Belated thoughts on Martin Luther King

17 January 2018

There’s been a lot to do as we put together for the launch of this blog, so forgive me if these thoughts on the legacy of Martin Luther King in American democracy come a few days after what would have been King’s 89th birthday. Since 2018 is the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination, though, I expect that this year will be the occasion for a more extended commemoration than what typically takes place around the holiday. If Brandon Terry’s essay in the Boston Review is any indication, things are off to a good start.


Terry’s essay, like many others over the past several years, reflects a growing impulse to reinterpret King’s work after it has become part of the official American political pantheon. Many critics have become frustrated, rightly, with the tendency to interpret King’s philosophy of nonviolence and grounding in Christian scripture so as to make him into a sort of martyr, sacrificing himself in order to forgive America of its original sin. King becomes in much of contemporary discourse an emblem of reconciliation, though for much of his own career as a he was considered a dangerous subversive. Rather than serve as an example for further action to address the enduring legacy of racism—and not only that—the official King urges moderation and compromise. As Terry puts it, “canonization presents an obstacle to an honest reckoning with King’s legacy.”


I am far from an expert on King, so I’ll limit my own contribution to something more modest: putting him in conversation with the muse of this blog, Alexis de Tocqueville. Doing this, I think, gives us a King who is not only a practical guide to social action, but also a keen observer of American society.


In many respects Tocqueville’s chapter Sur les trois races qui habitent les Etats-Unis does not stand up to today’s standards for understanding racism in America, but there is a sense in which Democracy in America does a better job anticipating how we should interpret King than many mainstream voices in our time. Most importantly, Tocqueville saw long before the end of slavery and the rise and fall of Jim Crow that equality before the law, even if enforced, would not suffice to make Afro-Americans full democratic citizens. Racism had already deeply infiltrated America’s “mores,” to use Tocquevillian language, attitudes that structure social relations at the deepest level. For Tocqueville, it was all too apparent that even the freedman faced nearly insurmountable disadvantages in this society: “When he is oppressed, he can make a complaint, but he only finds Whites among his judges…. His son is excluded from the school where the descendants of Europeans go to study…. In the hospital, he suffers in isolation” (sorry Art, I’ve only got my French edition on hand so this is my own quick translation).


When Tocqueville writes that Afro-Americans (and Indians as well) are “Americans without being democratic,” this means that they belong to a society that is profoundly structured in terms of racial hierarchy—given his analysis of “mores” here I think it’s not too much of a stretch to read this into the word “American” in this context—without participating in the “equality of conditions” that is otherwise so essential to American life. One did not need to have the clairvoyance we often attribute to Tocqueville to see that this situation would likely lead to both violent conflict and a movement of Afro-Americans to claim the freedoms they are denied. Tocqueville in fact, assumed these would coincide: “If the Negroes of the South are refused liberty, they will end by seizing it violently for themselves”).


What Tocqueville helps make clear is that it takes either a large dose of naïveté or a belief in some kind of divine intervention to believe that with King, these deep racial inequalities could be resolved once and for all without unequivocally confrontational (if not violent) action. But I think at the same time King helps change our reading of Tocqueville as well. Here, I am thinking of a passage towards the end of the second volume of Democracy in America, the chapter entitled “Why great revolutions will become rare.” Tocqueville claims that in contrast to a formerly aristocratic nation such as France, which required a revolution to establish firmly the equality of conditions, the United States has little need for radical upheavals, at least not in order to achieve the aims of equality. It appears as if Tocqueville has forgotten in this chapter what he had written at the end of his first tome, namely that there was an entire people in America that had not been born into the condition of equality! As we’ve just seen, Tocqueville all but predicted that something resembling an Afro-American revolution was all but inevitable.


Here’s where King comes in. For as many of his champions today argue, he was a “radical,” even a “revolutionary.” But if so, he was not exactly the kind of revolutionary Tocqueville would have had in mind in the 1830s and 1840s. No less than Tocqueville—all the more so—King saw the structural obstacles standing in the way of equality for Afro-Americans. He made abundantly clear that the struggle for this freedom would have to go beyond voting rights to include fair housing, fair wages, and an end to the Vietnam War. King saw these calls for redistribution and peace as no less than a “revolution of values.” This is what I take to be the upshot of his politics of nonviolence. It is not a matter of rejecting confrontation or radical demands. On the contrary, it is recognizing that these demands can be won through a confrontation with the “values,” or “mores,” that are at the heart of America’s structures of inequality.


Photo Credit: Dick DeMarsico, via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.


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