by Michael Dorf
In Spike Lee's gripping 1989 film Do the Right Thing (spoiler alert!), Smiley, an intellectually disabled man, periodically appears on screen attempting to sell pictures of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. The film ends with a scroll of two quotations: one from Dr. King decrying violence as necessarily counterproductive for justice movements; and another from Malcolm X, endorsing violence in "self-defense" against bad people in power.
The film portrayed the choice between their respective philosophies as a difficult one, but for white America, of course it was a no-brainer. White Americans looking for an African American to canonize naturally chose Dr. King, seeing his message of non-violence as much more acceptable than Malcolm X's "by any means necessary." And that explains why the juxtaposed quotes and closing scene--in which Lee's character Mookie starts a riot in response to a police killing of a friend--caused such consternation among white audiences (described astutely here). If widely viewed today, it still would. We are now farther in time from the release of Do the Right Thing than the release was from the assassinations of Malcolm X and Dr. King, but as recent blue-on-Black killings tragically illustrate, its themes remain highly salient.
For today's commemoration of the life and work of Dr. King, I'd like to ask a question about the framing of the choice between him and Malcolm X. If white America was going to canonize a civil rights saint, the choice between Dr. King and Malcolm X was indeed easy. But why were those the only two choices? There was another possibility, one that, at least on the surface, would have seemed more logical still: namely, Thurgood Marshall, aka "Mr. Civil Rights." I'll make the case for Marshall as a more fitting choice, and then offer a few hypotheses about why we settled on Dr. King instead.
I'll begin with a digression into another film, the recent Selma. The film does not include actual speeches by Dr. King (because of copyright issues), so director Anna DuVernay and her team created simulacra of them. When interviewed by Terry Gross on Fresh Air recently, DuVernay explained that she boiled down Dr. King's message in his Selma speech to the idea
that racism is a lie that's been told to white people to divert their attention from the challenges in their own life by the powers that be, that rich white men indoctrinate racism into poor white men to make them look at black people and not at the powerful white men, who might not be helping them as they should.And indeed, that idea plays a central role in Dr. King's actual speech at the conclusion of the Selma march. He said:
the segregation of the races was really a political stratagem employed by the emerging Bourbon interests in the South to keep the southern masses divided and southern labor the cheapest in the land. You see, it was a simple thing to keep the poor white masses working for near-starvation wages in the years that followed the Civil War. Why, if the poor white plantation or mill worker became dissatisfied with his low wages, the plantation or mill owner would merely threaten to fire him and hire former Negro slaves and pay him even less. Thus, the southern wage level was kept almost unbearably low.
Toward the end of the Reconstruction era, something very significant happened. That is what was known as the Populist Movement. The leaders of this movement began awakening the poor white masses and the former Negro slaves to the fact that they were being fleeced by the emerging Bourbon interests. Not only that, but they began uniting the Negro and white masses into a voting bloc that threatened to drive the Bourbon interests from the command posts of political power in the South.
To meet this threat, the southern aristocracy began immediately to engineer this development of a segregated society. I want you to follow me through here because this is very important to see the roots of racism and the denial of the right to vote. Through their control of mass media, they revised the doctrine of white supremacy. They saturated the thinking of the poor white masses with it, thus clouding their minds to the real issue involved in the Populist Movement. They then directed the placement on the books of the South of laws that made it a crime for Negroes and whites to come together as equals at any level. And that did it. That crippled and eventually destroyed the Populist Movement of the nineteenth century.Is it true that rich powerful white people inculcated racism in poor whites to blind them to their own economic interests? Yes, to some degree. But it's also true that poor and working poor whites often took racism well beyond the interests of rich powerful white people. The events surrounding the Lake County, Florida trials for the alleged 1949 rape of a white woman--as recounted in Gilbert King's terrific 2012 book Devil in the Grove--offer an interesting counterpoint. The chief villain in the story is the white virulently racist sheriff Willis McCall, but McCall is largely a symptom of the broader society. As the book explains, the white owners of the citrus groves depended on cheap African American labor. To the extent that Jim Crow deprived African Americans and poor whites of the means to resist economic exploitation, they benefited from racism. But when the white mob rampaged in the African American community, the wealthy grove owners were upset, because they feared an exodus of African Americans that would leave them with a shortage of cheap labor. The white economic elites wanted enough racism to permit exploitation but not so much as to result in murder and flight.
Enter Thurgood Marshall, then at the height of his power as a lawyer, to defend the African American men who were falsely accused, while simultaneously litigating the cases that would ultimately become Brown v. Board of Education. For the most part, Devil in the Grove tells the story of the "Groveland Boys," which is more or less a mid-twentieth century reprise of the Scottsboro Boys case. But the book also describes the career and views of Marshall, including the distance that Marshall deliberately placed between the NAACP and more left-leaning supporters of civil rights. As portrayed in the book, Marshall acted partly strategically in order to avoid antagonizing the strongly anti-communist FBI under J. Edgar Hoover, but it is not just that. Marshall was fundamentally a liberal. Dr. King appealed to liberals and was not at all illiberal, but his vision of social justice was, to a greater extent than Marshall's, redistributive.
Indeed, it is by now a well-worn criticism of American post-civil-rights-era culture that we have sanitized Dr. King's vision by selectively focusing on a few lines from his "I Have a Dream" speech, thereby enabling even white conservatives to embrace him as an opponent of affirmative action--ignoring his views about economics, war, and much more. It would also require considerable amnesia to make such a figure out of Marshall, to be sure, but Marshall's faith in the rule of law and his anti-communism ought to have made him a more natural candidate for canonization than Dr. King.
And yet it didn't work out that way. We have an airport, an archtitecturally uninteresting government building in D.C., and some scholarships named after Marshall, but Dr. King gets an entire day, the equal of Washington and Lincoln combined. Why?
No single factor explains it all, but I'll point to three. First, Marshall was a great lawyer but Dr. King was a transcendent rhetorician. In the American canon of great political speaking, Dr. King stands alone; only Lincoln, FDR, and JFK even warrant mention in the same conversation.
Second, Dr. King died young, and so he could be invoked for almost any position, regardless of where he actually would have come down on that issue. The law establishing Dr. King's birthday as a national holiday was signed in 1983, when Marshall was still an active Justice on the Supreme Court, and as a consistently liberal vote on the Court, the continued object of attacks by the right. In the 1980s, it would not have been possible to treat Marshall as a trans-partisan hero, whereas Dr. King's absence permitted the appropriation of his legacy for that purpose.
Third, although Malcolm X was killed more than three years earlier than Dr. King, King's assassination in 1968, together with RFK's assassination a couple of months later and with the growing urban unrest of the mid to late 1960s, led many Americans to wonder whether the social fabric was coming undone. The violent crime spike of the late 1960s did not seriously begin to subside until the early 1990s, and thus the crucial frame for canonization during the relevant period was violence. Of course, Thurgood Marshall opposed violence too, but non-violence was central to the message of Dr. King. He, Thoreau, and Gandhi are more closely associated with non-violent politics for social change than anyone else.
Put cynically, the decision by white America to canonize Dr. King was driven as much by fear of the alternative--Black nationalism and street crime--as by agreement with his message. That's not all that was at stake in the decision by President Reagan to sign the King holiday bill. But it was a big piece of it. Understanding what was really at stake in the decision to canonize Dr. King is perhaps a useful step towards really understanding his actual message.