MLK, Jr.: Discomforting the comfortable since 1956
Bob Somerby started making his case in his 09/03/2010 Daily Howler for the conservative idea that today's liberals oppose what civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., stood for.And he follows the standard highbrow conservative approach in doing so: taking some conciliatory statement or action by King with minimal information about the situation in which it took place, and compare that unfavorably to some present-day liberal's polemic against rightwingers.
Dan Warren has written a book called If It Takes All Summer : Martin Luther King, the KKK, and States Rights in St. Augustine, 1964 (2008) Warren was the Florida state attorney for that area at the time the events he describes took place.
The city had agreed to desegregation of business. But in response, the Ku Klux Klan was out picketing and:
Gangs of whites began roaming the city, harassing and assaulting blacks they found abroad after dark. Manucy was heard to brag that the tactics were working, and fired by this initial success, he and his cohorts began pressuring other businesses to deny blacks service, threatening them with their picket brigades if they refused.
Warren relates telling a reporter, referring to King, "You must not create a crisis without assuming responsibility for its consequences." He explains to King's plans to which he was referring:
I had said the same thing to King when we first met and at that time he had replied, "Civil disobedience has been recognized since the Boston Tea Party." I countered this position by saying "this is not the eighteenth century. We’ve come a long way since then." At least I thought we had, but the debate on how to end segregation had been going on in this country since the Civil War with violence as a constant companion. I wasn't sure we had advanced very far since then. I expressed my hope that the situation in St. Augustine could be peacefully resolved, but it was not to be. On the seventeenth, King threatened massive new demonstrations within a week if civic leaders did not take steps to "end the terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan. ... We’re not going to let the Ku Klux Klan run St. Augustine. If it can be solved by negotiation, good; but if it means we must once more put on our walking shoes, we will do it that way. We are determined to be free ... even if it means physical death." King did not follow through with the promise to take to the streets again. But the violence continued. On the eighteenth and nineteenth, it broke out again as roaming groups of whites attacked blacks. King expressed his frustration over this turn of events in an interview with Mabel Norris Chesley of the News-Journal: "I pray that I shall never have to demonstrate in St. Augustine again. I have been at this thing since Birmingham, and I would like to get out from under the tension." (p. 163; my emphasis)
Some basic observations, which Beck apologists like Somerby and Republicans who want to claim King's name in defense of present-day segregationism essentially have to ignore.
One is that King was fighting against white racism. Yes, as a Christian and as an American he opposed black racism against whites, as well. But black racism was not the biggest issue with which he had to deal among African-Americans: it was fear, intimidation, apathy, cynicism - in other words, all the attitudes that produced passivity in the face of white racism and white racist violence.
King's Christian religious language and his commitment to Ghandian pacifism can easily be misused by people like Beck and Somerby, because it gives them something to cherry-pick to point fingers at those who are objecting explicitly to white racism today and politics based on white racism. It's essential to understand what made King a figure of admiration even to African-Americans like Malcolm X, who explicitly preached the necessary of violence in fighting white racism (though he didn't actually engage in violence against whites). King's pacifism was not passive. He wasn't preaching nonviolence to encourage non-resistance. On the contrary. His nonviolent strategy was to challenge white racism, put an end to segregation, and fight for better opportunities for the poor of all races.
Secondly, King did not refrain from calling out the perpetrators of racist actions. Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh are focused on smearing Obama as a racist against white people. Speaking out against white racism is not something they do, much less putting their lives on the line confronting violent white extremists as King as those who protested with him did. Notice King's statement bolded above. He explicitly called out the Klan for "terrorism." He wasn't fretting about hurting their delicate feelings. He wasn't tiptoeing around the ugly reality for fear that some poorly-informed white people might feel offended or threatened by what he said. In fact, he wasn't basing his actions and words on the assumption that he should persuade a majority of the white people in town that he was right.
King's approach was to challenge the conscience of whites, to tell them that in supporting segregation they were doing something wrong, something in violation of their own professed patriotic and Christian values. He wasn't trying to comfort the comfortable, he was trying to discomfort them. And it certainly irritated, outraged, offended, and even enraged supporters of segregation. How discomforted? Warren:
In an ominous turn of events, those testing the power of the civil rights law attempted to be served at twenty-eight businesses open to the public and were turned away from twenty-three. It was apparent that many establishments in St. Augustine would not comply with the law. Klan marauders continued to stalk blacks at night, and on July 18, four blacks were beaten as they walked along U.S. 1. Later, a car was overturned outside the emergency room of the local hospital. A young black had driven to the hospital to be treated for injuries resulting from an attack. He had been escorted by officers through a crowd of angry whites gathered outside the hospital; when the police left, his car had been vandalized.
But Somerby and Beck are correct in one sense in saying King would have had real difference with liberals today. Because he had real difficulties with liberals of his own time. As Warren puts it:
The pressure on King must have been great, for now an additional problem began to threaten his movement. Civil rights leaders from around the country called upon him to back off, fearing the civil disobedience campaign was hurting the Democrats’ chances in the 1964 elections. Senator Barry Goldwater, soon to be the Republican presidential nominee, was using the antagonism toward the new civil rights legislation to curry favor in the South. Segregationists were gaining in popularity as the impact of the new law began to be felt. King was at his wit’s end. According to Mabel Chesley, he told her, "If you know of any other channels we can explore to bring this thing to an end, please let me know. If anyone can reach the power structure and persuade it to call off the Klan, we will welcome it." There were few in the power structure who could call off the Klan and none who were willing to do so.
The moratorium called by King did not sit well with local civil rights leaders in St. Augustine. Hayling, speaking only for himself, was quoted as saying, "Dr. King cannot tell us what to do on the local level. We will not give up our gains and go away and hide our heads. This is one of the few places in the United States where there is a citywide effort to buck the civil rights laws. We brought Dr. King into the movement in St. Augustine. This was delivered to him on a silver platter." Others in the civil rights movement also challenged King’s call to curtail mass demonstrations. At a meeting of six of the nation’s civil rights leaders, unanimous agreement could not be reached on whether to curtail demonstrations until after the national election. John Lewis, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and James Farmer, national director of the Congress for Racial Equality, refused to go along with the moratorium.
One could cherry-pick and incident like this and say, see, King opposed the hotheads in his own movement! But this was a question of different judgments of a situation among allies. King didn't stop favoring integration and opposing the Klan. He didn't try to pretty up what the Klan and white mobs were doing.
It's worth noting that this is the same John Lewis who, as a Congressman in 2010, was heckled by Tea Party demonstrators in front of the Capitol opposing the health care reform bill by chanting "nigger, nigger, nigger." Conservatives tried to deny it occurred because it wasn't caught on video. Bob Somerby in his 03/29/2010 Howler seemed to be echoing such arguments (see the final paragraph). In the following day's column, he attacked someone who compared the Tea Partiers behavior to segregationists of the 1950s. In his Friday column that week, we defended his Tea Party crush Pam Stout against comments by Digby pointing out that she associated herself with rightwing political extremists.
It's ridiculous for Glenn Beck to try to make Martin Luther King into an icon of White Power racism. It's equally ridiculous for Bob Somerby to try to turn him into an advocate for passivity in the face of white racism, xenophobia and far-right agitation for violence.
Dan Warren, for his part, is "shrill" about our more recent situation:
In 1967, I resigned as state attorney, gave up my quest to run for Congress, and reentered private practice. During the ensuing years I devoted all my energies to defending those charged with crimes and providing for a growing family that eventually numbered seven children. St. Augustine always remained in my mind, and as the years passed, I became convinced that racism was not dead; it was very much alive in our legal and social institutions. To me, repressive and hypocritical laws designed to fight the nation’s so-called war on drugs are directly related to new forms of racism, which are evident in the disparity in the sentences given black offenders. Racism is also apparent in racial profiling by law enforcement. [my emphasis]
By Bob Somerby's standards, this marks Warren as a bigoted, hate-filled librul who loves to sneer at Southern whites. Even though he is a native-born Southern white man himself.