50 years on: Is MLK’s work done, or not?

That would seem to be the question separating left and right today as they look back on the March on Washington 50 years ago.

For some days now, writers in The Wall Street Journal have been trying to head off what they expected Barack Obama and other Democrats to say today. For instance, John McWhorter wrote this morning:

On the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, we will hear a good deal about how life in this country for black Americans has not changed as much as Martin Luther King Jr. might have wished….

It is easy to forget what an awesome moral landmark it was for an oppressed group to force the larger society to outlaw barriers to its success. But the victory of the 1964 and 1965 laws had an even greater impact than prohibiting segregation and racial discrimination in voter registration: It changed the culture. Personal racist sentiment rapidly became socially proscribed. The Norman Lear sitcoms of the early 1970s, in which bigoted whites were regularly held up to ridicule, would have been unthinkable just 10 years before….

(I)n recent years, the black middle class has flourished. Housing segregation for blacks is the lowest it has been since the 1920s. And a black president has been elected twice. Yet the fury persists, since what actually rankles these critics is the threat to what they feel is their very identity: underdogs with a bone to pick.

This is not where the March on Washington was pointing us. There is work left, but we are free at last. No, we aren’t living in a “post-racial” America, but that fantasy will never be realized. What we black Americans are free to do, in a permanently imperfect world, is shape our own destiny together.

As folks on the right predicted, the president today spoke of how far we have yet to go:

Taking the lectern, the nation’s first African American president paid homage to King’s legacy, saying that “because they kept marching, America changed.” But Obama warned that the struggle for equality is not yet complete, adding that “the arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice, but it doesn’t bend on its own.”

“To secure the gains this country has made requires constant vigilance, not complacency,” Obama said. He cited as setbacks the Supreme Court’s decision in June to strike key provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the high rates of African American incarceration…

There is justice on both sides of the argument.

A couple of days ago, in his “Best of the Web” feature at WSJ.com, James Taranto mocked Bloomberg’s Margaret Carlson for writing, after she saw “The Butler:”

“I wish Chief Justice John Roberts and four of his Supreme Court colleagues would see [‘The Butler’], too. Maybe it will help them understand how wrong they got it when they recently decided that we are so far past Jim Crow that we can dispense with a central provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.”

As Taranto notes, that is a bogus statement on several levels, the greatest of which being that depictions of life on a cotton farm in the 1930s are hardly a guide to the racial landscape of the country today. Another is that doing away with pre-clearance requirement applying to parts of the country that today have greater minority voter participation than parts that are not subject to such requirements somehow dispenses with “a central provision” of the Voting Rights Act.

Every “central provision” in the act is still in force. Complaints of violations of the Act can still be brought. All that goes away is the assumption, codified into law, that people who live in certain geographic locations — this county, but not the one next to it — are guilty of discrimination until proven innocent.

It’s bogus when she says it, and it was bogus when the president cited it as evidence that we have not come far enough. On the contrary, the justices did away with the requirement precisely because we have come so far.

I particularly like Mr. McWhorter’s assertion that the victories of the civil rights movement “changed the culture.” About 20 years ago, historian Walter Edgar and I went out to lunch together, and while standing in line, we witnessed a fairly routine, friendly exchange between a white cashier and a black customer. After we left, Walter started talking about how we took such interactions for granted, when they would have been almost unimaginable at a time within living memory.

I thought back to that just the other day, when I witnessed a white man giving way, in a courtly manner, to a couple of black ladies in a public place. There was nothing unusual about it, and that’s the miracle. Within my lifetime, that likely would not have happened.

Now, on the other hand…

The president rightly cites such disturbing vital signs as the high rates of black incarceration, the high black unemployment rate, and other signs of a demographic group lagging behind, even as legal barriers have disappeared and everyday cultural habits have changed radically.

That is the bitter legacy of the century between the Emancipation Proclamation and Dr. King’s speech.

The huge, continuing argument in our politics will continue to be over what we should do about it.

35 thoughts on “50 years on: Is MLK’s work done, or not?

  1. FParker

    Did anyone else notice that the nation’s only black Senator wasn’t invited to speak? Could it be because he’s a Republican?

    1. Silence

      Extra suprising because many of the worst racists of MLK’s time were Democrats, particularly Southern Democrats. Now we have the two most prominent Southern Democrat politicians – Former Presidents Clinton and Carter up on stage leading a political rally – and current President Obama ginning up sentiment for the next election cycle…

      Frankly, I got so sick of hearing about this anniversary that I finally started to change the radio station every time NPR talked about it. I’ll bet they devoted over one billion hours this month to it.

  2. Mark Stewart

    Probably because he was appointed? Given that this was a populist remembrance it isn’t surprising that Senator Scott would not have been invited – if indeed he was not.

    On the other hand, I am sure that Sen. Scott is acutely aware that his most ardent supporters are the sort of people who would have most likely been the ones opposing the 1950s-60s civil rights movement. He may not have wanted to attend this remembrance – as a political figure – whatever his personal inclinations may be (and those are his alone).

    Still, it is a credit to his base that he is a popular political figure today.

    1. Bryan Caskey

      Wait, what?

      Senator Scott “doesn’t count” as an actual black man because he was appointed rather than elected? He’s still a senator, right? He’s still black, right? He’s still an example of someone who can succeed, right? Is he a second class citizen? Does being appointed make him “less black” or less qualified to discuss racial progress? He’s the nation’s only black senator. Sounds like he’s eminently qualified to talk.

      And how is it a “populist” remembrance? I thought it was a remembrance of a man’s speech about racial equality and people being judged by the “content of their character”. Please explain.

      I have a dream, that one day black Republicans won’t be turned into nonpersons by the establishment. Modern “civil rights” isn’t about skin color anymore. It’s now about the slant of one’s politics. If you’re a black republican, you don’t “count”.

    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      I just now got Mark’s pun: He’s “a credit to his base.”

      Tim Scott, near as I can tell, is “popular” and will cruise to easy re-election because he doesn’t do anything. So far, he occupies that time-honored position held over the years by Strom Thurmond, Floyd Spence and now Joe Wilson — a guy who proves just how conservative he is by not making his mark in any way in Washington. Along with his fellow members of the Tea Party congressional class, he’s a dependable vote for that worldview, and that’s about it.

      Unless he’s been doing some remarkable things that I’m missing.

      Meanwhile, Lindsey Graham works hard, takes risks, leads, scrambles in an effort to tackle some of the nation’s most intractable problems — and the same people who love Scott for doing nothing fall all over themselves trying to get rid of him.

      1. Silence

        Lindsey Graham – who doesn’t give a rat’s behind what his constituents think. Who doesn’t even bother to schedule meetings with them when the Senate is in recess. Glad we have him representing us. Papa Linds will do what’s best for you, don’t you worry.

        We should pass a state residency requirement that all elected officials spend at least 50% of the nights in the district they represent. Shorten up the congressional season to under six months. Get ’em back outside the beltway for a while. I think we’d all be better off for it.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          And see, I want him spending his time up there doing the job. I want them all up there doing the job.

          I don’t know where this meme about Graham not coming back to SC came from. I see notices of him being down here quite frequently. I think he spoke to my (former) Rotary Club recently — as did Tim Scott (if I hadn’t had a conflict, I would have attended the Scott one as a guest, because I’ve never met him).

          Yeah, elected representatives should go home sometimes. But when I look at Congress, I don’t see a bunch of people who are doing such a great job and have things so well in hand that they can spend half their time back home politicking — or worse, going to OTHER people’s districts and home states and politicking for THEM, which is none of their business.

          1. Silence

            My point is that once elected, we essentially end up with 100 senators and 435 congressmen from the District of Columbia. If you like them sitting up there making national decisions, fine, but if you want them to represent a specific state or district, we would be better served if they actually reside in that district.

          2. Brad Warthen Post author

            Yes, I do want them up there making decisions in the interest of the entire country.

            It’s a prejudice of mine, against parochialism.

            I want legislators making decisions in the interests of the entire state.

            I want county council members passing ordinances for the benefit of the whole county, not their particular neighborhoods.

            I don’t like narrowness — ideological or geographic. I don’t want people representing parties, or narrow constituencies. When you’re making laws that affect an entire nation, or state, or county, that needs to be your orientation.

          3. Bryan Caskey

            Ok, but it’s a bad thing for elected officials to go out of their district/state to help other officials that share their views? I’m not sure how you square your two ideas, there.

          4. Brad Warthen Post author

            I don’t like demographic narrowness, either. I think our racial gerrymandering of districts is a bad thing.

            Lawmakers should not see themselves as representing mainly black people, or white people (and you get both when you force all the black voters into a few districts). Or Polish people. Or Irish people.

            Or women, for those who see themselves as standard-bearers for a gender. Fortunately, you don’t get that too often with men. You know how men are — all out for themselves…

          5. Silence

            Of course the congress has a duty to legislate in the interest of the entire country. I’m not sure that they do a good job of that, which we frequently debate. The point is that our system of representative government was designed for a representative to be from a particular place, to represent the interests of that place, while keeping in mind the needs of the country. Most congressmen or senators spend very little time in their home districts or states, and if they aren’t there, how can they know how the prevailing winds are blowing back home. I’d actually like to know how much time they spend at home vs. in DC.

          6. Brad Warthen Post author

            Bryan writes: “Ok, but it’s a bad thing for elected officials to go out of their district/state to help other officials that share their views? I’m not sure how you square your two ideas, there.”

            To answer that…

            Yes, I dislike that. And my problem revolves around that “share their views” bit.

            This speaks to my utter disdain for parties.

            Except in rare circumstances, such as when someone has proven time and again to be a real-life friend and ally (I think of the practical friendships between Lindsey Graham and John McCain, or between Joe Biden and Fritz Hollings back in the day), that “share their views” thing tends to be a shallow, partisan thing.

            One of my big problems with parties is that they oversimplify issues in order to form coalitions. They boil ideas down to lowest common denominators, and force any square pegs out there in the marketplace of ideas into their round holes. Things have to be dumbed down.

            The rationale for going to some other state where you know nothing about the people or their local issues and try to tell them whom to vote for is that you adhere to one of these cookie-cutter ideologies, and so does that candidate you’re supporting. The motivation tends to be that you’re trying to keep this party or that party in power, or help it gain power (or worse, if you’re a Jim DeMint or a Nikki Haley, some particular WING of a party). And for me, those are not worthy goals. Trying to form majorities of people who have surrendering independence of mind in order to fit themselves into those round holes is bad for the republic.

            Of course, there can be legitimate goals in the congressional context — someone has taken a big political risk to support you on an important issue, such as comprehensive immigration reform, and you want to help him justify his position to his constituents, and you think you have a realistic chance of doing so.

            Probably the very WORST form of this kind of thing is what we saw this week with Nikki Haley appearing with other governors who are ideologically like her. Governors have NOTHING to do with each other. Their responsibilities don’t overlap. They don’t deliberate or negotiate together. They govern entirely separate realms, and each of them is different in important ways.

            To stand there as a national movement, supporting the election of similar-minded governors in state after state, seems to me the most mindless and pointless kind of ideological willfulness — ideology for its own sake, not toward any practical purpose that serves the interests of the people in those states. It’s like, rah-rah, let’s win another one so we can say we did.

          7. Silence

            This has NOTHING to do with parties – and everything to do with people having access to their elected representatives.

        2. Bart

          Last week if not mistaken, I received an invite from Graham to participate in a teleconference call with other residents of the state. Now, I am not a registered Republican and refuse to register as one or as a Democrat. Just wondering, how many others received the same invitation and how many participated. I didn’t but in afterthought, I should have and should have voiced my opinion on the issues I disagree with.

          Rep. Rice does the same thing and my wife participated in one teleconference call and for the most part, she said it was beneficial. She is a moderate to the core and based on her evaluation of the call, it was beneficial if, and it is a big IF, the comments are taken to heart by Rep. Rice and action taken that reflects the wishes of his constituents.

      2. Bryan Caskey

        If your biggest complaint is that he hasn’t “done anything” that’s not really that much of a criticism, given that he’s been in the Senate for less than a year. He’s co-sponsored 50 different Senate bills, and sponsored 2. What do you want?

        What has Graham done that’s soooo amazing in his 10 years? He’s an excellent questioner in hearings, but so are half the lawyers I know. He’s gone on lots of Sunday shows and given his opinion on stuff. Great. He definitely takes positions contrary to the base. Ok, he’s a moderate. But so what? According to your test, I still don’t see a big history of “accomplishments”.

        Having said all that, the Senate (or Congress in general) ain’t exactly the place to look for tangible accomplishments from anyone.

    3. Juan Caruso

      “Probably because he was appointed?” – Mark S.

      Which might only be relevant to someone who has mentioned the distinction before, and who doubts Sen. Scott’s re-election prospects. Unless you are tied in with Fitts News’ stringers, what makes you doubt Scott’s prospects? Do you often rub shoulders often with members of SC’s bar (DNC boosters)? Monies to defeat Scott will come from outsise SC by a huge margin (perhaps almost as large as those funding Sheheen’s).

      1. Mark Stewart

        I don’t know whether Sen. Scott is re-electable or not. My guess would be that he is. I am just not sure that is a positive – unless you are asking whether he is a better Senator than Jim DeMint.

        Actually, what I think I have said before is that gerrymandering districts has lead this state down an unfortunate path. Graham is the best of the nine people who we have elected, probably by a long shot. And he is still forced to take ridiculous positions to placate the right-wing heard. None of the Congressmen we have could likely ever win a fairly contested district. What is funny about that is that even without the interference the state would remain a red state – we would just all end up with a better sort of politician representing our state. Instead, we give lifelong positions to seriously under-qualified candidates who advocate for nothing that would advance our state – and nation – in any meaningful way.

        And Juan, wake up. Money pours into SC politics from outside specifically because the rest of the country sees the Palmetto State as a playground for influence. Across the entire political spectrum we are treated as pawns. Bleating about one group’s influence (liberal attorneys in your case) just plays into that game.

  3. Bart

    Once again, you need to watch the interview Sander Vanocur had with Dr. Martin Luther King about the dream. It is very revealing and Dr. King reached an understanding about the difference between a dream and the reality of realizing it cannot be achieved easily.


    Like it or not, human nature, black, white, or any racial group identity will always harbor prejudices and bigotry against other groups or individuals to one degree or another. We have taken the word “racist” and misapplied it to true bigotry. I met an African American couple in Hobby Lobby a couple of weeks ago. The gentleman is retired from UPS and lives in Sumter now. We started talking about the Tuskegee Airmen and one of his relatives is one of the last survivors of the group. From there it went to other issues and finally into the problem of racism and how the word is becoming almost meaningless because it is drawn and used by Sharpton, Jackson, and others the way a fast draw gunslinger drew his 45 in the old West.

    Bigotry, not racism, should be the evil we go after because as he said and I believe, racism will always be with us but a bigoted mind or attitude can be changed. You may not agree with me but now when I hear the racist accusation thrown around, it has lost most if not all of its meaning. When a rodeo clown wears a mask of the president as part of his act just as he had done with Reagan, Clinton, and Bush II, is accused of being a racist and his clown act considered a hate crime by the race baiters, it truly is time to stop and rethink where we are.

  4. FParker

    Does the King family still earn royalties every time the I Have a Dream speech is played? If so they likely made enough money today to finally pay for some of those repairs that the King Center has needed. Or is this still the responsibility of the parks department? This day would mean more to people had it not been overly commercialized as it has, it’s all about the money now.

    1. barry

      Yes they do – it’s copyrighted.

      However, most of the time showing a few seconds of such a thing doesn’t earn anyone any royalties. That’s why you see short segments – not the entire thing.

      But NBC has played it in it’s entirely about 10 times in the last 2 days. So they are glad to pay for it.

  5. bud

    If you like them sitting up there making national decisions, fine,

    Silence, you’re way better than that comment. Of course they should be up there making decisions based on the national interest. That’s why they call them United States Senators or Representatives.

    1. Doug Ross

      They aren’t up there making decisions. They are up there making connections to line their own pockets. They are up there to be wined and dined by lobbyists. They are up there to make excessive regulations and tax codes that do more harm than good.

      The job of a representative shouldn’t be a full time position.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        No, actually, they’re not “up there making connections to line their own pockets” and “to be wined and dined by lobbyists.”

        I never felt like Pollyanna until I met Doug…

        1. Doug Ross

          Really, Brad.. you ought to come down from the clouds into the real world sometime.

          I could point you to, maybe, a thousand links showing factual evidence of lobbying activity by our Congressmen.

          The stories about John Boehner alone are enough to fill many books.

          Your boy Lindsey Graham probably spends more time with representatives of defense contractors than his constituents.

  6. Doug Ross

    Do you think there is no need to have an ethics commission watching over those gallant patriots in office?

      1. Doug Ross

        Scanning the most recent donors list is an exercise in understanding just how much guys like Lindsey Graham are bought and paid for.

        $2600 from Sheldon Adelson of Las Vegas, NV. $2600 from Miriam Adelson of Las Vegas NV. $2600 from Shelly Adelson of Las Vegas NV. Notice a trend? Now what sort of benefit would a Senator from South Carolina be able to give to a billionaire casino owner?

        More than half of his donors are from outside SC.

        There are 29 CEO’s who have contributed at least $2500 (along with matching donations from many of their spouses). Are you that naive to believe they expect nothing for their donations?


  7. bud

    Maybe that’s why SCANA was able to charge it’s customers exorbitant rates in order to build $10b nuclear reactors while the stockholders risked nothing but stand to profit handsomely. I agree that lobbying has gotten way out of hand.

    1. Mark Stewart

      If my choices are SCANA constructing the first modern nuclear plants in 30 yrs or the State of SC continuing to (mis)manage the other large utility that remains focused on band-aiding obsolescent dirty coal plants, I will take the former.

      What the state should be doing is mandating alternative energy procurement policies for both utilities. Solar farms in particular…

  8. Kathryn Fenner

    Hey, Brad, how’s about an Open Thread for the weekend?

    We are off to eastern NC to get a rescued Weimaraner friend for our Lucy! Hope there isn’t much traffic today!

  9. Doug Ross

    The State has an article today about the huge increases in campaign donations to the leadership of the S.C.


    “Money buys access, if not support, said Sue Berkowitz, executive director of the S.C. Appleseed Legal Justice Center, a group that lobbies lawmakers on behalf of the state’s poor and low-income residents but is barred, as a nonprofit, from giving campaign contributions.

    Leaders of key committees and caucuses — who decide what legislation is considered by the General Assembly — are beneficiaries of groups vying to control legislation through their donations, political observers say.”

    Anyone who pays attention knows politics is about money.


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