Justice  /  Book Review


A journalistic view of Martin Luther King Jr.'s life, work, and representation in American society.

King’s Du Bois speech came at a time when his own view of American history was changing. Previously he had rarely discussed Reconstruction. Now he saw that era, not the Revolution or even emancipation, as a crucial moment of hope for Black Americans, ‘their most important and creative period of history’. The continuing distortion of the period by historians raised a troubling question. King had long identified the movement with core American values inherited from the nation’s founding. But what, in fact, were the nation’s deepest values? All men are created equal? Or something more sinister, exemplified by Reconstruction’s violent overthrow? King had originally believed, he told the journalist David Halberstam, that American society could be reformed through many small changes. Now, he said, he felt ‘quite differently’. ‘I think you’ve got to have a reconstruction of the entire society, a revolution of values.’ Was the movement the fulfilment of American values, or their repudiation?

According to Monuments Lab, an organisation that keeps track of such things, King today ranks fourth, after Lincoln, Washington and Columbus, among individuals with public monuments in the United States. But the price of King’s deification in recent years has been the absorption of the civil rights movement into a consensual, feel-good portrait of American history. King, Eig warns us, has been ‘defanged’. On Martin Luther King Jr Day, we don’t hear the voice of the radical King, the ally of the labour movement and critic of economic inequality and war. His great speech at the March on Washington is all but reduced to a single sentence: ‘I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.’ Conservatives have long quoted this to enlist King retroactively in the campaign to end affirmative action. In fact, in his final book, Where Do We Go from Here? (1967), King, while acknowledging that ‘special treatment’ for Blacks seemed in conflict with the principle of ‘equal treatment of people according to their individual merits’, embraced affirmative action. Why? History supplied the answer. After doing ‘something special against the Negro for hundreds of years’, the US had an obligation to ‘do something special for him’. It is a pity that six members of the Supreme Court recently made it clear that they do not agree. It is still more lamentable that because of recent laws barring the teaching of ‘divisive’ subjects, the history of racism – without which King’s life is incomprehensible – is being driven out of American classrooms.