In a 1968 Harris Poll taken months before his assassination, Martin Luther King Jr. held a disapproval rating of 75 percent from the American public. This seems shocking only because we, the white moderates of the 21st century, have defanged MLK’s radical beliefs and turned him into a symbol of what mayor Jim Brainard labelled in his Jan. 18 speech “racial equality, economic justice and peace in our own time.”
King predicted this obfuscation in his 1963 letter from a Birmingham jail, observing that “the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate … who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”
Police arrested King 29 times in his life, detaining him for trifles ranging from protesting to driving 30 mph in a 25 mph zone. His Birmingham letter continues, “law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and …. when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.”
By this same logic, King understood riots as “the language of the unheard” and noted in his 1967 “The Other America” speech that our country has failed to hear that “white society (is) more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality and humanity.” King was referring to the 1965 Watts riots but easily could have meant 2020’s uprising in the wake of George Floyd’s murder when he observed that “our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay.”
In 1965, King co-authored a “Freedom Budget” proposal he compared to FDR’s radical Works Progress Administration. The budget proposed devoting billions of federal dollars (still less than the military budget, King pointed out) toward, among other things, “a guaranteed income for those unable to work or those who should not be working, and a living wage to lift the working poor out of poverty.” In a rarely acknowledged 1967 speech, King named “excessive materialism and militarism” alongside racism as the “three evils” of American society, stating that “capitalism was built on the exploitation and suffering of black slaves and continues to thrive on the exploitation of the poor.”
King referenced the Freedom Budget in this speech, saying he was “convinced that even this one massive act of concern will do more than all the state police and armies of the nation to quell riots and still hatreds.”
King stated that “we must devote at least as much to our children’s education and the health of the poor as we do to … the building of beautiful, impressive hotels;” meanwhile, construction on the Hotel Carmichael ran $18.5 million over budget (estimates) as of its opening last summer. This was the same summer we, the white moderates of Carmel, (threatened to) sue riot-torn Minneapolis for “expenses incurred for additional security.” Would Minneapolis’s reimbursement have gone toward the hotel?
That September, our mayor also declared Carmel would commit $180,000 to purchase a statue of a Black girl by white sculptor J. Seward Johnson rather than employ a Black artist or, better yet, commit the funds to systemic change for Carmel’s flesh-and-blood Black citizens (as Brainard admitted in the Sept. 14, 2020, Current in Carmel, “there (aren’t) many statues (of minorities)” in Johnson’s collection; he wisely steered clear of the statue of a Black man carrying a boombox on his shoulder, titled “Getting Down.”)
King believed in federal welfare and health care for all. King believed in defunding the police and the military in favor of public health initiatives. King believed Black lives matter. King supported stimulus checks and a higher minimum wage. King sympathized with protests that turned violent. King was beaten, jailed and tear-gassed like so many BLM protestors have been in the past decade. King was “gravely disappointed with the white moderate,” and we must educate ourselves to understand why and how we can redeem the 75 percent of our parents’ America that detested him.
Reid Libby, Carmel