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Black people and allies in a civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965. (Photo: Peter Pettus, Library of Congress)
As we celebrate the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. this week, we are sure to be met with a cadre of quotes by the great luminary and anecdotes as to how King influenced the civil rights ethos of a diverse cross section of our human family. Despite the brilliance and breadth of King’s prophetic voice booming with a sad, uncanny relevance related to today’s discussion on voter rights and civic responsibility to the collective, his charge has yet to embolden us to move beyond retrospection and ruminations on equity and onto the battleground to reshape the systems of oppression that shifted only incrementally over the past 50 years. A stanza of King’s seminal speech delivered at the Washington Monument will be remanufactured to invoke consciousness during professional sporting events and reused ad nauseam by politicians on both sides of the aisle. But one of King’s most searingly critical works – yet often conveniently discarded from society’s lexicon on King – is his 1967 work, “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?”
“Where Do We Go From Here” opens examining a reality eerily like what we confront today pertaining to the impasse regarding the Voting Rights Act signed in 1965. King speaks to the historical and herculean steps that it took to secure the signature of President Lyndon Johnson and the violent history in the South that subjected black bodies and unfretted white allies. He recounts the exhaustive work it took to unearth legislative pathways to better position our country’s darker brothers and sisters, and to provide access to the American Dream while continuing to navigate the remnants of the American Nightmare. The Voting Rights Act was an extremely important feat, and it is to be celebrated; it allowed for us to eventually see ourselves in elected office, leading to the ascendence of a host of black mayors in the mid- to late 1980s with the support of white allies; victories that followed the election of Carl Stokes, who became mayor of Cleveland, Ohio, in 1967. From mayors to representatives in the Congress and Senate, we’ve witnessed an evolution in political possibility that peaked with Obama’s once unfathomable two-term presidency.
We cannot allow that moment to be the culmination, a marking of the decline of voter power in action and the rise of a red nation under Trump. Today, we are at a crossroads with who we want to be and how we want to govern ourselves. We need the radical action and honesty of allies that marched with black folks in Selma. King calls out folks to speak the truth on matters in Watts and Chicago; to combat silence and willful ignorance in the same way we implore white folks to name the ills around them. Social media activism means little while ignoring the predatory policies that continues to endanger our communities of color as a result of white harm, denial and fear. Will they emerge from their safe enclaves and palaces of privilege? Will they sacrifice their comfort and convenience when it is time to speak up and disrupt?
King challenges the white liberal to acknowledge the ways in which they are complicit in the demise of true black liberation. He chronicles the dangers of grandstanding and proclaiming oneself as a champion of change while being impotent in its creation – especially when it means compromising one’s station in America’s caste system. As President Joe Biden hears the frustrations of voting-rights activists, he is hearing the bearers of King’s reflection. A reckoning of how white folks, most notably the white liberal in their proclamations of not seeing color, have blinded themselves to have the sum of our black experience. They have bought into the cosmetic notion that treating black folks decent is akin to treating them as equals; even more so that saying the right things online and on camera are the same as doing the right things in real life.
My black colleagues and I have been met by the charade of liberalism, the subtle counterpart to the right’s outrageous attempts at continued suppression. King warns us that just because someone is elected to office, it doesn’t mean that they are an advocate for you. Racism, both institutional and structural, is upheld by an economic allegiance and controlled by the corporate oligarchy that pull puppet strings on both sides of the aisle. Shadows of influence that are as prevalent but far more covert through electoral offices in the North as they are in the South – manipulation found even in your hometown, despite how progressive it may advertise itself. Those unbought and unbossed are a rarity, making it just as rare to find a politician who is not constantly measuring the virtues espoused during campaigns against the career consequences of policy implementation.
The literal burning of Watts, Los Angeles, in 1965, Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 or Minneapolis in 2020 are emblematic of the devastation that combusts as a result of smoldering neglect. Many fires set alight in chaos while we accept abysmal reading and math scores by black children, watch scores of police officers steal a black life and still collect a check; while we take selfies with Black Lives Matter lawn signs, but rarely create concrete spaces for a black agenda. Ignoring the Jim Crow education system in our country is the modern-day relegation of our children to black-only drinking fountains. How can we adopt King’s radical love theory and decimate his critical race theory? Our allies can’t clutch their purses when a black man hops on their elevator at Nordstrom and clutch their pearls at Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema claiming to be centrists.
Let me be clear, it is not only the white liberal who should step up. We must also hold to task the black individual who feels they must adhere to the structures in place or they will slide down the slippery slope of assimilation as a path to elevation. Simply having black faces in power does nothing if they continue to harm our community with silence and complicity.
The King in “Where Do We Go From Here” is a nod to James Baldwin’s lie of whiteness and homage to W.E.B. DuBois’ cornerstone belief that education and civil rights are the only way to equality – and that conceding their pursuit would simply serve to reinforce the notion of black people as second-class citizens. King writes, “Education without social action is a one-sided value because it has no true power potential.” How often does our pursuit of the American Dream center on an improvement for the collective as much as an improvement for ourselves? So many are so narrowly focused on carving out our personal next best that we forget the need for activism and community work in the very spaces we seek to grow out of. How are we lifting as they climb?
“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late,” King said in his 1967 “A Time to Break Silence” speech. In words attributed to him from his 1958 “Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story,” we could add: “This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”
Tony Clark is a professor, co-president of The MBK Taskforce and an education consultant.
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