White America and the MLK Holiday

Since 1986, the third Monday in January has occasioned civic and ecclesiastical commemorations of the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. As a civil rights historian who grew up in Birmingham, Alabama during those volatile "movement days," I have religiously made an annual pilgrimage to such events in New Orleans, Philadelphia, Columbus, Ohio, Danville, Virginia, and Macon, Georgia. By television I have also observed more "national" observances in Washington and Atlanta. On occasions when attendance at such events is truly voluntary (unlike school assemblies in public schools), I have noticed that white attendance and participation is typically limited to a handful of liberals and other politicians who pronounce racial shibboleths on their way to election day.

Besides the obligatory recitation or replay of King's "Dream" speech, our MLK rituals can always be expected to quote King's hope of America becoming a colorblind society where persons are judged not by color but by the "content of their character." Yet while they celebrate our strides in that direction, conservatives and most white Americans assume that the nation effectively reached that Promised Land with the passage of the civil rights legislation of the mid-1960s.

White America loves the colorblind King of 1963, but we studiously avoid the more radical King of 1968. We need to take careful note. In a posthumously published essay, "A Testament of Hope," King wrote, "I'm sure that most whites felt that with the passage of the1964 Civil Rights Act, all race problems were automatically solved." A year before that, in his last published book, Where Do We Go From Here?, alluding to the 1965 Voting Rights Act as the end of the struggle's Phase I, he observed: "White America was ready to demand that the Negro should be spared the lash of brutality and coarse degradation, but it had never been truly committed to helping him out of poverty, exploitation, or all forms of discrimination....When Negroes looked for a second phase, the realization of equality, they found that many of their white allies and quietly disappeared."

We white Americans disappeared into the white backlash and the individualistic code words of, ironically, the party of Lincoln. We disappeared into a fog of denial that in America white privilege and a tilted playing field still exist long after a bullet silenced the Dreamer's voice.

Let us hear it again on this his birthday: "The absence of brutality and unregenerate evil is not the presence of justice." Despite the theoretical equality created by the mid-1960s civil rights laws that restrict overt racism, in the real world we are still far from a colorblind society.

Even during the economically rosy Clinton years inequality remained. In 1998 black high school graduates earned an average of $24,000 compared to $32,000 for the average white graduate. For college graduates the differential increased as blacks college grads earned at average $36,000 to $53,000 for whites. In total accumulated wealth, the worth of the average white family in America is eleven times that of the average black family.

In my own Bibb County, Georgia, black infant mortality more than doubles (21 per 1000 births, compared to 11) that of white babies. Incidence of low birth weight babies for blacks is double that for whites. In 2002 thirty-two percent of the county's blacks lived below the poverty line compared to only seven percent of whites. That same year unemployment among blacks in the county stood at 9%, while only 2.5 % of whites were similarly situated.

King's birthday is a wonderful opportunity for the majority of white Americans to awake from our dreamworld. Intricate, intractable problems created and sustained by 350 combined years of slavery and segregation could not be magically fixed by two civil rights laws and a mere four years of Great Society programs. If tonight a spell were cast upon Americans of all races and we woke up tomorrow knowing and loving each other perfectly, whites would still enjoy privilege and blacks would still suffer the sort of disadvantage I described above. So I propose that until the statistical disadvantage for blacks disappears altogether or for the next 350, whichever comes first, that white Americans do the Christian thing and fix what we have broken. I propose we do it by supporting policies that invest in our black communities and that help black families accumulate wealth at a greater pace.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 allowed African Americans the right to go to restaurants and movies with us white Americans. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 protected their access to the voting booth. Besides the fact that these rights should have belonged to blacks since 1789 when the Constitution was ratified, those laws cost us white Americans nothing but our prejudices. In some of his last words to us white Americans, King wrote, "The great majority of Americans are suspended between these opposing attitudes. They are uneasy with injustice but unwilling yet to pay a significant price to eradicate it." Today's a good day to listen to a Prophet. Today's a good day to start paying our debts.

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