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The “Radical” King and a Usable Past

On Martin Luther King's use of radical ideas to create an understanding of the history of America.

By 1965, King’s stature as a moral and social leader in American society had been fully cemented. King received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. That year also saw the passage of the Civil Rights Act, and by the spring of 1965, King helped give voice to the fight for voting rights proceeding in Selma, Alabama. His speech at the end of the Selma to Montgomery march on March 25, 1965, reminded his audience of history’s importance to King and the movement. But for King, it was a particular interpretation of recent Southern history that formed the heart of his text.

C. Vann Woodward’s The Strange Career of Jim Crow became known as “the Bible of the Civil Rights Movement,” laying out a usable history of the segregation regime in the South. Quite simply, Woodward’s book made clear that Jim Crow segregation was not the “natural” way of things—but was, instead, merely a political system. King, in analyzing The Strange Career of Jim Crow for his audience members, was crafting Woodward’s book as part of a usable past for both Black and white Americans. It was one that showed how “the segregation of the races was really a political stratagem employed by the emerging Bourbon interests in the South to keep the southern masses divided and southern labor the cheapest in the land.” It was, in other words, a system that could be altered by political will.

King showcased Woodward’s analysis of post-Civil War Southern history—one focused on the rise of Jim Crow segregation and the collapse of the Populist movement. It was a speech that reminded the audience of the long history of political battles in Alabama and the entire South, and how the Civil Rights Movement was both a political and moral battle for the future of the former Confederacy. He reminded his largely Black crowd what Jim Crow segregation had wrought on white Southerners, that it was all poor white Southerners had. It was their only power over mostly poor Black Americans. “And his children, too, learned to feed upon Jim Crow, their last outpost of psychological oblivion.” King lamented the price poor whites in the South paid for Jim Crow segregation: earning the psychological “wages of whiteness” that W.E.B. Du Bois wrote about in Black Reconstruction in Americabut losing access to genuine economic power and stability taken by the wealthy class of white Southerners in the region.