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I May Not Get There with You: The True Martin Luther King Jr.by Michael Eric Dyson
"I Saw That Dream Turn Into a Nightmare": From Color-Blindness to Black Compensation
"I am a mother with six kids," says the beautiful ebony-skinned woman adorned in batik-print African dress and silver loop earrings. "And part of the time I don't even know where I'm going to get the next meal for my children."
All Martin Luther King, Jr., can do is shake his head and utter, "My, my."
King was on a 1968 swing through rural, poor parts of the black South, drumming up support for his Poor People's March on Washington later that year. He had stopped at a small white wood-frame church in Mississippi to press his case, and to listen to the woes of the poor. A painting of a white Jesus, nearly ubiquitous in black churches, observed their every move. Later King would absorb more tales of Mississippi's material misery.
"People just don't know, but it's really hard," a poor woman in church pleads. "Not only me, there's so many more that's in the same shape. I'm not the only one. It's just so many right around that don't have shoes, clothes, is naked and hungry. Part of the time, you have to fix your children pinto beans morning, dinner and supper. They don't know what it is to get a good meal." King is visibly moved.
"You all are really to be admired," he compassionately offers, "and I want you to know that you have my moral support. I'm going to be praying for you. I'm going to be coming back to see you and we are going to be demanding, when we go to Washington, that something be done and done immediately about these conditions."
King couldn't keep that promise; his life would be snuffed out a mere three weeks before his massive campaign reached its destination. But King hammered home the rationale behind his attempt to unite the desperately poor. He understood that the government owed something to the masses of black folk who had been left behind as America parceled out land and money to whites while exploiting black labor.
"At the very same time that America refused to give the Negro any land," King argues, "through an act of Congress our government was giving away millions of acres of land in the West and the Midwest, which meant it was willing to undergird its white peasants from Europe with an economic floor." Building a full head of steam, King rolls his rhetoric down the track of just compensation for blacks by contrasting even more sharply the unequal treatment of the races in education, agriculture, and subsidies.
"But not only did they give them land," King's indictment speeds on, "they built land grant colleges with government money to teach them how to farm. Not only that, they provided county agents to further their expertise in farming. Not only that, they provided low interest rates in order that they could mechanize their farms."
King links white privilege and governmental support directly to black suffering, and thus underscores the hypocrisy of whites who have been helped demanding that blacks thrive through self-help.
"Not only that," King says in delivering the death blow to fallacies about the black unwillingness to work, "today many of these people are receiving millions of dollars in federal subsidies not to farm, and they are the very people telling the black man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps. And this is what we are faced with, and this is the reality."
With one final fell swoop, King reinforces his identification with the destitute, reiterates his belief that the government has failed in its fiduciary obligations to blacks, and subverts the stereotype of blacks shiftlessly waiting around for government cash by insisting that blacks deserve what is coming to them.
"Now, when we come to Washington in this campaign, we are coming to get our check."
Worse still, when the civil rights revolution reached its zenith and accomplished some of its goals — including recasting the terms in which the nation discussed race — many conservatives recovered from the shock to their system of belief by going on the offensive. The sixties may have belonged to the liberals, but the subsequent decades have been whipped into line by a conservative backlash. After eroding the spirit of liberal racial reform, conservatives have breathed new life into the racial rhetoric they successfully forced the liberals to abandon. Now terms like "equal playing field," "racial justice," "equal opportunity," and, most ominous, "color-blind" drip from the lips of formerly stalwart segregationist politicians, conservative policy wonks, and intellectual hired guns for deep-pocketed right-wing think tanks. Crucial concepts are deviously turned inside out, leaving the impression of a cyclone turned in on itself. Affirmative action is rendered as reverse racism, while goals and timetables are remade, in sinister fashion, into "quotas." This achievement allows the conservatives to claim that they are opposed to the wrong-headed results of the civil rights movement, even as they claim to uphold its intent — racial equality. Hence, conservatives seize the spotlight and appear to be calm and reasonable about issues of race. In their shadows, liberals and leftists are often portrayed as unreasonable and dishonest figures who uproot the grand ideals of the civil rights movement from its moral ground.
At the heart of the conservative appropriation of King's vision is the argument that King was an advocate of a color-blind society. Hence, any policy or position that promotes color consciousness runs counter to King's philosophy. Moreover, affirmative action is viewed as a poisonous rejection of King's insistence that merit, not race, should determine how education and employment are distributed. The wellspring of such beliefs about King is a singular, golden phrase lifted from his "I Have a Dream" speech. "I have a dream," King eloquently yearned, "my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." Of the hundreds of thousands of words that King spoke, few others have had more impact than these thirty-four, uttered when he was thirty-four years old, couched in his most famous oration. Tragically, King's American dream has been seized and distort
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