Martin Luther King Essay 2014 Florida

The moral authority now almost universally accorded the Civil Rights Act and the movement that inspired it has not foreclosed, perhaps indeed has intensified, controversy over the law’s meaning and operation.At the surface, those controversies concern race classifications in public policy.“Negroes must not only have the right to go into any establishment open to the public,” King insisted, “but they must also be absorbed into our economic system [so] that they can afford to exercise that right.”[4] As Professor Allen notes, President Lyndon Johnson expressed the idea with blunt simplicity at Howard University in 1965: “freedom is not enough… but equality as a fact and equality as a result.”[5] By conceiving of rights ultimately in terms of substantive, distributive outcomes, Professor Allen charges, King implicitly adopted an incoherent and demoralizing idea of the human person, the bearer of the rights for which he contended.

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Professor Allen’s closing comments indirectly suggest that amid that zeal may be a Machiavellian sort of ambition.

To conceive of his people as suffering the depth of degradation and disability would certainly appeal to one who, seeking the glory proper to the founder of new orders, understood that the greatest glory would belong to one who led his people in rising from the lowest beginnings.

Viewed by reference to the latter terms of debate, King appears clearly as a proponent of structural explanations of black disadvantage.

In that same passage quoted from (1967), he contended that the “root” of that disadvantage was “pervasive and persistent economic want” and that a “fair opportunity for jobs, education, housing and access to culture” would suffice as a remedy.

With those remedies in place, he predicted, “[T]he decline in school dropouts, family breakups, crime rates, illegitimacy, swollen relief rolls and other social evils would stagger the imagination.”[8] It seems safe to observe that experience has not vindicated King’s optimism.

For present purposes, however, a more fruitful inquiry concerns why King was so optimistic about the prospects for a prompt transformation of the condition of impoverished blacks, given the seeming pessimism that Professor Allen notices in his account of the black “dilemma.” King was deeply impressed by the damage that centuries of subjection to injustice had cumulatively wrought.

However debilitating and demoralizing the long subjection to the regime of white supremacy in its various forms, that experience did not destroy blacks’ power of taking action in their own cause.

In his “Dream” speech, King celebrated “the marvelous new militancy” that had re-emerged among blacks in the mid-20th century.[10] The spirit of protest against injustice was the one thing needful in the circumstances, he believed, because creative, affecting protest was the precondition for salutary governmental action, and salutary governmental action was the precondition for the development of a fuller range of virtues, or modes of self-elevating agency, among blacks.

Given the virtually unrivaled moral authority accorded King by 21st century Americans, Professor Allen’s concluding judgment of him—“King . King aspired to be America’s refounder, aiming to bind the nation in a new, truly universalist spirit of “community” and thereby to ward off the “chaos” that loomed in the mid-through-late 1960s.

He ultimately failed in that grand enterprise, Professor Allen contends, because he endeavored to refound America on a flawed understanding of rights—on principles, that is, whose strongest tendency is rather to deepen the divisions among us than to strengthen our sense of community or common humanity.


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