“We do not need allies more devoted to order than to justice,” the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in the spring of 1964, refusing calls from moderate Black and White leaders to condemn a planned highway “stall-in” to highlight systemic racism in New York. “I hear a lot of talk these days about our direct action talk alienating former friends,” he added. “I would rather feel they are bringing to the surface latent prejudices that are already there. If our direct action programs alienate our friends . . . they never were really our friends.”
In popular memory, King has been trapped in the South. While our vision of his politics has widened to encompass his criticism of the Vietnam War and his organizing of the Poor People’s Campaign, his critique of Northern racism and attention to police brutality nationwide are routinely missed — and too often, King is rolled out to chastise contemporary movements like Black Lives Matter for their tactics and approach.
Yet King highlighted the venality of more “polite” forms of racism and challenged Northern liberals to address racism at home — not just in the South. Violence and hate-filled rhetoric were not the only methods by which White supremacy was maintained. King identified how people, including those who may have deplored Southern injustice, maintained the racial status quo. Moderates and liberals deployed “both-sidesism,” argued that time would solve the problems of racism, cast disruptive protest as unwise and unreasonable and embraced ideas like the “culture of poverty” to justify strong-arm policing and explain away inequities in their own cities. King’s analysis is particularly urgent now, given the ways the far right’s overt White supremacy threatens to overshadow other forms of racism — and given the problematic misuse of King’s legacy to undermine the approach of Black Lives Matter.
From the beginning of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957, King made clear that systemic racism was a national problem. He called on Northern liberals not only to decry the South but also to clean up their own cities. In May 1957, King’s speech at the Prayer Pilgrimage in Washington, arguably his first national speech, challenged the superficiality of liberal commitments: “What we are witnessing today in so many northern communities is a sort of quasi-liberalism which is based on the principle of looking sympathetically at all sides. It is a liberalism so bent on seeing all sides, that it fails to become committed to either side.” The next year, in his first book, “Stride Toward Freedom” (1958), which laid out the lessons of the Montgomery bus boycott, King underlined the “pressing need for a liberalism in the North that is truly liberal, that firmly believes in integration in its own community as well as in the deep South.”