(Note: This essay was originally published in two segments by the Newport Daily News, RI, on February 1 and February 2, 2021. It was subsequently published on the History News Network on February 14, 2021.)
In his final book before his assassination, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” (Beacon Press, 1968) Martin Luther King, Jr.’s scope is broad and ambitious. Not only does he take on racism and injustice in the U.S., but he also grapples with these issues and more on the international level. More than this, he challenges us not only to think with our minds but also to feel with our hearts and souls.
King finished writing the book in early 1967, as the country was spiraling downward into the disunity and discord of the late 1960s. His overall purpose is never clarified in the opening chapter; therefore, it becomes clear that his purpose is to answer the question in his title: where does our country go from here—chaos or community?
Clearly one of his most important purposes is to challenge those African Americans who advocate “Black Power,” the movement gaining strength at the time, which was much more militant than King’s movement of nonviolence.
After his introductory chapter, “Where Are We?” surveying the status of blacks in the mid-1960s, he devotes his entire second chapter—the longest in the book—to dissecting the Black Power movement and systematically presenting his counter-arguments. King remains steadfast in his belief in nonviolence: “Occasionally in life one develops a conviction so precious and meaningful that he will stand on it till the end. This is what I have found in nonviolence.”
In addition to Black Power and nonviolence, King deals with the concepts and issues of racism, justice, freedom, segregation, discrimination, poverty, and white fear, resistance, and backlash—a full agenda indeed.
He begins to define the central concept of racism by quoting others. George Kelsey: “Racism is a faith …a form of idolatry…an ideological justification for the constellations of political and economic power.” “…the idea of the superior race….”
He quotes Ruth Benedict: “…the dogma that one ethnic group is condemned by nature to hereditary inferiority and another group …superiority.”
King settles on a definition of racism as the “arrogant assertion that one race is the center of value and object of devotion, before which other races must kneel in submission,” eventually abridging his definition to simply “the myth of inferior peoples.”
In terms of diction, King’s word choice for blacks is “Negro” and “Negroes,” phrases that are now anachronistic and offensive. Also surprising and less understandable is his virtually total male vocabulary. He speaks always in male terms, using “he” and “him,” never “she” and “her;” “man” and never “woman.” The only time he even references women is in his brief section on the Negro family.
The main issue King addresses is the continuing racism and injustice in America, resulting in continued discrimination, exploitation, and poverty for blacks. Despite some notable progress after the protests, boycotts, demonstrations, and even landmark federal legislation of the mid-1960s (e.g., Civil Rights Act of 1964, Voting Rights Act of 1965) a significant gap remains between the demands of the law and its full and genuine implementation.
“White America was ready to demand that the Negro should be spared the lash of brutality and coarse degradation, but it had never been truly committed to helping him out of poverty, exploitation, or all forms of discrimination.” King asserts: “The daily life of the Negro is still lived in the basement of the Great Society.”
The greatest responsibility for this injustice he places in the hands of whites. “In short, white America must assume the guilt for the black man’s inferior status.”
Even though whites bear the major blame, King maintains that the solutions for these problems must come from both white and black America. He states: “Negroes hold only one key to the double lock of peaceful change. The other is in the hands of the white community.”
In terms of programs, King is clear on its size and focus. America needs a “radical reordering of national priorities” so that a “massive program” can be implemented to provide either guaranteed employment or income, allowing dignity “to come within reach for all.” To ensure its achievement, a timetable should be established.
To those who might question the justification for such a program, King states: “A society that has done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years must now do something special for him, in order to equip him to compete on a just and equal basis.”
Martin Luther King eventually turns his sights on black America. King argues that the overall strategy must be nonviolent agitation, even using the word “coercion.” It needs better leaders of character, fewer blacks who remain “aloof” on the sidelines, and more political activism by better organized groups who understand the importance of alliances, all combining to bring the necessary power to effect real change.
Suggested by the pages he devotes to it and the emphasis he places on it, King’s second main purpose in writing the book is to make the argument for his strategy of nonviolence and challenge the strategy of Black Power. While conceding that Black Power was gaining strength, he states: “Black Power has proved to be a slogan without a program, and with an uncertain following.” … “… no new alternatives to nonviolence within the movement have found viable expression.”
In his final chapter, King fulfills his third main purpose by raising his sights from the national level to the international level.While fighting the national crusade against injustice, he calls on all nations to recognize their interdependence, that we are all part of the “world house.” Technology and progress have brought us closer, making us all neighbors now. He summons us to develop a “passionate commitment” to fight the “giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism.” To accomplish this, the “wealthy nations of the world must promptly initiate a massive, sustained Marshall Plan for Asia, Africa, and South America.”
King wrote this book not only with his mind but also with his heart and soul. Thus, the most challenging aspect of reading the book is that we hear King speaking with two different voices: the political realist analyzing the politics of racism and injustice in America, but also the passionate preacher touching our hearts and souls and calling all of us to a higher moral and spiritual plane. The former is concerned with politics and power; the latter is concerned with empathy and love.
In the middle of the second chapter on “Black Power,” this duality first shows itself. “The problem of transforming the ghetto is … a problem of power—a confrontation between the forces of power demanding change and the forces of power dedicated to preserving the status quo.” But then he speaks of love. “In this sense power is not only desirable but necessary in order to implement the demands of love and justice.”
On the next page, he states: “What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.” He defines the “collision of immoral power with powerless morality” as “the major crisis of our times.”
In ending his chapter rejecting Black Power, he states: “It will be power infused with love and justice, that will change dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows, and lift us from the fatigue of despair to the buoyancy of hope. A dark, desperate, confused and sin-sick world waits for this new kind of man and this new kind of power.”
In ending his next chapter on “Racism and White Backlash,” he states: “Man-made laws assure justice, but a higher law produces love.” He continues “…something must touch the hearts and souls of men so that they will come together spiritually because it is natural and right.”
In his final chapter on racism in the U.S., “Where We Are Going,” we hear the political realist first: An oppressed people realizes deliverance comes “when they have accumulated the power to enforce change.” He states that this is simply “mature realism,” and urges us to get the order right: “We have to put the horse (power) before the cart (programs).”
He continues: “Our nettlesome task is to discover how to organize our strength into compelling power so that government cannot elude our demands.”
He eventually uses military language: The movement must become a “crusade.” “Recognizing that no army can mobilize and demobilize and remain a fighting unit, we will have to build far-flung workmanlike and experienced organizations in the future ….” He states that “responsible militant organizations” are “indispensable” to the struggle.
However, to end the book he uses the voice of the passionate preacher. He quotes Arnold Toynbee: “Love is the ultimate force that makes for the saving choice of life and good against the damning choice of death and evil. Therefore the first hope in our inventory must be the hope that love is going to have the last word.”
He then returns and challenges us with the central issue of his book: the choice between nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation; between community or chaos. He also leaves us to judge whether these two worldviews, one of power and one of love, are indeed complementary or contradictory.
Contributing editor Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor of history and politics at Salve Regina University. He is writing a book on The Challenge of American Civilization.