During his last three years on Earth, Martin Luther King went through hell.
By JOSHUA ZEITZ
January 16, 2017 POLITICO
January 1966, Martin Luther King Jr.—founding president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Nobel laureate and the nation’s most prominent civil rights activist—moved his family into a squalid tenement apartment in one of Chicago’s economically barren ghetto neighborhoods.
A fixture in American political life since December 1955, when he assumed leadership of the Montgomery Improvement Association—a coalition of churches and organizations that banded together to coordinate a boycott of city buses following Rosa Parks’ arrest just weeks before Christmas—King subsequently appeared to be everywhere the civil rights movement took root. Albany, Georgia; Birmingham; Selma; Atlanta. Even when he wasn’t at the forefront of events, as was the case with the wave of lunch counter sit-ins and Freedom Rides that shook the South in 1960 and 1961, civil rights activists at the grassroots level looked to him for guidance and inspiration.
Now, the man who helped spearhead a movement that had pressed successfully for laws integrating schools, public accommodations and voting booths was ready to take the struggle north, where, as he put it, “the moral force of SCLC’s nonviolent movement philosophy was needed to help eradicate a vicious system which seeks to further colonize thousands of Negroes within a slum environment.”
That summer, King led protests throughout the “bungalow belt” in Chicago’s working-class white neighborhoods and the nearby blue-collar suburb of Cicero. Polish, Italian and Irish residents who once regarded themselves as strident New Deal Democrats and who had applauded passage of the Voting Rights Act a year earlier now erupted in rage against the invading legion of peaceful black protesters. They cascaded marchers with rocks, beat them with clubs and fists, and hurled ugly invective of the sort that most people would have expected of Southern Klansmen. Cries of “White Power! White Power!” rang out in an angry rebuke of the “black power” mantra that many young, radical civil rights activists had adopted a year earlier. “Polish Power!” “Burn them like Jews!” “Roses are red, violets are black, King would look good with a knife in his back.” (One protester tried to do just that but missed, inadvertently sending a knife into the shoulder of another backlash heckler.)
King was aghast at the ugly reception accorded his peaceful marchers. “I think the people of Mississippi ought to come to Chicago to learn how to hate,” he mournfully observed.
Almost 50 years after his death, we remember MLK as the transcendent figure who helped lift the South out of Jim Crow. We also remember him as almost preternaturally calm in the face of great pressure and danger. He was indeed all of these things. But the passage of time has obscured his dimensionality. In the last years of his life, King expanded his vision beyond the former Confederacy and took on a broader struggle to dismantle America’s jigsaw edifice of racial and economic discrimination—a struggle that took him deep into northern states and cities, where onetime allies became bitter enemies. He did so even as he strained to keep a fractious civil rights movement unified, and in the face of unremitting sabotage from federal authorities.
He was a young man, still in his 30s—foisted onto the national stage with actors many years or decades his senior, suspect in the eyes of both younger and older civil rights leaders—and the burdens of leadership took their toll on him.
King came to Chicago to tackle the twin issues of job and housing discrimination, a condition that affected African Americans in all regions of the country. In Chicago, as in most American cities, many blue collar unions aggressively locked black workers out of good-paying building trades and industrial jobs—jobs that relied, directly and indirectly, on the public sector’s spending power and recognition of collective bargaining rights. African Americans were also consigned to the worst, most cramped, and most overpriced housing stock—not because black residents chose to live in all-black neighborhoods, but because no landlord in a white ethnic neighborhood would rent to them, and banks would not issue mortgages in integrated neighborhoods, per the federal government’s longstanding custom of red-lining such census tracks as undesirable. As in thousands of cities and towns throughout the North and Midwest, “de facto” segregation was a direct byproduct of state-sanctioned and state-sponsored housing and employment discrimination.
White Northerners who may have supported the integration of lunch counters and voting rights in the South proved unwilling to forfeit the artificial privilege they enjoyed in housing and labor markets. “As a citizen and a taxpayer I was very upset to hear about ‘Title VI’ of the so-called civil rights Bill S. 3296,” an Illinois resident wrote to Senator Paul Douglas, a liberal who supported Lyndon Johnson’s proposed open housing act, which would have barred discrimination in most residential property transactions. “This is not Civil Rights. This takes away a person’s rights. We too are people and need someone to protect us.” Another voter complained that his family “designed and built our own home and I would hate to think of being forced to sell my lovely home to anyone just because they had the money.”
The idea that Jim Crow rested on a foundation of economic subjugation as well as physical separation was hardly new to King’s thinking. As early as 1963, in his book, Why We Can’t Wait, MLK wrote that “no amount of gold could provide an adequate compensation for the exploitation and humiliation of the Negro in America through the centuries. Not all the wealth of this affluent society could meet the bill. Yet a price can be placed on unpaid wages. The ancient common law has always provided a remedy for the appropriation of the labor of one human being by another. The payment should be in the form of a massive program by the government of special, compensatory measures which could be regarded as a settlement in accordance with the accepted practice of common law. … I am proposing, therefore, that just as we granted a GI Bill of Rights to war veterans, America launch a broad-based and gigantic Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged, our veterans of the long siege of denial.”
King envisioned such compensatory programs as benefiting African Americans and poor whites, whom he regarded as “derivative victims” of slavery and Jim Crow. In this regard, King drew on the writings of W.E.B. Du Bois, who once posited that poor and working-class whites gained nothing from Jim Crow but psychological “wages of whiteness.” In return for the psychological advantage that “whiteness” gave them, poor whites surrendered political and economic power to better-heeled white elites.
As the 1960s wore on, King increasingly viewed American politics through the lens of class. In his 1967 book, Where We Go From Here, he wrote, “In the treatment of poverty nationally, one fact stands out: There are twice as many white poor as Negro poor in the United States. Therefore I will not dwell on the experiences of poverty that derive from racial discrimination, but will discuss the poverty that affects white and Negro alike.” King appreciated, of course, that African Americans suffered a very specific and targeted form of discrimination. But he embraced a radical economic critique that viewed racism as a cultural touchpoint that prevented working-class white people from acting in their better economic interest.
Yet far from creating a broad coalition of natural allies, King’s broader initiative strained the movement’s relationship working-class white Americans—particularly in the Midwest—who may have agreed that black citizens should be permitted to vote and patronize restaurants and hotels, but who jealously guarded the very real wages they had derived from segregated housing and employment markets. Unionized factory or trade jobs in lily-white industries represented the best employment available to many working-class whites, and home ownership in segregated neighborhoods represented the sum of their wealth. Integration posed a tangible threat.
LBJ’s open housing law went down to defeat in the fall of 1966, as did a modest proposal to help cities pay for rodent control. “The knowledge that many children in the world’s most affluent nation are attacked, maimed and even killed by rats should fill every American with shame,” the president told House and Senate members. The initiative quickly foundered as white voters reacted with anger to urban riots in Newark and Detroit. “Let’s buy a lot of cats and turn them loose,” a Southern Democrat cackled from the House floor. “Civil rats!” another member catcalled from the rear of the chamber.
It would take King’s assassination two years later to spur Congress into action. He did not live to see Johnson sign the 1968 fair housing act into law.
King was no political naif. He understood that by taking the movement north—by emphasizing jobs and housing, and not just integration or voting rights—he might lose critical partners in the civil rights movement, including rank-and-file union members, working-class Catholics and Protestants in the urban North, and moderate Republicans. He was at the height of his prestige but made the conscious decision to spend down that prestige on an intensely divisive, but, he believed, essential, undertaking.
On the eve of his death on April 4, 1968, he was more controversial and less popular than he had been at any time in his public career. In a Gallup poll conducted in 1963, 41 percent of respondents rated him favorably, and 37 percent negatively. In 1967, just 32 percent gave him a favorable rating, whereas 63 percent viewed him negatively.
Northern whites were not King’s only point of opposition. In his final years, he found himself squeezed from all sides.
In 1966 members of the Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) ousted his protégé, John Lewis, a veteran of the lunch counter sit-ins and Freedom Rides who had led the march on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday, in favor of Stokely Carmichael, a battle-tested stalwart who as chairman would renounce nonviolence and embrace a more strident and adversarial class of politics. Around the same time, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) replaced the moderate James Farmer with Floyd McKissick, another firebrand.
Weeks later, as he marched alongside King and other leaders of the major civil rights organizations, Carmichael jumped at a police officer who had thrown fellow activist Cleveland Sellers to the ground. King held him back. But there was no holding him days later, as Carmichael roused his followers with a stirring call to “Black Power,” a phrase he and other activists had chosen to describe their political organizing efforts in Lowndes County, Alabama, a deep-south jurisdiction that resisted black voting rights to the last death. “This is the 27th time I have been arrested,” he told the assembled marchers, in reference to his recent detention. “I ain’t going to jail no more…Every courthouse in Mississippi ought to be burned down tomorrow,” Carmichael intoned, “to get rid of that dirt in there.”
Even before SNCC disavowed nonviolence, King had walked a tightrope with young activists who regarded him as too much a temporizer and compromiser—behind his back, they mocked him as “De Lawd.” As national chairman, John Lewis—a dyed-in-the-wool devotee, did much to bridge the generational and ideological divide between his more strident peers and the seemingly moderate MLK, who in turn found himself derided as too radical by elder statesmen in the NAACP and Urban League. Now, he would be forced to answer for SNCC’s and CORE’s excesses—for urban rioters—and for white backlash. It was a reality that cost MLK much of his prior good standing in the movement, and which consumed his time, attention and human forbearance.
It helped him not a bit that the FBI continued to harass him until his last days. After Attorney General Robert Kennedy authorized wiretaps against King and his associates several years earlier, the bureau took it upon itself to plant unauthorized and illegal bugs in his home and office and to feed presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson a steady stream of damning personal information. Famously, FBI agents attempted to coerce King into committing suicide by threatening to expose his extramarital affairs.
King faced additional pressure, as well, when he broke with the Johnson administration over Vietnam. Though antiwar activists lauded his consistent rejection of violence—a creed that brought him into opposition with the government’s bombing campaign and combat war against North Vietnam and the National Liberal Front—King found himself locked out of the White House and the object of scorn by many erstwhile liberal allies. His “intemperate alignment with the forces of appeasement,” Senator Thomas Dodd of Connecticut snapped, “will make it impossible for me hereafter to regard Dr. Martin Luther King with quite the same respect.” Distraught, King told his advisers, “I really don’t have the strength to fight this issue and keep my civil rights fight going.” Yet he did just that.
Seven months before his death, King gathered his closest advisers for a planning retreat in rural Virginia. Over five days, the fractious group of activists argued amongst themselves. Some thought that King went “too far” in voicing opposition to the Vietnam War; others argued that he hadn’t gone far enough. Some advocated a renewed emphasis on poverty; others believed that the focus on economic issues had drawn the SCLC away from its charter mission—civil rights for black Americans. They argued about whether to narrow their efforts to the South, where the organization had been born, or to recommit resources to the urban North. They argued about money: There was too little of it. And they fought over tactics: When one of MLK’s longtime white advisers questioned Jesse Jackson over the efficacy of “Operation Breadbasket,” a Chicago-based initiative, Jackson acidly replied that he was disinterested in the opinion of a “slavemaster.”
Every person has a breaking point. After drinking alone in his hotel room after the meeting, King flew into an uncharacteristic rage. Smashing the furniture in the small room, he wailed, “I don’t want to do this anymore! I want to go back to my little church!” Andrew Young and Ralph Abernathy, two of his closest aides, calmed him down and convinced him to get some badly needed sleep. “Well,” he apologetically told associates the following morning, “now it’s established that I ain’t a saint.”
Since the age of 26, King had lived a mercilessly public life. He spent as much time, if not more, in airports and hotel rooms as he did at home with his wife and children. He faced relentless pressure to raise money, mediate internecine disagreements within the movement, speak before local civil rights groups and act as the national spokesman and government liaison for the black freedom movement. It was not the life that he chose. Rather, it was the life that chose him.
On his birthday, Americans celebrate King’s accomplishments and commemorate his martyrdom. It bears remembering, too, that he struggled with the role he played. And that he willingly surrendered life’s comforts—small and large—to give himself wholly to a country that didn’t, in his brief time here, fully appreciate him.
Link : http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/01/martin-luther-king-struggle-history-forgot-214637?cmpid=sf