The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

Why Dr. King’s Work Isn’t Done

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during his march for open housing in Chicago’s Marquette Park neighborhood in 1966.  Dr. King was struck by a rock during the march, and said the hatred he experienced in Chicago rivaled anything he’d seen in the South.  Source:
Another third Monday in January, and another Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.  I am grateful that Dr. King’s legacy was honored with a national holiday, but I have mixed feelings about what our nation takes from the honor.
Hall of Fame NBA player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar voiced a similar sentiment two years ago to Time Magazine.  Abdul-Jabbar was very clear in his concern over how the holiday is treated today:

“For some, the fact that we have Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a confirmation that the war has been won, that racism has been eliminated. That we have overcome. But we have to look at the civil rights movement the way we look at antibiotics: just because some of the symptoms of racism are clearing up, you don’t stop taking the medicine or else the malady returns even stronger than before. Recent events make clear that the disease of racism is still infecting our culture and that Martin Luther King Jr. Day needs to be a rallying cry to continue fighting the disease rather than just a pat on the back for what’s been accomplished.”

I remember the push during the ’80s to establish an MLK Day, and I wonder if a sad bargain was made by the people who most desired to commemorate his legacy.   People forget that Dr. King was reviled by the majority of Americans throughout much of his life.  He was deemed a radical, a Communist sympathizer, a rabble-rouser; just as his non-violent protest ways were gaining wider acceptance, the Black Power movement was seeking to discredit non-violence and pursue a more provocative approach.  But in the 15 years or so after his death, many people chose to accept a sanitized version of his activism, reducing him to one speech delivered in Washington in 1963 and making him an avatar of colorblindness.  The activists who pursued the holiday accepted this view of him, and buried the disruptive and contentious view of him that was closer to the truth.

I think much of white America views MLK Day as a way to commemorate the closure of a sad chapter in American history, celebrating the champion who closed it.  Blacks, however, view it as the celebration of a recent champion of an ongoing effort to eradicate America’s original sin.  Those differing views have yet to be reconciled.

Yesterday I had a Twitter conversation with several people.  In it, I said that most people are clear in their understanding of slavery and its legacy, as well as Jim Crow and its legacy.  But people are far less clear on the kind of discriminatory practices that emerged after Jim Crow, and there’s no name for it.  We could use one.  We may not be able to effectively attack it until we do.

We’re nearly a century into a set of practices that were first put in place in American cities at the time of the Great Migration.  Some were phased out, when their racist intent was identified and challenged; new ones were established and impact us to this day.  Dr. King successfully challenged Jim Crow and voting rights, but was assassinated before he could really move on to the next phase of civil rights.  Our nation has been in a holding pattern since.

What are those practices?  Here’s my list, with a estimate of the time period when they were most widely employed:

Each of these are practices that had some level of governmental and/or institutional support, and had negative impacts on blacks in American cities, north and south.  And, outside of restrictive covenants and explicit mob violence, none directly targeted blacks, but each had a disparate impact on blacks.  Furthermore, there are those who might argue that today’s brand of gentrification in our cities is the newest practice of the sort.  I’m reserving judgement on that.
All of these created the segregation patterns that still dominates in our cities, even if some of the practices are no longer employed.  The practices physically contained people in some areas; they destroyed all or parts of vibrant, functioning neighborhoods; they prevented the wealth-building opportunities enjoyed by many; they extracted value from neighborhoods for the benefit of others.  They widened the divide.
So when you hear people say that Dr. King’s work is not complete, it’s more than simply the fact that not every person’s heart has embraced Dr. King’s dream.  They mean there are practices that are still at work that actively work against a just and equitable society.
Let’s never forget that.

2 Responses to “Why Dr. King’s Work Isn’t Done”

  1. Michael Andersen

    Is \”white supremacy\” an accurate/viable term for systemic racism? Seems like that's one term being used. It gets pushback from those who want the phrase reserved for neo-Nazis etc, but it does seem to convey the scale of the problem.


  2. Eric Leach

    Wow, That was an amazing article. I have been thinking for some time how to go about solving the problem of race relations in the US and have come to the conclusion that these government programs are a huge part of the problem. This is a great crib sheet to work from to try to finish Dr. King's work.



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