Dr. King on Black Power, White Supremacy and a Revolutionized State

Print More

The thing wrong with America is white racism. White folks are not right…It’s time for America to have an intensified study on what’s wrong with white folks. – Dr. King
There may be periods where segregation may be a temporary waystation to a truly integrated society…We don’t want to be integrated out of power; we want to be integrated into power. – Dr. King
I am inclined to think that they [white moderates] are more of a stumbling block to the Negro’s progress than the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner. – Dr. King

The “Decent White Majority”
The standard narrative regarding Dr. King’s approach to racial issues says that he was simply an integrationist who believed that with persuasion, nonviolence and love the conscience of the white majority could be won over and racial justice would be achieved. Racism, as he understood it was mainly psychological. This popular interpretation – the one the mainstream media loves – fails, however, to embrace a holistic view of his mature thinking on white people, institutional racism and white supremacy culture. While for much of his career he optimistically believed the “great decent majority” of whites could be transformed, he began, in 1965, to understand just how deeply embedded racism was and how unwilling white people were to give up privilege and power for the sake of racial justice. Whereas he had once described America in the highest democratic ideals, he began to see it as “a confused…sick, neurotic nation.”
It is certainly true that Dr. King had believed most Americans were committed to racial justice. Just five months before King’s evolution on the race issue his optimism and idealism about white people and the achievements of the civil rights movement reached its peak. During the Selma to Montgomery march for voting rights in 1965 he believed that victory over racism was close at hand. Speaking to 25,000 people from Alabama’s capital he stated, “segregation is on its deathbed…and the only thing uncertain about it is how costly the segregationists…will make the funeral.” For King, the successful Selma campaign, which had incorporated a large number of whites was a crowning example of the willingness of white people to work for justice. Still optimistic about the role federal legislation could play he believed that with the passage of the voting rights bill of 1965 American democracy would no longer be “turned up side down” and the freedoms of all would be guaranteed. Characteristic of his idealism at the time he described Selma as a fight for America, not a battle against sheriff Jim Clark or segregationist forces in Alabama. But it wasn’t long until King more clearly realized that he was staunchly against something, namely, institutionalized racism, white supremacy and the class structure that maintained a divided society. King’s feelings about white people would take a drastic turn, “I’m sorry to have to say to you that the vast majority of white Americans are racist, either consciously or unconsciously.
From Watts to Black Power

Watts was a rude awakening for King, as he had previously believed the gains of the Southern civil rights struggle would translate to the North. When he visited Watts to try and help, he was booed and told to go home. To his surprise many blacks had never even heard of him. The gains of the civil rights movement had meant little to a population that was forced into ghetto life, barely able to survive and trapped in a cycle of poverty. The issues that characterized the Southern struggle such as separate drinking fountains, segregated restaurants and lack of voting rights weren’t the problem in Watts or the North in general. Rather, racism manifested most seriously in the form of economic and political inequality.
The failure of whites to see the full context of riots such as Watts was one of the reasons King began to lose faith in them. He stated, “The riots are caused by nice, gentle, timid white moderates who are more concerned about order than justice.” King began to see that the maintenance of a permanent underclass was no accident. He placed the riots in the context of larger cultural crimes, “The policy-makers of the white society have caused the darkness: they created discrimination; they created slums; they perpetuate unemployment, ignorance, and poverty. It is incontestable and deplorable that Negroes have committed crimes, but they are derivative crimes. They are born of the greater crimes of white society.”
Even when asked about the more militant methods of Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown on the Mike Douglass show King also placed them in the larger social context, “Neither Rap Brown nor Stokely Carmichael created slavery, they did not create slums, they did not create unemployment or underemployment, they did not create segregated schools and they didn’t start a war in Vietnam.”
King now realized that not only did he need to guarantee the right of black people to sit in a restaurant but also he needed to help them get the money to buy a hamburger. He moved his family into the slums of Chicago in January of 1966 and began organizing there to do just that.
If Chicago taught him anything, it was just how vicious northern white “moderates” could be. In one march through Gage Park King was hit in the head with a brick while a particularly fierce crowd hurled racial epithets against him and the other protesters. King said that in all of his days of work in the South he had never seen such viciousness. Others described women spewing and spitting hatred with their babies and children in arm. He realized that white people didn’t want to give up power.

It seems that our white brothers and sisters don’t want to live next door to us…So…they’re pinning us in central cities…We’re hemmed in. We can’t get out. Now, since they’re just going to keep us in here,…what we’re going to have to do is just control the central city. We got to be the mayors of these big cities. And the minute we get elected mayor, we’ve got to begin taxing everybody who works in the city who lives in the suburbs. I know this sounds mean, but I just want to be realistic.

The Chicago campaign was frustrated by Daley’s political machine and the lack of support from African American religious leadership, black elites and labor unions. However, before he finished in Chicago King traveled south to continue James Meredith’s March Against Fear. It was here, more specifically in Greenwood, Mississippi that Willie Ricks and Stokely Carmichael popularized the Black Power slogan and forced King to come to terms with it.
Given King’s experience as a figurehead in the movement he knew that the white establishment loved distractions and would seize on anything to divert attention from the cause. Thus, he had serious pragmatic concerns with the use of the Black Power slogan. King explained that any term has both a connotative and denotative meaning. He clearly defended the psychological and historical justification for the slogan. However, King was bothered by the “suggested” meanings, which carried a wide range of understandings. His analysis sought to both capture how Black Power was born out of a “cry of disappointment” and explain the possible semantic limitations to the slogan.
King placed the term squarely in the historical reality of the legacy of the white power structure. Citing Kenneth Stampp’s, The Peculiar Institution, King explained the ways in which slaves were physically and psychologically controlled. He saw the term in it’s proper context, “Black Power is a psychological reaction to the psychological indoctrination that led to the creation of the perfect slave…Anyone familiar with the Black Power movement recognizes that defiance of white authority and white power is a constant theme…” As if taking a cue from Malcolm X, King also described how at least 60 synonyms for “blackness” were offensive while all 134 synonyms for “whiteness” were positive. Another factor, which led to a sense of worthlessness, was the lack of acknowledgment of African American’s contributions in history, science, art, music and society. In King’s understanding this was “cultural homicide,” and the Black Power slogan was an effort to correct this imbalance. He also understood that Black Power was a response to the failures in the legal gains of the Civil Rights movement.

There is also great disappointment with the federal government and its timidity in implementing the civil rights laws on its statue books. The gap between promise and fulfillment is distressingly wide. Millions of Negroes are frustrated and angered because extravagant promises made little more than a year ago are a mockery today…As a consequence the old way of life – economic coercion, terrorism, murder and inhuman contempt – has continued unabated. This gulf between the laws and their enforcement is one of the basic reasons why Black Power advocates express contempt for the legislative process.

Legal victories, civil rights bills and boycotts had their limitations and King knew it. Just a year after the historic Brown vs. the Board of Education 15-year old Emmett Till was brutally beaten and killed in Money Mississippi for talking to a white woman. Just a few weeks after King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” – an effort designed to urge Kennedy to support a civil rights act – four girls were killed when the KKK bombed the 16th street Church. Around the same time that the monumental 1964 civil rights act passed, three activists, often referred to as “Schwerner, Goodman and Cheney” were murdered in Mississippi while doing voter registration. And it was the Watts riots of 1965 that awakened King to the harsh realities of structural oppression. However, the riots began just five days after the passage of the Voting rights act of 1965. King’s evolution in thought is evident,

I am appalled that some people feel the civil rights struggle is over because we have a 1964 civil rights bill with ten titles and a voting rights bill. Over and over again people ask, What else do you want? They feel that everything is all right. Well, let them look around at our big cities.

There were a few prominent ways in which the Black Power movement influenced King’s turn toward more radical thinking. First, he began acknowledging and critiquing the white dominated black political structure – a prominent theme within much Black Power discourse. King stated that black politicians were, “still selected by white leadership, elevated to position, supplied the resources, and inevitably subjected to white control.” Secondly, he became less trusting of the state and began claiming that black salvation was dependent upon blacks themselves. He stated, “psychological freedom, a firm sense of self esteem, is the most powerful weapon against the long night of physical slavery.” King also called for increased control of black organizations.

…Negroes must be there own spokesmen…they must be in the primary leadership of their own organizations. White liberals must understand this. It is part of the search for manhood…This means that white liberals must be prepared to accept a transformation of their role. Whereas it was once a primary and spokesman role, it must now become a secondary and supportive role.

Additionally, King embraced the word revolution and employed it more frequently in his writing and speeches. And finally, before the rise of Black Power King described Jesus as white and after he never said that he was black but did say that Jesus was not white.
King sympathized with and understood the driving force behind the Black Power slogan which by 1967-68 had become popular nationwide. He was wise enough to realize that it wasn’t going to disappear and decided that dealing with it in a constructive manner was best. He stated, “Black Power does not represent racism…We must be proud of our race. We must not be ashamed of being black. We must believe with all of our hearts that black is as beautiful any other color.” For both pragmatic and ideological reasons King avoided harsh criticisms of the slogan like calling it fascist or racist as others had. He also didn’t retreat in the face of the debate as others did. Whereas Wilkins and Young dropped out King continued the Meredith march against fear and engaged in dialogue with Stokely and the other Black Power advocates. Furthermore, King refused to sign onto the “Crisis and Commitment” statement endorsed by several key civil rights leaders which condemned Black Power. However, true to his Hegelian influence King also criticized what he felt were the limitations and drawbacks of the term, hoping to find a synthesis between the two positions.
Reinhold Niebuhr, Structural Racism and King’s Critique of Black Power
In many ways, King’s deepening realism in regards to racism, economic exploitation and war was a sort of resurrection of his early educational and formative years. One of the most influential voices from that time was the Christian realist Reinhold Niebuhr. King was first introduced to Niebuhr’s work by professor Kenneth Smith in a course called Christian Social Philosophy II during his fall semester of his senior at Crozer Theological Seminary. While he influenced King in many respects it was his realistic views on the inevitability of human sin that most transformed King. Having fully embraced the liberal tradition, most notably that of the social gospel’s emphasis on reason, progress and the inherent goodness of people, King’s false optimism was radically challenged. His change of heart is evident; “Liberalism failed to show that reason by itself is little more than an instrument to justify man’s defensive ways of thinking.” King thus came to believe that all humans have the capacity for sin, corruption and greed. The seed of skepticism had been planted early on.
As illustrated above, King wasn’t afraid to critique the white dominated black power structure. Nor was he willing to embrace a naïve belief that black power meant human salvation.

Black Power alone is no more insurance against social injustice than white power. Negro politicians can be as opportunistic as their white counterparts if there is not an informed and determined constituency demanding social reform. What is most needed is a coalition of Negroes and liberal whites that will work to make both major parties truly responsive to the needs of the poor. Black Power does not envision or desire such a program.

To the extent that Black Power had meant separation, as popularized in the Civil Rights era by Malcolm X and further advanced through Stokely and others King rejected it. Challenging the calls for a separate nation state King argued that it would actually set back blacks as they had deep investments in the forming of the country. He said, “My grandfather and my great-grandfather did too much to build this nation for me and you to be talking about getting away from it.” Furthermore, King’s theology and vision of the beloved community was strictly at odds with any end goal that would permanently separate brothers and sisters from each other. Thus, even though King grew more skeptical of human nature he still believed that it was our God given creative power to co-exist in diversity. Likewise, despite the flaws within the American political system King still believed in the promise of democracy. Being the Christian pastor that he was, the theme of redemption, both personally and politically was never abandoned.
King, however, did speak about possible benefits of a limited separatism, “There may be periods where segregation may be a temporary waystation to a truly integrated society…We don’t want to be integrated out of power.” This was not his end goal but rather a short-term strategy to gain power and leverage to enact change. He said, “I can point to some cases. I’ve seen this in the South, in schools being integrated, and I’ve seen it with Teachers’ Associations being integrated. Often when they merge, the Negro is integrated without power…there are some situations where separation may serve as a temporary way-station to the ultimate goal which we seek, which I think is the only answer in the final analysis to the problem of a truly integrated society.” We should also remember that the Black Church and the SCLC were predominantly segregated organizations, even if they weren’t popularly thought of in those terms. Both of these groups were crucial to the black freedom struggle in the South.
To the degree that Black Power was viewed as a viable revolutionary option to violently overthrow the state King saw this as a “nihilistic philosophy born out of the conviction that the Negro can’t win.” He furthered cautioned, “Anyone leading a violent rebellion must be willing to make an honest assessment regarding the possible casualties to a minority population confronting a well-armed, wealthy majority with a fanatical right wing that would delight in exterminating thousands of black men, women and children.”
Niebuhr also advanced an astute analysis of structural sin that informed King. Because people cannot escape sin (egoism), the social structures become oppressive and dangerous as sin is manifested within them. Privileged groups then rationalize their positions to preserve power that is reflected within these institutions. Niebuhr called this inescapable fact that reason is tainted with prejudice and ego the “historicity of reason.” That’s why Niebuhr warned of merely using Christian love or education to combat the evils of structural oppression such as racism, sexism or militarism. Niebuhr’s influence on him is evident as King stated it was naive to think “ethical appeals and persuasion alone will bring about justice. This does not mean that ethical appeals must not be made. It simply means that those appeals must be under girded by some form of constructive coercive power.” King warned of the dangers of a sentimental love,

The white liberal must see that the Negro needs not only love but also justice. It is not enough to say, “We love Negroes, we have many Negro friends.” They must demand justice for Negroes. Love that does not satisfy justice is no love at all. It is merely a sentimental affection, little more than what one would have for a pet.

As King began to realize just how deeply embedded racism was in America he became more critical of white liberals’ approach to racial justice and the use of reason to defend their ideas. It produced tokenism and protected established interests.

But this white failure to comprehend the depth and dimension of the Negro problem is far from being peculiar to Government officials…It seems to be a malady even among those whites who like to regard themselves as enlightened…I wonder at [persons] who dare to feel they have some paternalistic right to set the timetable for another [person’s] freedom. Over the past several years, I must say, I have been gravely disappointed with such white “moderates.” I am inclined to think that they are more of a stumbling block to the Negro’s progress than the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner.

King referred to white liberals as the innocent “children of light” and more and more saw them as the biggest problem. He thought it strange that those “forces of darkness” i.e. the KKK stated their case with so much more passion and conviction than any white liberals had. King was beginning to realize just how little white people were actually willing to share. He knew that there was never a genuine attempt for equality. He stated, “the fact is that there has never been any single, solid, determined commitment on the part of the vast majority of white Americans…to genuine equality for Negroes.” As his dream turned to a nightmare he adopted a realistic, yet disappointing conclusion: “The American people are infected with racism.”
A Revolutionized State
In a sense, you could say we are engaged in the class struggle. – Dr. King
The Marxist historian C.L.R. James said that King “wanted me to know that he understood and accepted, and in fact agreed with the ideas that I was putting forward-ideas which were fundamentally Marxist-Leninist.” Was King a Marxist? Where does King fit in the ideological spectrum of Black Power? How “revolutionary” was King? What was King’s vision of the state? How did King connect racism, economic exploitation and war?
If James is correct then King’s Marxist leanings would have certainly set him apart from the major thrust that defined the Black Power movement. Harold Cruse described it in 1969.

Black power is nothing but the economic and political philosophy of Booker T. Washington given a 1960’s militant shot in the arm and brought up to date…The Black Power ideology is not at all revolutionary in terms of its economic and political ambitions; it is, in fact, a social reformist ideology. It is not meant to be a criticism of the Black Power movement to call it “reformist”; there is nothing wrong or detrimental about social reforms. But we must not fail to call reformism what it in fact is. The Black Power theorists who believe their slogan is in fact revolutionary are mistaken…What does have a revolutionary implication about Black Power is the “defensive violence” upheld and practiced by its ultra-extremist-nationalist-urban guerrilla wing, which is a revolutionary anarchist tendency.

King argued, at least semi-privately in SCLC meetings and to groups of ministers that the country needed to move toward democratic socialism. Here he also praised Sweden’s socialism, as he believed it addressed the distribution of wealth much more efficiently. Elsewhere he called for a radical redistribution of economic and political power. He proposed a guaranteed annual income of $4,000, guaranteed jobs and guaranteed housing. As early as 1949 he expressed his radical inclinations.

What will the new movement be called in America? I must admit that I don’t know. It might well be called socialism, communism, or socialistic democracy. But what does it matter anyway, “a rose called by a different name smells just as sweet.” The point is that we will have a definite change. Capitalism finds herself like a losing football team in the last quarter trying all types of tactics to survive. We are losing because we failed to check our weaknesses in the beginning of the game.

While there were some in the Black Power movement who called for an end to capitalism, many simply wanted to empower African Americans within the current existing system. That’s why Richard Nixon could get behind the Black Power slogan as a pro-business agenda as he did in 1968. And of course the first Black Power conference was organized by Nathan Wright, a Republican who was an avid support of both Nixon and Reagan. As Robert Allen pointed out in Black Awakening in Capitalist America many of the proponents of Black Power such as Stokley Carmichael, Floyd Mckissick and others were all working within the capitalist structure and didn’t articulate distinct critiques of capitalism. King on the other hand was calling for a radical revolution in economic values and the redistribution of wealth. Certainly he advocated for black ownership of businesses and more control of wealth but he also pushed the economic agenda beyond where many where willing to go. Furthermore, King knew that there were more white poor people than there were black. King’s preference for a slogan like “Power for Poor People” vs. “Black Power” is characteristic of his focus on building a multi-racial coalition of people to resist poverty.
King never lost hope in the state, despite his turn towards more radical positions. He envisioned massive spending to rid the nation of poverty and to promote social uplift. He also wanted true integration and believed it could be accomplished with the help of the state, even if it had to be won through increasingly militant but nonviolent protest. He did not want to integrate into the existing capitalist system, but rather into a massive welfare state. Integration for King meant an authentic sharing of power, not tokenism or mere cultural assimilation.

On the one hand, integration is true intergroup, interpersonal living. On the other hand, it is the mutual sharing of power. I cannot see how the Negro will be totally liberated from the crushing weight of poor education, squalid housing and economic strangulation until he is integrated, with power, into every level of American life.

One of the biggest hurdles to establishing the Beloved Community in King’s view was the Vietnam War and U.S. Imperialism. King saw war, poverty and racism tied together, “The evils of capitalism are as real as the evils of militarism and evils of racism.” He boldly spoke his conscience on these triple evils. King realized that the war was inherently racist, both to the Vietnamese and African Americans.
In conclusion, King’s more radical views on white people, racism and social justice came out of his work on economic exploitation and from being in relation to the Black Power movement. Through his attempts to address poverty he realized just how racist Americans were and furthermore how embedded racism was within the structures of society. Because of this King developed an analysis that both was anti-racist and in favor of a democratic socialist state. His ideal vision welcomed people of all classes, nations, races and religions. Ideally, people power would dominate and war and poverty would become obsolete. King described this as a “radical restructuring of the architecture of American society.” Whether this was reformist or revolutionary is open to debate but given the profound challenges that America faces, it is an excellent place to start.
Follow me on Twitter. Because, why not?
For a version of this article with footnotes please email: kingtheradical@gmail.com
Be Scofield is founder of www.godblessthewholeworld.org and Dr. King scholar. He writes for Tikkun Magazine and Alternet.org. Be is studying to be an interfaith minister at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, where he is recently taught a graduate course called “Dr. King and Empire: How MLK Jr. Resisted War, Capitalism and Christian Fundamentalism.”