Reclaim MLK Freedom and Unity March in Portland, 2018 (Shuttershock.com).
“The white backlash had become an emotional electoral issue… Political clowns had become governors… their magic achieved with a ‘witches’ brew of bigotry, prejudice, half-truths and whole lies.” These words come from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s final book before his assassination. Originally published in 1967, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? analyzes the status of the movement for racial equality as it struggled against “the stone walls of white resistance.” For those seeking to honor King by continuing his struggle, Where Do We Go From Here provides a map for where he hoped his sacrifices would lead and is a framework for bringing American ideals closer to American realities.
In Where Do We Go From Here, King writes in dire tones and provides some of his most incisive insights and relevant work. He inspects the wealthiest nation in the world as it was losing its soul in the streets of impoverished ghettos and in the violent backwaters of Vietnam. Though the Civil Rights bills were signed and sealed by 1967, the violence against his work proved fiercer than ever. King writes of Civil Rights martyrs and how his church “wept at the funeral services for the dead and for democracy.”
King is at his prophetic best in his critique of America’s political policies and white religious practices. His analysis is surgical, as he holds the nation accountable for her continued addiction to war, and economic and educational inequalities. The aim of his religious critique is lethal, writing: “The Christian church appears to be more white than Christian.”
King’s prophetic edge sharpened as he expanded his fight against racism above the Mason Dixon Line and brought his brilliance to bear on the war in Vietnam.
From the beginning, King’s thinking was not regional, national, or utopian — it was international and rooted in the conviction of the full humanity and innate dignity of all of God’s children.
But it was in his final years, in works such as Where Do We Go from Here, that King fully released his radical brilliance.
King’s “I Have a Dream” was a song that made America want to sing along. But in Where Do We Go From Here, King interprets his dream and details both what it means and America’s resistance to it. King’s interpretation was simple: the dream was racial equality throughout America’s political, economic, educational, and healthcare systems. When we read “poverty has no justification in our age. It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization,” we get the gist of King’s tone throughout his often neglected masterpiece.
According to King, the Movement’s push for racial justice must be understood through two phases. Phase one of the struggle was the pursuit of decency via the abolition of segregation; phase two was dignity via the abolition of poverty. The tragedy was that, when it came to maturing the struggle from desegregation to equality, King’s “white allies had quietly disappeared.”
To King, America’s inequality was a mathematical monstrosity reminiscent of the racial madness of the Constitutional Convention, where the Three-Fifths Compromise deemed Black people 60 percent human in America’s political calculus. “Today,” King wrote, “another curious formula seems to declare he is 50 percent of a person. Of the good things in life, he has approximately one-half those of whites; of the bad, he has twice those of whites.” With eerie details, King elucidates the moral meaning of his mathematical point through statistics of the racial inequalities that shaped America’s housing, unemployment, infant mortality rates, and how our nation waged an unjust war in Vietnam.
White America proved ready to dream about a different racial future, but unready to awaken to the necessity of addressing its current racial inequalities. “The limited reforms have been obtained at bargain rates,” King wrote. “There are no expenses, and no taxes, for Negroes to share lunch counters, libraries, parks, hotels and other facilities… The real cost lies ahead. The stiffening white resistance is a recognition of that fact.” Quoting the Office of Economic Opportunity, King wrote: “The poor can stop being poor if the rich are willing to become even richer at a slower rate.”
It is difficult to know what, exactly, King would think of contemporary debates and conversations regarding whiteness, white privilege, and white superiority among the racially and politically progressive. I have little doubt King would be inspired by many of today’s movements, and I am sure that his critiques of whiteness would prove as scathing as today’s most radical voices. But perhaps King can add a more results-oriented focus to some of today’s conversations regarding the necessity of translating political rhetoric into political realities, rectifying our nation’s most overt and covert forms of racist inequalities.
An advocate of non-violence till his dying day, King was nonetheless ready to learn from the Black Power Movement and their critiques of his work. Yet he challenged Black Power leaders to translate their slogans into programs. For King, since Black lives mattered, so did measurable results.
King’s last masterpiece is as pragmatic and practical as it is philosophical. For King, the pursuit of a racially just society was not complicated, but costly. And the cost for the revolution King envisioned was simply for America to live into the ideals she always claimed with piety but was never ready to pay for politically or economically. Where Do We Go From Here is more about changing political and economic policies than it is about changing individual hearts and minds. For King, the time had come to pay the price necessary to root our democracy in equality.
In America, it is easier to memorialize King the Dreamer than faithfully remember him as a radical revolutionary. But the two can never be divided; King’s dream demands radical revolutionaries. May today’s activists be empowered to continue King’s struggle to end America’s racial inequalities.
About the Author
Joel Edward Goza is the author of America’s Unholy Ghosts: The Racist Roots of Our Faith and Politics, which will be released in April 2019 and received a Starred Review from Publishers Weekly. Joel writes from Houston’s 5th Ward Community.