Art by Thien Bui
Dear fellow citizens,
This month I conclude my focus on the words of Martin Luther King in my letters.
I’m inspired to write today on the following quote taken, like the others, from “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community”:
“The segregationist goal is the total reversal of all reforms, with the reestablishment of naked oppression and if need be a native fascism. America had a master race in the antebellum South. Reestablishing it with a resurgent Klan and a totally disenfranchised lower class would realize the dream of many extremists today.”
But for the resurgence of the Klan as a cohesive entity, the above words are as applicable today as they were when written in the late 1960s. Fear and ignorance drive racism and nativism now as they did then. The fear is many pronged, but it all stems from a fear of economic, cultural and political loss. I would say of supremacy, but that assumes those fearing loss hold dominant positions, but they often don’t. The ignorance stems from lack of familiarity, which is itself a result of segregation, including voluntary segregation. It also stems from an ignorance of facts and belief in unproven “truths” about blacks and other minorities. These fallacies are passed on from generation to generation.
Martin Luther King understood the connection between poor whites and the black community. He noted that a substantial group of whites had “common needs with the Negro” and would “benefit equally with him in the achievement of social progress.” He noted, however, that poor whites in the South had “been deluded by race prejudice, and largely remained aloof from common action.”
The same fractures existed outside the South as well and came to the forefront during the mass exodus of blacks from the South in the early to mid-twentieth century as they sought to get out from under the oppression and naked violence of Jim Crow and because there were economic opportunities in the North. The Michigan KKK reportedly had over 100,000 members in the early 1920s and various off-shoots and similar organizations existed alongside them – e.g., the Black Legion, the John Birch Society and, most recently (and arguably), the Michigan Militia.
From the early 1970s until 9/11, this uglier side of the body politic was largely dormant and/or operated underground. When bigotry and violence based on bigotry surfaced, the public and political reaction was generally swift in condemnation. Unfortunately, we mistook the shrunken public presence of these attitudes to be a reflection of the actual numbers of people holding those views, or at least supportive of them.
The 9/11 attacks; the subsequent wars and security concerns; the economic crash of 2008; the emergence of a younger and more diverse generation; and the election of America’s first black President provided the jolt needed for the ugly underside of America to reawaken and, importantly, operate more publicly. This came to a head with Trump’s election and was on full display during his campaign and remains, sadly, a feature of his governing style.
“Make America Great Again” echoes an earlier political slogan “America First” used by the KKK and national politicians advocating isolationism. While not completely linked with the emphasis on racial purity, Make America Great Again spoke to those shadow riders.
I’m not saying that all Trump backers are racists or nativists, but I do think a substantial number are to one degree or another. How else to explain the hardcore base of support he keeps pandering to? It’s a cult of personality with Trump. He demands complete personal loyalty. His words – and actions for that matter – might as well be coming from Jehovah himself. The evangelicals certainly seem to think so. Trump and his team of unrepentant sycophants and believers are the new segregationists whose goals include the reversal of all reforms, and “the reestablishment of naked oppression and if need be a native fascism.” The dream of many extremists is embodied in the hateful, divisive and misguided words and actions of Trump. He tapped into a latent part of the American psyche that had been stirring since 9/11. He intuitively understood the forming wave and road its crest into the White House.
And so, the sins of the father are once again visited upon the son. The failure to completely confront and stamp out the ignorance has allowed fear to sow its seeds of discord. It remains for the rest of us to see that Martin Luther King’s words “free at last, free at last, Great God A-mighty, we are free at last” reflect a national truth, rather than a hope. That we become free of ignorance and hate such that all Americans realize that that we are not singular strands of thread within a fraying nation, but that “we are tied together in a single garment of destiny.” It is for all of us to take upon ourselves the burden of history. No one person or group can prevail; we must fight side by side for justice. Our mission is two-fold: to beat back the enemies of justice and to help the ignorant see the commonality they have with those they vilify. I believe there is a difference between willful ignorance and plain ignorance. We must cleave the willful from the plain and convert the plain to the just. Dr. King said:
“The failure to pursue justice is not only a moral default. Without it social tensions will grow and the turbulence of the streets will persist despite disapproval or repressive action.”
We have to realize we are responsible for the well-being of our fellows, for, ignoring evil makes us an accomplice to it.
It is not “their” problem. It is “our” problem. We must confront. We must educate. We must listen. We must march. We must demand action. We must act. We must speak out. And, above all, we must not stop until the job is done. We owe Dr. King the reality he dreamed of.
Scot A. Reynolds