect, as was Dr. King. But what we need isn’t perfect leaders, nor should we require ourselves to be perfect. Ta-Nehisi Coates, writing about Bill Cosby’s “smug old black man” public persona back in 2008, put it this way:
Cosby is fond of saying that sacrifices of the ’60s weren’t made so that rappers and young people could repeatedly use the word nigger. But that’s exactly why they were made. After all, chief among all individual rights awarded Americans is the right to be mediocre, crass, and juvenile—in other words, the right to be human.
It’s time we start letting ourselves be human, and start fighting for more perfect institutions.