[Marxism] What King Said About Northern Liberalism

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Jan 21 14:44:26 MST 2019

(A great op-ed.)

NY Times, Jan. 21, 2019
What King Said About Northern Liberalism
“The white moderate” was more of an obstacle than “the Ku Klux Klanner.”
By Jeanne Theoharis

(Dr. Theoharis, a political scientist, is the author of many books and 
articles on the civil rights movement.)

“There is a pressing need for a liberalism in the North which is truly 
liberal,” the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. told an interracial 
audience in New York City in 1960. He called for a liberalism that 
“rises up with righteous indignation when a Negro is lynched in 
Mississippi, but will be equally incensed when a Negro is denied the 
right to live in his neighborhood.”

On this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, it’s tempting to focus on the 
glaring human rights abuses, racist fear-mongering and malfeasance 
happening at the federal level. But taking seriously Dr. King’s critique 
of Northern liberalism means also calling out liberal public officials 
and residents who profess commitments to equality yet maintain a corrupt 
criminal justice system and a segregated school system. It means calling 
out Northern newspapers, along with Southern ones, to atone for their 
skewed civil rights coverage. And it means reckoning with the dangers of 
“polite” racism, as Dr. King warned, which still rings true today.

Dr. King visited New York City throughout the 1960s and called attention 
to its racial problems. In Harlem in 1963, he spoke to an audience of 
some 15,000 white people as City College’s commencement speaker. Fewer 
than 2 percent of the graduates that day were black, giving visual proof 
to his admonition that the “de facto segregation of the North was as 
injurious as the legal segregation of the South.”

The next year, in a TV interview after the Harlem uprising, Dr. King 
called for “an honest, soul-searching analysis and evaluation of the 
environmental causes which have spawned the riots,” which started after 
the police killed 15-year-old Jimmy Powell. Dr. King was nearly run out 
of town when he dared to suggest that New York would benefit from a 
Civilian Complaint Review Board to oversee the Police Department.

In 1964, Dr. King refused to condemn the Brooklyn chapter of the 
Congress of Racial Equality’s plan to create a major disruption by 
stalling cars on highways that led to the World’s Fair at Flushing 
Meadows. After all, the goal was to draw attention to rampant inequality 
in the city, which had long been unaddressed. “If our direct action 
programs alienate so-called friends,” he wrote to in a letter to civil 
rights leaders, “they never were really our friends.”

Indeed, mainstream newspapers lauded his work in the South but took 
issue when he brought the same tactics north. In 1967, Dr. King and the 
Southern Christian Leadership Conference announced the need for mass 
disruption in Northern cities to draw attention to longstanding 
inequalities. The New York Times criticized the idea as “certain to 
aggravate the angry division of whites and Negroes into warring camps,” 
part of the paper’s long history of deploring direct action on home turf.

Three years earlier, when 460,000 New York City students stayed out of 
school to demand a comprehensive school desegregation plan — making it 
the largest civil rights demonstration of the decade — The Times called 
the daylong boycott “unreasonable,” “unjustified” and “violent.”

After the Watts uprising, Dr. King focused on the racial dishonesty of 
the North which “showered praise on the heroism of Southern Negroes.” 
But concerning local conditions, “only the language was polite; the 
rejection was firm and unequivocal.” The uneven attention was clear, he 
noted: “As the nation, Negro and white, trembled with outrage at police 
brutality in the South, police misconduct in the North was rationalized, 
tolerated and usually denied.”

Dr. King also highlighted white people’s illegal behavior that helped 
produced Northern ghettos: The white man “flagrantly violates building 
codes and regulations, his police make a mockery of law, and he violates 
laws on equal employment and education and the provisions for civic 
services,” he said in an address to the American Psychological 
Association in 1967.

In his 1967 book “Where Do We Go From Here,” Dr. King noted the limits 
of Northern liberalism: “Negroes have proceeded from a premise that 
equality means what it says.” “But most whites in America, including 
many of good will,” he wrote “proceed from a premise that equality is a 
loose expression for improvement. White America is not even 
psychologically organized to close the gap.”

That still holds true. In 2014, the Civil Rights Project at U.C.L.A. 
found that New York State’s schools were the most segregated in the 
nation. Low-income students of color languish in underfunded schools 
while wealthier students attend better-resourced ones. And white parents 
are still tremendously resistant to school rezoning, just as they were 
50 years ago.

And discriminatory policing persists. Despite Mayor Bill de Blasio’s 
“Mission Accomplished” narrative, police officers continue to use 
stop-and-frisk in a way that’s racially disparate. Now, many of the 
stops simply go unreported. The Police Department, despite court 
decisions, continues to disparately monitor Muslim communities, and it 
has reportedly surveilled Black Lives Matter activists.

At the same time, many people have condemned the disruptive tactics of 
Black Lives Matter activists, claiming they should be more like Dr. King.

In April 1963, Dr. King sat alone in the Birmingham jail. He knew the 
rabid side of white supremacy very intimately. And yet he wrote that 
“the white moderate, who is more devoted to order than to justice,” was 
more of an impediment than “the White Citizens Counciler or the Ku Klux 

For too long, order has been more important than justice. We can honor 
Dr. King’s legacy by taking uncomfortable, disruptive, far-reaching 
action to remedy the problems to which he devoted his life.

Jeanne Theoharis is a professor of political science at Brooklyn College 
and the author of, most recently, “A More Beautiful and Terrible 
History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History.”

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