The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivers a speech to a crowd of approximately 7,000 people on May 17, 1967, at UC Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza in Berkeley, California. (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
Some historians mark the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder as the end of the civil rights movement. Over an arc of 14 years — from the 1954 Brown Decision to King’s death in 1968 — the nation attempted to address its racial caste system.
The same nation that launched a war on hunger and a war on poverty and pursued a Great Society, however, elected Ronald Reagan president just 12 years after King’s death and ushered in a new era of conservatism, bent on rolling back racial advancements and dismantling Great Society efforts.
This push and pull have resulted in the kind of gradualism and tokenism King warned about, especially the pantomime that passes for civil rights advancement efforts today. Until we do away with tokenism, the structures of privilege reflexively protecting status quo inequality will persist.
King tackled this issue in a 1962 speech, equating tokenism to stall tactics.
“A new and hastily constructed roadblock has appeared in the form of planned and institutionalized tokenism,” King said. “We have advanced in some places from all-out, unrestrained resistance to a sophisticated form of delaying tactics, embodied in tokenism.”
This stood as “one of the most difficult problems that the integration movement confronts,” he said.
“A piece of freedom,” King continued, “is no longer enough for human beings nor for the nation of which Negroes are part. They have been given pieces — but unlike bread, a slice of liberty does not finish hunger. Freedom is like life. It cannot be had in installments. Freedom is indivisible — we have it all or we are not free.”
Consider how the fight for equality has progressed in the past 60 years. Moving goal posts. Changing rules. Willful ignorance.
Incrementalism is resistance.
Integrate public pools, and then watch people fill them with cement and open private pools behind gates or walls in exclusive communities.
Integrate public schools or a neighborhood, and watch people flee to suburbs and open private schools. Today, many legislatures continue to try funneling public money into those private schools.
Gain the right to vote, then watch politicians alter voting districts, demand birth certificates and rip out drop boxes.
Also a part of today’s tokenism? Breathlessly describing any education about the integration of pools or schools or neighborhoods or any classroom discussion about the denial of voting rights as Critical Race Theory or wokeism.
On these issues, King reigns as a man who saw tomorrow. What’s terrifying is how relentless this tokenism remains.
Herschel Walker’s Senate campaign comes to mind. Black conservatives often get trotted out to weigh in on racial issues that affect wide swaths of the Black citizenry, but those appointed spokespeople represent maybe 10 to 15 percent of that bloc.
That doesn’t make them illegitimate. They just aren’t at all representative of a preponderance of Black thought. Representative samples remain the norm, except here.
Such gradualism may prove dangerous. King warned of that in a separate speech, saying “this is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.”
We must call gradualism what it is: A struggle to maintain the right to deny people rights you enjoy. Gradualism means that you’ll get what I think you deserve when I’m comfortable.
King says as much in his book, “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?”
“Negroes have proceeded from the premise that equality means what it says, and they have taken white Americans at their word when they talk of it as an objective. But most whites in America … proceed from a premise that equality is a loose expression for improvement. White America is not even psychologically organized to close the gap — essentially, it seeks only to make it less painful, less obvious but in most respects, to retain it.”
It should startle us that someone with his capacity for patience and love arrived at this determination.
But considering the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, the wealth and opportunity hoarding, the cries of “I want my country back!” or “Make America great again” (as the Ku Klux Klan once declared), the continued whitewashing of history, the increasing abandonment of democratic norms — was King wrong?
King was tired of tokenism more than 50 years ago. Shouldn’t we dispense with token efforts at achieving equality?
Justice delayed is justice denied.
Let’s not overthink this. King has done the heavy lifting and thinking here: If you don’t want liberty for absolutely everyone, you don’t love liberty. You love your privilege.
This commentary originally appeared in the Kansas Reflector, part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions at [email protected]
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