Martin Luther King: Integrationist and Black Separatist
American Civilization Since the Civil War
Professor [for American Civilization Since the Civil War]
May 1, 2006
On August 28, 1963, in the moment that elevated his status to American icon, Martin Luther King proclaimed in front of the Lincoln Memorial, “I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”. King saw that dream take a giant leap forward on July 2, 1964, when President Lyndon Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act into law. On December 10, 1964, Martin Luther King received the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway, and on August 6, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed the 1965 Voting Rights Act into law.
The 1965 Voting Rights Act marked the zenith of Martin Luther King’s spiritually based civil rights movement. With a forceful message of civic brotherhood, King successfully championed political integration for black Americans by appealing to the fellowship and patriotism of liberal white Americans. It seemed that the civil rights movement had finally won equality for all black Americans, but on August 11, 1965, the Watts riots erupted in Los Angeles. Eventually, the intervention of the California National Guard was necessary to stop the worst single racial disturbance in American history.
The Watts riots marked a profound turning point in Dr. King’s activism, and the final years of King’s life were far different than the 1963 image of the integrationist framed by the Lincoln Memorial. They were marked by a turn towards black separatism as King voiced his increasing frustration with his post civil rights struggle to establish an economically socialist America which he considered the key to eradicating poverty amongst black Americans.
Today, Martin Luther King is popularly remembered as the great uniter, the spiritual conscience for a color-blind America. Most white Americans across the political spectrum embrace King’s civil rights legacy as an alternative to the racial struggle championed by militant black activists such as Malcolm X. In King’s words, “I always contended that we as a race must not seek to rise from a position of disadvantage to one of advantage, but to create a moral balance in society where democracy and brotherhood would be a reality for all men” (Carson, Autobiography, 269).
As well, King’s biography lends itself to the interpretation of him as a patriot for all Americans. His story reads like the life story of a latter-day founding father, a privileged and progressive American paragon: “raised in a middle-class family, nurtured in a “highbrow” black church of Atlanta, and educated at the “Harvard” of black colleges and the best schools of liberal theology in the North . . . black separatism contradicted his deep faith in the American dream and his spiritual vision of it as the beloved community” (Cone, Martin & Malcolm, 227).
King’s integrationist views are manifest in his most famous oratory, “I Have A Dream”, delivered in Washington DC on August 28, 1963:
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal." I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood. . . . I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.The speech, recognizable to almost every American, shows Martin Luther King distancing the civil rights movement from the radical militancy of contemporaries such as Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver. Preferring to speak in a language of spiritual brotherhood that embraced white Americans, King directed that the “marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny and their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom” (King, “I Have a Dream”).
I have a dream that . . . little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today. . . . With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
This will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with a new meaning, "My country, 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim's pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring." And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true. (King, “I Have a Dream”)
In 1963, King optimistically believed in the progressive “constructive program” to achieve racial integration, which he based on Mahatma Ghandi’s teachings, that called for black Americans to prove they were more than good Americans - they were superior Americans. King focused on the spiritual awakening in the black populace of “the kind of awareness in people that will make it impossible for them to be enslaved or abused” (Miller, Life, Martyrdom and Meaning, 236). At this stage of his activism, he believed the proper path to integration was for black Americans to assert and broaden their intrinsic personal worth within the existing framework of the nation, not through a destructive, zero-sum struggle with white Americans.
However, while King preferred cooperation with whites to achieve integration, even in 1963, he recognized the political utility of black separatism. Speaking to white Americans, he was not above citing black separatism as a dangerous alternative to his message, benign in comparison. For his followers, King simply believed the violence that marked black separatism was ultimately unproductive and that his way of “soul force” was the more effective form of advocacy:
Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights.In 1965, however, in the same week that the 1965 Voting Rights Act – the high point of King’s civil rights movement - was signed into law by President Johnson, King experienced an event that profoundly altered the subsequent direction of his activism: the Watts riots. When the riots began, King traveled to Los Angeles as a peacemaker, the proud victor and national champion of integration, to counsel nonviolence between the races. The cold reception he received from the black community in Watts, however, shocked him.
The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges. But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.
We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. (King, “I Have a Dream”)
In King’s southern-based movement, civil rights activism had focused on closing the legal separations between blacks and whites in schools, restaurants, bussing, voting rights, even water foun
Upon his arrival in Los Angeles, Dr. King delivered his counsel for nonviolence at the Westminster Community Center. The Watts audience was unreceptive. In repudiation of King’s denunciation of violence, many blacks claimed the riots were a success and one man even shouted, “Get out of here Dr. King! We don’t want you” (Cone, Martin & Malcolm, 222).
Bayard Rustin, a King advisor, describes the civil rights leader’s reaction later that night as “[King] was absolutely undone, and he looked at me and said, ‘You know, Bayard, I worked to get these people the right to eat hamburgers, and now I’ve got to do something . . . to help them to get the money to buy [them]” (Cone, Martin & Malcolm, 222).
While the harsh lesson King learned in Watts did much to fuel his determination to take the civil rights movement in the grittier, even militant, direction of economic justice, to be fair, there is also evidence Dr. King was gradually broadening his political focus to poverty before the Watts riots. Upon receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway on December 10, 1964, King was publicly confronted with the questions, “What now? In what direction is the civil rights movement headed?” In answer, King told an audience at the University of Oslo, “The time has come for an all-out war against poverty. The rich nations must use their vast resources of wealth to develop the underdeveloped, school the unschooled, and feed the unfed
Ostensibly speaking of “rich nations” in a global context, there was little doubt about the nation to which King was specifically referring. While traveling in Oslo, he admired Norway’s democratic socialist tradition that seemingly had solved the problems of unemployment, slums, medical care, and education on a national level. Comparing the United States to Norway, King stated, “the limited, halting steps taken by our rich nation deeply troubled me” (Carson, Autobiography, 259).
However, until the Watts riots, King had only viewed these economic issues from an academic perspective; as an activist, he remained fully absorbed in the problems of political integration. Rustin, who advised King to give greater attention to economic inequality, further describes King’s shift in focus towards economic issues after Watts: “[The Watts incident] struck Martin very, very deeply. I think it was the first time he really understood [the poverty issue]” (Cone, Martin & Malcolm, 223).
King’s shift of focus to the North brought him closer to the black separatism growing out of urban ghettoes. Concurrent with King’s realization at Watts came the understanding that the civil rights movement he had engineered was moving away from him. By the end of 1965 and into 1966, a generation gap had opened between the older religious integrationists who had followed King at Birmingham and younger secular black separatist leaders such as Stokeley Carmichael of the SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) and the younger leaders even in King’s own organization, the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference), such as James Bevel and Wyatt Walker. King was still greatly respected and universally followed, but increasingly, Carmichael’s belligerent slogan of “Black Power” replaced King’s integrationist call for “Freedom Now” (Miller, Life, Martyrdom and Meaning, 244). The tensions between old and new-generation civil rights activists came to a head in the Freedom March of 1966. The younger leaders denounced the presence of “white phonies and liberals” in the march and sought to replace the spiritual civil rights anthem of “We Shall Overcome” with the aggressive “We Shall Overrun” (Miller, Life, Martyrdom and Meaning, 244).
In fact, by the time of the 1966 Freedom March, King was becoming increasingly sympathetic to the criticism of white liberals by black activists. In a January 1965 interview in Playboy, King stated, “Over the past several years, I must say, I have been gravely disappointed with such white ‘moderates’. I am inclined to think that they are more of a stumbling block to the Negro’s progress than the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner” (Cone, Martin & Malcolm, 223). However, King was still loyal to his vision of racial integration in 1966, and throughout the march, King battled with the younger civil rights leaders to maintain an integrationist tone and message. Only King’s constant intervention, persuasive ability, and outright threats to quit the march kept the upswell of separatist revolutionary fervor in check.
Meanwhile, according to Carmichael, the younger leaders incessantly pushed their agenda onto the King-led march “in order to give it a national forum, and force [King] to take a stand for Black Power” (Miller, Life, Martyrdom and Meaning, 247). Whatever King’s feelings about the “cup of bitterness and hatred” that drove black separatism, it became clear to him that in order to remain the leader of the civil rights movement as it moved north, he had to adapt to his own growing disappointment with white liberals, the leadership challenge from his would-be younger successors, and the changing dynamics of the movement itself.
King’s move north set the stage for the final, black separatist stage of King’s civil rights activism. King planned to “[call] on the swelling masses of young people in this country who were disenchanted with this materialistic society”, “channel the smouldering rage and frustration of Negro people into an effective, militant, and nonviolent movement of massive proportions” and, echoing the late Malcolm X, “use any means of legitimate nonviolent protest necessary to move our nation and our government on a new course of social, economic and political reform” (Carson, Autobiography, 347).
Subsequently, the northern white liberals who had marched with King to integrate the South disappeared from his side as King’s patriotic integrationist message transformed to a less palatable call for socialist revolution and protests destabilized their own communities in the North. The resistance by his former white allies, including President Johnson, to the final stage of King’s activism was so great that King concluded, “[white liberals] took a stand for decency, but it was never really a stand for genuine equality for the black man . . . it’s much easier to guarantee the right to vote than it is to eradicate an annual minimum income and create jobs”. Furthermore, while addressing blacks in Louisville, Kentucky, an increasingly bitter King stated, “I am sorry to say to say to you that the vast majority of white Americans are racist, either consciously or unconsciously” (Cone, Martin & Malcolm, 233).
In 1968, the year of his assassination, King organized the Poor People’s Campaign to address economic justice for all Americans, which included demands for massive government spending and wide-reaching fundamental reform of the economy by the government in order to eradicate poverty in America. The campaign’s failure – and the backlash against it by his former allies in the government -- motivated King to blame his failure on funding for the Vietnam War.
King essentially used his global political stature in an attempt to blackmail the American government into adopting his domestic program. King ahistorically characterized the Vietnam War as the global extension of his movement, with its basis as the struggle within the United States between rich and poor, and oppressor and impoverished. He ignored American humanitarian initiatives in Vietnam -- many of which, ironically, sought the type of economic and political reforms that King wanted for black Americans -- and refused to blame the Communist North Vietnamese for their violent and oppressive excesses. Instead, King, in keeping with his intent to “use any means of legitimate nonviolent protest necessary to move our nation and our government” to adopt his domestic program, propagated the image of the United States as the sole cause of Vietnamese suffering, indeed as the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today” (King, “Beyond Vietnam”). Despite criticism from black and white leaders against the intellectually dishonest conflation of his domestic agenda and the Vietnam War, “after [King] made up his mind, for the remaining year of his life, Vietnam remained a chief focus of his attention as he linked it with racism and poverty” (Cone, Martin & Malcolm, 237).
By the final year of his life, King had wholly abandoned his integrationist image, achieved five years earlier in Washington DC, that “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers”. Increasingly, King drew inspiration from biblical traditions of martyrdom and black traditions of struggle. He saw his role as a modern biblical prophet whose duty was to speak the ‘truth’, as given to him by God, immune to the criticisms leveled against him. At the same time, King increasingly interpreted American government decisions at home and overseas and setbacks to his movement as motivated by racism: “Men of the white West . . . have grown up in a racist culture, and their thinking is colored by that fact” (King, “A Testament of Hope”). When fellow blacks in the civil rights movement criticized him, particularly for his views on the Vietnam War, King accused them of selling out to the ‘white’ government. He judged their differences of view according to his perceived monopoly on God’s ‘truth’. King’s response to disagreement from Whitney Young of the Urban League regarding the Vietnam War was typical: “Whitney, what you’re saying may get you a foundation grant but it won’t get you into the kingdom of truth” (Cone, Martin & Malcolm, 239).
Today, there is an almost willful oversight of the final incarnation of Martin Luther King. We hear little about the Dr. King who would respond to critics of his views about white America, the government, and the Vietnam War with retorts such as “I answered a call which left the Spirit of the Lord upon me and anointed me to preach the gospel . . . I decided then that I was going to tell the truth as God revealed it to me” (King, “Why I Am Opposed”). Perhaps, the reason that this version of Martin Luther King is so little acknowledged is that by the end of his life, King had alienated many of his supporters. In fact, on April 3, 1968, the day before his assassination, King seemed to invite death and religious martyrdom:
Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. (King, “I’ve Been To The Mountaintop”)Martin Luther King’s mixed legacy, as both integrationist and black separatist, is summed up best by August Meier’s description of King as a “conservative militant” (Meier, A Profile, 144). King incited mass resistance while repudiating violent revolution. He challenged the status quo with militant fervor yet considered the federal government as the necessary solution. He often compromised with those in power. He railed against white racism while advocating for racial integration. As a highly educated, middle-class preacher, his privileged background often put him at odds with his disenfranchised followers and the secular nature of the cause he led.
This contradictory nature of Martin Luther King as a civil rights leader greatly contributed to his success by making political integration acceptable, even desirable, for mainstream white America. However, King did not carry the personal qualities that galvanized the civil rights movement into the final, black separatist, stage of his activism. In the end, King lost credibility as he adopted the “cup of bitterness and hatred” he had once cautioned against in order to champion a socialist America, ahistorically conflate issues of poverty, war and racism, and reject criticism by presenting himself as a prophet and martyr.
Carson, Clayborne, Ed. The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Warner, 1998.
Cone, James A. Martin & Malcolm & America. New York: Orbis, 1991.
King Papers Project. The Martin Luther King, Jr, Research and Education Institute, http://www.stanford.edu/group/King/mlkpapers/. Stanford University.
Meier, August. “The Conservative Militant.” Martin Luther King, Jr: A Profile. Lincoln, C. Eric, Ed. New York: Hill and Wang, 1970.