Martin Luther King and CRT
Did King provide the foundation for Critical Race Theory?
The African-American movement unfolded from the period 1917 to 1988, constructed on the economic foundation established by black urbanization. It was by far the most advanced movement, in theory and practice, of the various democratic movements forged by the peoples of the United States. It was initiated on the basis of the black migration to the urban North during World War I; its final expression was the second presidential campaign of Jesse Jackson.
The movement formulated four theoretical-practical conceptualizations: economic self-help, which focused on the black capacity for attainment in business and education, in spite of the obstacles imposed; black empowerment through local community organization, especially black control of the institutions of the black community; the attainment of equal protection with respect to political, civil, and socioeconomic rights through litigation and mass action; and the transformation of the anti-democratic imperialist policies of the nation. These four conceptualizations co-existed in tension, and sometimes they erupted into open conflict within the movement. There was tension, on the one hand, between black agency and making demands on the U.S. government; and on the other hand, between the formation of a symbolic black nation and integration into the American republic.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the most important leader of the African-American movement, attained worldwide fame leading mass actions in the South demanding political and civil rights in the period 1955 to 1965. What often is not appreciated about Dr. King is that, beginning in 1964, he underwent a radicalization, accelerated by a profound disappointment in white allies of the movement, who by and large did not accompany him in what he conceived as the next stage of the movement. In this later conceptualization, evolving particularly from 1966 to his assassination on April 3, 1968, King saw the movement’s next steps as involving, in the first place, a multiethnic alliance in pursuit of the protection of the socioeconomic rights of all Americans, regardless of race; and in the second place, a U.S. foreign policy that supported the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist movements of the colonized peoples of the world.
The conceptualization of the later King brought him beyond a demand for black citizenship rights, supported by some whites for moral reasons in what he called a “coalition of conscience”; to a demand for the socioeconomic rights of all Americans and all world citizens, put forth by a multiethnic alliance of all American citizens, on the basis of common socioeconomic and political interests. In the period 1966 to 1968, King moved beyond black activism to American statesmanship and world citizenship.
In the 1970s, taking advantage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the number of black elected officials in the nation increased significantly. However, the black community was unable to take advantage of its growing political power to propose, much less put into practice, Malcolm’s vision of local black community control. Despair, confusion, ideological and social divisions, and individual aspirations of upward mobility prevailed in the black community in the 1970s, such that black elected officials, activists, and intellectuals were unable to forge a consensus on a program of action. King’s proposals for a multiethnic alliance and for an anti-imperialist foreign policy, which could have served as a strategic complement to Malcolm’s notion of local black community control, withered like a raisin in the sun.
Rev. Jesse Jackson—who had been head of SCLC’s Operation Breadbasket in Chicago—established People United to Serve Humanity (PUSH) in December 1971. PUSH developed programs and strategies for increasing black employment and black ownership of economic enterprises, and for supporting black candidates to elected office. In addition, observing alcohol and drug consumption and the lack of self-discipline among black youth, PUSH developed an Excel program, in which students pledged to study, to respect the authority of parents and teachers, and to develop self-discipline and self-respect. PUSH/Excel programs held up as role models blacks in government and business who had successfully overcome racial and class barriers.
In 1981, the Reagan administration put forth a plan that the prominent historian C. Vann Woodward described as a program for granting economic favors to the privileged and powerful and for increasing deprivation among the distressed and the needy. Black unemployment increased from 15% to 30% from 1980 to 1983, and nearly half of all black teenagers were unemployed by 1983. The Democratic Party did not rise to challenge this turn to the Right. Taking the black vote for granted, the Democratic Party opted for a moderate opposition to the Reagan administration, seeking the support of white voters in the center of the political spectrum.
In this dire political context for blacks, Jesse Jackson on November 3, 1983 announced his intention to seek the nomination of the Democratic Party for the office of president of the United States. In his presidential campaigns of 1984 and 1988, Jackson retook and updated the orientations of King of 1966 to 1968. Jackson formulated a concept of political empowerment through the electoral process, on the basis of a multiethnic coalition that included whites, Latinos, and Native Americans, and that also included women, gays, small businesspersons, and ecologists (a “Rainbow Coalition”), and a comprehensive program for the protection of the socioeconomic rights of all citizens. And he proposed a foreign policy of North-South cooperation, casting aside East-West confrontation. Jackson’s presidential campaigns were rooted in the fundamental concepts and principles of the African-American movement, including their evolution in the period of the later King.
In the 1990s, identity politics emerged, marking the end of the African-American movement as it had evolved in the post-1965 period under the leadership of King and Jackson. Identity politics deemphasized the program for the universal protection of socioeconomic rights and the proposal of a foreign policy of North-South cooperation, giving stress to membership in one or more groups understood as “marginalized.”
Critical race theory is a logical and extreme extension of identity politics. It takes a post-modern turn, seeing truth as defined by social position and personal viewpoint, on the basis of which history can be reconstructed. It ignores the fundamental truths in the realms of fact and value that had been formulated by the African-American movement from 1917 to 1988. It zeroes in on manifestations of residual racism in the post-1965 era, which is to be expected in any process of social change, in order to create a false reality of permanent racism and white privilege. Critical race theory serves the interests of the black professional class in preserving its mediating role in a society that views itself as racially unequal, and in maintaining certain preferential benefits for blacks. Critical race theory has been promoted by the power elite, which has an interest in dividing the people, especially in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008 and the people’s rebellion that it provoked.
Did King lay the foundations of Critical Race Theory?
There appeared in the conservative magazine Chronicles an article entitled “From MLK to CRT,” written by David Azerrad and published on January 16, 2023. Azerrad is an assistant professor at Hillsdale College’s Van Andel Graduate School of Government, in Washington, D.C.
Azerrad has complete disdain for “the pieties of critical race theory,” according to which: “Everything is racist. It’s never the fault of black people. And America can never sufficiently abase itself for the ‘original sin’ of slavery.” He rejects the claim of critical race theory that unequal outcomes between blacks and whites are caused by white racism.
The thesis of Azerrad’s article is that King demanded equal outcomes between blacks and whites, proportional representation, and special treatment and reparations for blacks; and that, in putting forth these demands, King provided the cornerstone of today’s critical race theory. Therefore conservatives who invoke the moral authority of King to counter the “madness” of critical race theory are making a strategic error, Azerrad maintains, because King’s discourses confirm the essentials of the woke worldview. Conservatives, he argues, instead of recalling King’s conservative teachings, ought to decanonize King, removing him from the pantheon of great American statesmen and placing him in the pantheon of leftist activists.
Azerrad, like many conservative scholars, and in contrast to the post-modern Left, takes objective truth seriously, and therefore he gets certain facts right. He makes a decent case, for example, in logically connecting some of King’s declarations to the assumptions and unempirical claims of critical race theory today. And especially important is Azerrad’s recognition of the fact that King, in contrast to critical race theory today, never lost hope in America. In recognizing this fact, Azerrad cites King’s last book, Where Do We Go From Here?, in which King declares that he still has a dream “deeply rooted in the American dream;” and in which he writes that “Black Power is a nihilistic philosophy [that] is, at bottom, the view that that American society is so hopelessly corrupt and enmeshed in evil that there is not possibility of salvation from within.”
Yet I wonder if Azerrad, for whatever reason, approaches the study of King with a perspective that leads him to focus on the logical implications of certain declarations that King made in a particular political context. Such declarations, however, reflect one side of the duality of the middle-class black American experience, which is characterized by oppression and exclusion, on the one side, and opportunity and privilege, on the other. The complex comprehensive view that emerges from this experiential dichotomy can be found in King’s 1964 book, Why We Can’t Wait. King writes that our nation was born in genocide, based on the doctrine that the original American was an inferior race. And rather than feel remorse for the nation’s shameful genocidal national policy, our literature and films exalt it. The American experience, King continues, has from the beginning been characterized by claims of democracy and freedom that have been contradicted by racial supremacy and prejudice. Yet he continues further: “Today the Negro is fighting for a finer America, and he will inevitably win the majority of the nation to his side because our hard-won heritage of freedom is ultimately more powerful than our traditions of cruelty and injustice.”
I submit that King’s full recognition of the colonial and racist character of American society was the starting point for an emancipatory vision for the nation and the world. Here he was a true son of the African-American movement, in that the movement’s recognition of America’s social sin as a settler society that tolerated slavery was joined with its recognition of the American theory and partial practice of republican democracy, which it saw as reflecting the true character of the nation.
Thus, the motto of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference was “To Redeem the Soul of America.” For these Southern black pastors in the 1950s, redemption is the American destiny, and the nation would be brought to the realization of its destiny through the commitment, fortitude, determination, and dignity of black folk. From their vantage point as the nation’s oppressed and excluded, they could discern the true character of the nation; and they saw its character reflected in its democratic vision, even as they also saw its hypocrisies. King was a cultural and political product of this religious and patriotic black America, which had the wisdom and the political intelligence to lift him up as an eloquent expression of the best in themselves, for all the nation and all the world to see.
In practical terms, there was no other possible road for black America, other than the full attainment by the nation of its foundational promise of democracy. And in practical terms, the attainment of full democracy, although mostly guided by black hopes and black leadership, could not possibly be attained by blacks alone. Accordingly, King envisioned the full attainment of American democracy through alliance and cooperation between blacks and whites; which of course required a program in accordance with the interests of both blacks and whites.
The need for blacks and whites to fight together for the rights and common interests of both was never far from his mind. King in Why We Can’t Wait called for preferential treatment in education and employment as reasonable compensation for past discrimination. He viewed this as especially necessary, taking into account the decline in blue-collar jobs, as a result of the changing characteristics of the national economy. However, he did not view this as a program only for blacks, but for all who were in need. He called upon the federal government to develop an economic program that provided protection against unemployment and raised the standard of living for both blacks and poor whites, calling it a “Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged.”
We should keep in mind that, for King, any preferential treatment for blacks was one piece of a comprehensive, universal project of economic uplift and the protection of socioeconomic rights for all citizens of the nation and the world. Observing in 1964 the absence of poverty and slums in the Scandinavian countries, King was heartened by the possibilities implied by the Scandinavian examples. He declared, “I am returning [to the USA] convinced that Americans of all races, colors, and creeds stand ready to broaden the struggle for civil rights, to include such basic human rights as the right of all men to nourish their bodies with three meals a day [and] to enrich their minds with quality education.”
In January and February of 1967, King wrote his last book, Where Do We Go From Here, in which he called upon Americans to return home and embrace the American promise of democracy.
“America has moved to the far country of racism. The home that all too many Americans left was solidly structured idealistically. Its pillars were soundly grounded in the insights of our Judeo-Christian heritage: all men are made in the image of God; all men are brothers; all men are create equal; every man is heir to a legacy of dignity and worth; every man has rights that are neither conferred by nor derived from the state, they are God-given. What a marvelous foundation for any home!. . . . But America strayed away; and this excursion has brought only confusion and bewilderment. . . . This long and callous sojourn in the far country of racism has brought a moral and spiritual famine to the nation.
“But it is not too late to return home. If America would come to herself and return to her true home, ‘one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all,’ she would give the democratic creed a new authentic ring, enkindle the imagination of mankind and fire the souls of men.” (Italics in original).
Later in 1967, King envisioned a massive nonviolent protest of the poor in Washington, DC. The goal of the Poor People’s Campaign, as announced by King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference in early 1968, was economic justice; its focus was on “jobs or income for all Americans.” The Campaign called upon the federal government to invest in full employment, a guaranteed annual income, and the construction of low-income housing for the poor. King envisioned a multiracial alliance of blacks, Mexican-Americans, Puerto Ricans, Native Americans, and poor whites, an alliance forged on the basis of common economic interests.
Azerrad is right in maintaining that conservatives who today invoke the moral authority of King ignore his radical side. However, King’s radicalism had little in common with the superficial and ahistorical claims today of critical race theory, which functions to advance the interests of black professionals and the American power elite. In contrast, King’s formulations in the period 1966 to 1968 constituted a profound reading of the gains and limitations of the civil rights movement, and an insightful formulation of its necessary next stage. His premature death at the age of 39 may have been a factor in the subsequent ideological and moral decadence of the nation.
Martin Luther King, Jr., Why We Can’t Wait (New York: Harper & Row, 1964), pp. 150-53.
King, “Statement on Accepting the New York City Medallion,” (December 17, 1964), p. 7. Martin Luther King, Jr., Papers, Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial Center for Non-Violent Social Change, Atlanta, Georgia.
King, Where Do We Go From Here? (New York: Bantan Books, 1968), pp. 98-99.
Southern Christian Leadership Conference, “Statement of Purpose: Washington, D.C. Poor People’s Campaign,” (1968). Southern Christian Leadership Conference Collection, Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial Center for Non-Violent Social Change, Atlanta, Georgia.