Today, The National Memo brings you an excerpt from Waking from the Dream: The Struggle for Civil Rights in the Shadow of Martin Luther King, Jr. by David L Chappell, professor of Modern American History at The University of Oklahoma. Chappell pays tribute to Dr. King’s legacy, as well as the accomplishments of other civil rights leaders after his death in 1968.
You can purchase the book here.
Martin Luther King’s assassination marks a great turning point in American memory. In retrospect his death often appears to be the tragic, sudden end of the triumphal story of progress in civil rights, a story that Americans associate with King’s career. After the major victories of the civil rights movement in the mid-1960s, most Americans remember a dreary story from that point forward: a story of dire rhetoric over incremental bureaucratic and judicial changes in affirmative action and racial redistricting, punctuated by seemingly random flare-ups, such as the Atlanta riot of 1980, the Rodney King beating and subsequent Los Angeles riot of 1992, and the O. J. Simpson trial of 1995. There is no heroic narrative of those post-King years to match the narrative that unfolded in the King years: no tendency of the plot to run from dramatic showdown in the streets to redemptive national legislation. There is no pattern of exposing evils leading to crisis leading to remedial steps. In other words, there is no rhythm like the one that appeared to propel events from Montgomery to Selma in the 1950s and 1960s, a rhythm of long-unrequited hopes of freedom finally resolving in national recognition and substantial fulfillment. After the unraveling of the movement, the times have no trajectory, ever being corrected, toward redemption of the full promise of American life—liberty and justice for all. The post-King years in the history of race, rights, and freedom appear rather to lurch aimlessly—the movement directionless, if not entirely stagnant.
As I attempted to take a fresh look at the post-King era, several episodes emerged as uniquely revealing, misunderstood, and undervalued in our history. These events added up to a richer, more fascinating, and more significant post-King era than has been previously recognized. The episodes in this book show that those years were full of ferment and vital experimentation in civil rights. Though some of the experiments failed, the failures proved as instructive and as important as foundations for future progress as the previous generation’s successes.
Many devoted and courageous Americans took up Martin Luther King’s unfinished business when he died. Over the next several years, they struggled to complete his work—or the work his name symbolized to them—in creative, often unexpected ways, in response to shifting circumstances. Again and again they invoked King’s name as they strove to continue and often to correct the course on which King had led a generally resistant America. Some of them succeeded in extending the principle of desegregation to the private housing market. Others attempted to consolidate and institutionalize the power of new black votes. Others attempted to remedy the economic deprivation of black neighborhoods—and to tap the creativity and energy of a long-suppressed underclass—with full-employment legislation. Others sought to make America recognize and honor King’s memory with a national holiday, a remarkable achievement that reflected a greatly weakened opposition to civil rights in an otherwise very conservative age. One of King’s most brilliant but most erratic and controversial disciples, Jesse Jackson, tried to parlay black voting power into a more active and independent voice within the Democratic Party in two quixotic presidential campaigns. Through all these episodes, Martin Luther King’s memory was put to the test—and finally, when new, damaging evidence about his character was opened up for public discussion in the late 1980s and 1990s, it did not diminish his stature, or that of the cause he symbolized, in any appreciable way.
These episodes do not just lengthen the story of civil rights, but broaden and deepen it: The effort to free America from its historic legacy of slavery and institutionalized racism did not simply devolve into endless bureaucratic trench warfare over affirmative action policies, though it often looked that way, with interest groups and policy makers frozen into irreconcilable positions. Rather, it engaged the creative energies of a wide range of African-American activists, in many cases white allies, and a diverse assortment of the booming new class of black elected officials. In the years after 1968, they rediscovered some old truths and tactics. They tested the limits of equality and black power in modern America. Often, their efforts, even their successes, have been completely forgotten.