Monday, January 17, 2011

Rick Perlstein wants us to remember that Martin Luther King Jr., so casually lionized today, was far from lionized while he was alive


Dr. King led this protest outside City Hall in Chicago in 1966.

by Ken

Every Martin Luther King Day, our friend Rick Perlstein bristles at the sanctimonious pro forma tributes to Dr. King, like this from President Obama: "Half a century ago, America was moved by a young preacher who called a generation to action..."

"No, Mr. President," Rick writes, "the preponderance of white Americans, and much of the black establishment, despised him half a century ago." And Rick recalls a pair of posts he wrote in June 2008 -- and even then, he explained at the start of the first post, "The Meaning of Box 722," that "for at least six months now" he had been "planning, and putting off, this post." His hand was finally forced, he wrote, by "the imminent occasion of the first African American major-party nominee."

The post consisted of selected annotated selections from the mass of material he found in "Box 722," a tiny bit of the vast hoard of papers of the late Sen. Paul Douglas housed in what was then known as the Chicago Historical Society, which he perused when he was researching the senator's unsuccessful reelection campaign of 1966 while he was working on Nixonland, his landmark history of the conservative ascendancy that took began taking shape surprisingly quickly after Lyndon Johnson's landslide victory over Barry Goldwater in 1964 -- so "gigantic" that "it appeared to pundits the Republican Party would be forever consigned to the outer darkness if it ever entertained a Goldwater-style conservative law-and-order platform again."

But a startling turnaround was already evident in the '66 midterm elections, when --
most of the new liberal congressmen swept in on LBJ's coattails -- the congressional class that gave us Medicare and Medicaid, the first serious environmental legislation, National Endowments for the Humanities and Arts, Head Start, the Voting Rights Act, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the end of racist immigration quotas, Legal Aid, and more -- was swept out on a tide of popular reaction.

And an important part of that turnaround, Rick felt, was attributable to white backlash against the civil-rights uprising, most emphatically including the part of it under the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr. "In the summer of 1966," Rick reminded us, "as debate over open housing raged in Congress -- which, if Chicago did, would be a first. It was the most segregated city in the north." What had brought him to Chicago? "[A] teenager answering a job ad walked over the border from Chicago into the all-white city of Cicero, and for that sin and no other was beaten to death."

Box 722 of the Douglas papers contains mail the Senator received that year on the subject of open housing and the King visit to Chicago. Those letters, Rick wrote, "comprise an unmatched emotional history on how the white middle class built by the New Deal learned to vote Republican."

Here's one, written in March 1965, while the Voting Rights Act was being debated:
I am white and am praying that you vote against open housing in the consideration of Equal Rights.

Just because the negro refuses to live among his own race -- that alone should give you the answer.

I was forced to sell my home in Chicago ('Lawndale') at a big loss because of the negroes taking over Lawndale -- their morals are the lowest (and supported financially by Mayor Daley as you well know) -- and the White Race by law.

Please don't take away our bit of peace and freedom to choose our neighbors.

What did Luther King mean when he faced the nation on TV New Year's day -- announcing he will not be satisfied until the wealth of America is more evenly divided?

Sounds like Communism to Americans. 'Freedom for all' -- including the white race, Please!

As he read the letters in Box 722, Rick wrote , "I felt like I was peering into the dark soul of America to a depth I'd never thought possible." Here's another:
Recently we members of the Marquette Park area of Chicago witnessed violence over the so called subject of civil rights. Since the Civil Rights Act Act was passed all we have seen is violence, riots, and general defiance of the laws of our land by the Negro population under the guise of this nebulous term, civil rights. When is the Congress going to wake up to the fact that it cannot legislate morals or love?

"We white people have taken a lot from the Negro. We have been patient, and now find ourselves pushed up against a wall by groups that feel it is their God given right to have our property. We have worked hard and saved to get what we now own. Because we do work hard and wish to maintain our property are we to be denied the right to dispose of our property as we see fit? Is the ultimate aim the same as the Soviet Union when all property was collectivized. . . .

The Civil Rights legislation amendment that which deals with the so-called open occupancy law is disgusting and makes me almost ashamed to admit that it has been proposed in America. All this civil rights legislation is un-American.

There's much more, in this and a follow-up post from 2008. I'm leaving out most of the guts of Rick's argument.

Nevertheless, let me jump to this summation:
Here is the fundamental tragedy of the backlash: Voters like this empowered a party that decided they didn't need protection against predatory subprime mortgage fraud. Didn't need affordable, universal health insurance; made it easier for companies to rape their pensions; kept on going back to the well to destroy their Social Security; worked avidly to shred their union protections. Fought, in fact, every decent and wise social provision that made it possible in the first place for mere factory workers to live in glorious Chicago bungalows, or suburban homes, in the first place.

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