We tend to memorialize our history by stripping it of deep meaning, preventing us from learning from it. On the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. let’s remember not just what he did but how America — Black and White — responded to him. This from the archives does that better than anything else I’ve read.
Summary: Racism stained the American experiment at its formation, and has warped its evolution at every stage since. The civil war could have purged it, but the Union abandoned Reconstruction unfinished — allowing the South’s whites to stage one of the most effective insurgencies in history and regain control (a key part of this was construction of a faux history). Only a century after the Civil War was it defeated. Today we look at a review by Michael Rogin of two books looking at that period, and the central figure in bringing it nonviolently to a success. Our amnesia about this history prevents us from owning our past. Works like this, and the books he reviews, help us to close this painful gap in our minds, and so move forward.
Book review by the late Michael Rogin
London Review of Books, 10 May 2001
Reposted with their generous permission
Red emphasis added
- I May Not Get There with You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr. by Michael Eric Dyson
- The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Volume IV: Symbol of the Movement, January 1957-December 1958, edited by Clayborne Carson et al
Conceived in slavery and dedicated to the proposition that black men are created unequal, the United States has attempted to come to terms with its longue durée of white supremacy only twice in its history.
The first effort, made by black and white abolitionists in the period of nationalist expansion, and caught up in the conflict between slave and free labour modes of production, brought hereditary legal servitude to an end. Its national hero, Abraham Lincoln, announced at Gettysburg that a nation ‘conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal’ had experienced ‘a new birth of freedom’ in civil war. But with the defeat of Reconstruction a decade after Lincoln’s assassination, the 14th Amendment that was supposed to guarantee former slave ‘persons’ equality before the law came instead to insulate corporations, designated ‘artificial persons’, from popular political control.
Deprived of the right to vote throughout the former Confederacy, freedmen and women were forced to work in repressive systems of labour, on farms, in mines and in chain-gangs; subject to arbitrary arrest, imprisonment and debt peonage; terrorised, brutalised and murdered in the thousands of lynchings often advertised in advance as public entertainments; confined to Jim Crow schools, public accommodation, restaurants and hotels (where any were available at all); made involuntary participants in sterilisation and other medical experiments; and confronted with residential apartheid and job discrimination as they moved North. A falsification that held more universal sway among whites than did any Stalinist rewriting of history in the Soviet Union transformed black Americans in the post-bellum South from victims of re-subjugation into political and sexual predators.
A century after the Civil War, a massive, non-violent black revolution brought three centuries of legally enshrined, lethally enforced white supremacy to an end. Its national hero is Martin Luther King Jr. Far from giving way in the face of moral example and legal right, racial injustice rose to fever pitch during the 1960s.