by Peter Kolozi and James Freeman
Marking an anniversary of a book’s publication is, appropriately, reserved for books that were widely read when they first appeared many years ago. Books we commemorate with an anniversary are ones that ushered in a new way of thinking and influenced the way society tries to make sense of the world. Martin Luther King Jr.’s last book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community did neither of these things.1
Published in the long, hot summer of 1967, it was politely reviewed but dismissed. Milton R. Konvitz of the Saturday Review respectfully wrote that King had moved from slogans to programs “moderate, judicious, constructive,” and of “pragmatic tone.”2 Eliot Fremont-Smith of the New York Times wrote that King was “calling for a miracle.”3 Martin Duberman of Book Week suggested that King had a “tendency to substitute rhetoric for specificity.”4 The well-known progressive Andrew Kopkind, in the New York Review of Books, went so far as to state that “there is something disingenuous about his public voice and about this book,” while castigating the civil rights leader a few months before his untimely death as “outstripped by his times, overtaken by the events. … He is not likely to regain command. Both his philosophy and these techniques of leadership … are no longer valid.”5
Marginalized, called a sell-out, rendered irrelevant, an elder lost in the youthful spirit of the times, King faced one critic after another who, willing to admit it or not, harbored resentment toward the man who tried to confront W.E.B. DuBois’ classic dictum, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line.”6 One might think America, in the midst of an era of social tumult, would have welcomed this book’s analysis of what the project of a progressive social and civil rights movement should be. Instead, Where Do We Go from Here landed with a thud. King’s last and most radical book deserves better. With the benefit of history, we might consider how anniversaries can also mark a time when what was overlooked is revisited in order to provide us with a lens to view and understand the present.
King’s insistence that America reflect upon its recklessly imperialist and mindlessly materialist present was virtually erased from historical memory in the years following his assassination. In short order, the man was transformed into a cultural commodity (and a martyr) so that America’s self-congratulation on meaningful but limited progress on civil rights might hasten an end to the nation’s troubles at home. King’s death and subsequent canonization facilitated the fulfillment of a conscious need for white Americans to project an image of national redemption through little more than “greater understanding,” making up for the country’s history of slavery, institutional discrimination, and Jim Crow. America “mourned,” and that was it. Eager to move on, the American public largely dismissed King’s later work. Following his 1967 anti-war “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence” speech, parts of which were reprinted in Where Do We Go from Here, King was condemned by the media as a traitor and roundly criticized by African Americans and the general public more broadly.7 The year 1967 was the lowest point of King’s public life. By the end of 1968, following the death of King and Senator Robert Kennedy, Americans were quick to forget King’s message, impatient with the status of the civil rights movement, unsure how to put an end to the Vietnam War, and fatigued by the spirit of the times. In the 1968 presidential election, George Wallace received nearly ten million votes and Hubert Humphrey narrowly lost to Richard Nixon, who explicitly campaigned on a racialized law-and-order platform. Something significant had occurred that both altered the course of politics in America and moved King’s message to the dustbin of history.
The year 2017 will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Where Do We Go from Here. The book is perhaps the most radical statement of King’s analysis, criticism, and vision for change. Significantly, it links race and class as the twin pillars of the capitalist exploitation that is the generator of poverty, economic inequality, spiritual disenchantment, and racial animosity in America and across the world. As Cornel West correctly states, “The radical King was a democratic socialist who sided with poor and working people in the class struggle taking place in capitalist societies. This class struggle may be invisible or visible, manifest or latent. But it rages on in a fight over resources, power, and space.”8 King roots racial and class domination in the context of capitalist economic exploitation, explaining the persistence of black and white poverty and the political impotence caused by their mutual racial animosity. King advocated for an “alliance of liberal-labor-civil rights forces,” or a cross-racial class coalition, as necessary to implement a program meant to liberate Americans, both black and white, from poverty. Indeed, King wrote, “the Negroes’ problem cannot be solved unless the whole of American society takes a new turn toward greater economic justice.”9 King sees strength in class consciousness, a taboo topic in American public discourse and one that the early civil rights leader assiduously steered clear of. A revisit to the radical King is due; his analysis has been overlooked and has become relevant when one considers the political and economic realignments taking place in America in the last half-century.
This essay will argue that what makes Where Do We Go from Here so distinct lies in the fact that King’s analysis of global inequality, racism, and poverty is not abstract, moralizing, or merely discursive. King emerges in this text with an historical and materialist critique that links the raison d’etre of slavery, racism, and white supremacy to elite-class domination for the purposes of economic control and exploitation of the vast majority of humanity.10
The book is a rejection of the trajectory of America in the 1960s and a warning about the neoliberal shift taking place in a soon to be deindustrialized economy. Where Do We Go from Here is more poignant and urgent today than it was fifty years ago not only because the trends that King described have come to fruition, but because his “beloved community” provides a social philosophy and a political strategy for human liberation as well as a counterweight to the global ideological, economic, and political hegemony of neoliberalism. Whereas the United States and much of the rest of the world has doubled down on capitalism since the 1960s, King urges that we reject this evolution and instead redouble our efforts to create an alternative political, economic, and value system “beyond the traditional capitalism and communism.”11 By 1967 King, at last, embraced the revolutionary within.
This book is a reminder of how we might think about race, class, and poverty, forcing us to peer over the fence to see how the other half lives. Oftentimes, whites minimize or ignore the role of racism and discrimination in black poverty. Just as often, blacks minimize or ignore white poverty because whites are not the victims of racial discrimination. Both blacks and whites in the United States tend to minimize or ignore the role of capitalism and class exploitation. Each group often consciously (or not) embraces a kind of racial animosity as a false salve; not quite healing, but instead inoculating them against something much larger than they may be willing to accept. “In human relations,” writes King, “the truth is hard to come by because most groups are deceived about themselves. Rationalization and the incessant search for scapegoats are the psychological cataracts that blind us to our individual and collective sins.”12 In the “The Sword that Heals” essay, which appeared in an earlier book, King succinctly puts it, “The underprivileged southern whites saw the color that separated them from Negroes more clearly than they saw the circumstances that bound them together in mutual interest.”13
Read the entire piece and footnotes here.
Peter Kolozi is an associate professor in the Department of Social Sciences at the City University of New York.
James Freeman teaches at Manhattan College.
Published on New Politics (http://newpol.org) Remembering Martin Luther King’s Last, Most Radical Book. http://newpol.org/content/remembering-martin-luther-king’s-last-most-radical-book
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