Civil Rights or Civil War
(By American Zen's Mike Flannigan, on loan from Ari Goldstein.)Mrs. Flannigan asked me at the kitchen table today, "Do you think the Civil Rights movement would've continued if Dr. King had lived?"
It's certainly a question worthy of unpacking, although trying to predict alternate history is the slipperiest of slopes. One has to factor in the men surrounding Dr. King at the time of his assassination in Memphis in April 1968, the political landscape, the power yet the limits of personal charisma, etc. Plus, one must look at the latter-day race relations and try to extrapolate at least a semi-educated guess as to whether or not a middle-aged or elderly Dr. Martin Luther King could've eradicated much of the racism that's rearing its ugly head than at no time since my childhood in the 60's.
The Washington Post's E.J. Dionne wrote an excellent article nearly seven years ago in which the thrust is that liberalism (and, by extension, the Civil Rights movement) died or had begun to die with him. Perhaps liberalism could've sputtered on with either Dr. King or a second President Kennedy. Yet since both men were assassinated within months of each other in the pivotal 1968, it was inevitable that liberalism, and civil rights, would've been buried with each man.
As Dionne had reminded us in his April 4, 2008 article,
A shrewd politician named Richard Nixon sensed the direction of the political winds. When President Johnson's commission on urban unrest released its report in early 1968 and blamed the previous year's rioting on "white racism," Nixon would have none of it. The commission, he said, "blames everybody for the riots except the perpetrators of the riots." He urged "retaliation."It's a right wing, "Blame the victim" meme that's all too familiar today in the wake of the protests in Ferguson, MO and Nixon's own racist reaction to a report blaming his kind for the civil unrest in 1967 pretty much set the tone for the very quiet euthanization of the civil rights movement and liberalism in general. It's impossible to tell what influence, if any, that Dr. King would've had on the Nixon administration in the late 60's-seventies. But when one looks at Nixon's own dim civil rights record, one doesn't get the impression Dr. King would've had as much influence over Nixon as he had over the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.
It's easy to see, on the other hand, Civil Rights enjoying a second golden age if both Dr. King survived and Kennedy had lived to occupy the Oval Office. Therefore it is impossible to extrapolate an alternate past without factoring in the liberal dream scenario of Bobby Kennedy and Dr. King closely collaborating on a raft of meaningful civil rights legislation throughout the 70's.
Take One Step Forward, Take One Step Back
We're seeing this not in Teabagger circles but at the very highest levels of government. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court essentially gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965 when a handful of old, privileged white men blithely pronounced racism dead. It came as no surprise to any progressives that seemingly nanoseconds after the High Court's ruling, redneck state governments proposed, and in all too many cases passed, racist Voter ID laws and other voter-caging legislation that was at least a determining factor in the GOP not only expanding their lead in the House but retaking the Senate.
It also can't be said that Barack Obama has made the most of his time in the White House to push for Civil Rights legislation instead of passively standing by and doing little more than cluck his tongue at the gutting of the VRA or the national epidemic of unarmed African Americans getting killed by white police. If Obama spent one tenth the time empowering his own people instead of old white Wall Street oligarchs than perhaps we'd see fewer Michael Browns and Eric Garners.
My suspicion is that if Dr. Martin Luther King had lived to see old age, especially if Bobby Kennedy had for one reason or another never served as President, he quite possibly would've seen his own time come and go, his own irrelevance staring him in the face. While he must have known he put his life at risk with every march and every speech, I'm sure even he never thought he wouldn't live to see his 40th birthday. Ergo, it never occurred to him to groom a natural successor.
And this brings us back to the cult of personality and the men who'd surrounded Dr. King. None of them could fill his big shoes and unite the African American people as he had. He had come along at just the right time. And if history teaches us anything, it's that great men don't so much shape the times in which they live but, for good or ill, exploit them to their purposes. Hitler did not create the national shame over losing the First World War and the economic crisis accompanying it. He merely exploited it. And Dr. King did not create the growing dissatisfaction within the black community after 400 years of racism.
Yet it's obvious to anyone with two neurons to rub together that we're much closer to seeing a second Civil War than a second Civil Rights movement. As long as incompetent and misled grand juries give free passes to men like Wilson and Pantaleo to murder unarmed African American men with complete impunity, as long as black Congressmen are getting their microphones cut off on Capitol Hill and as long as white policemen are held to a much lower standard than their unarmed young black victims, it doesn't take a political scientist to see which will arrive first.