Memory  /  Argument

King Was A Critical Race Theorist Before There Was a Name For It

When states ban antiracism history from schools, they're disavowing what King stood for.

It’s no accident that the firestorm over critical race theory has singed King’s message: King was, in fact, a critical race theorist before there was a name for it. A core observation of the theory is the recognition that the promise of liberation extends beyond the elimination of formal segregation and individual-level prejudice. Critical race theory explores how racial inequality was historically structured into the fabric of the republic, reinforced by law, insulated by the founding Constitution and embedded into the infrastructure of American society. Similarly, King observed in 1967 that “the doctrine of white supremacy was embedded in every textbook and preached in practically every pulpit,” entrenched as “a structural part of the culture.”

Accordingly, King’s appeal in the March on Washington in 1963 was grounded in the assertion that the promise of a fully inclusive American democracy — one that lived up to its oft-stated ideals — required creative confrontation with a republic out of step with its promises. He rebuffed those who found fault in the tensions created by placing our norms and our realities in sharp relief.

King famously wrote a letter rejecting the counsel of white moderate allies who argued for a gradualist accommodation to the prioritized sensibilities of those who didn’t experience the sting of segregation. As a father, he conveyed the anguish of his own children, who couldn’t understand why they weren’t allowed into the Funtown amusement park, which barred Black visitors, while the joy of white children was privileged. He argued elsewhere that “justice for black people cannot be achieved without radical changes in the structure of our society.”

King centered the promise of equal access to the ballot — now under concerted assault — at the heart of his prophetic mission. He fought to win passage of both the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, and he understood that the provisions of each law were part and parcel of the same struggle for true and lasting racial justice. While he hailed the landmark voting reform as “a great step forward in removing all of the remaining obstacles to the right to vote,” he also insisted that the vote be used to “rid the American body politic of racism.” King would instantly recognize the mutually reinforcing objectives of denying the ballot, an indispensable instrument of reform, while also silencing the substantive case for reform by whitewashing the country’s racial past.