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EXCERPT: “Waking From The Dream: The Struggle For Civil Rights In The Shadow Of Martin Luther King, Jr.”

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.

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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.

The story of the continuing struggle for rights and equality after 1968 is central to the meaning of freedom in America. The struggle of black Americans for full participation in and contribution to the full promise of American life brings to light the contradiction that haunted American history from the start: The degradation and deprivation of an entire “race” of people exaggerated the freedom of white Americans while exposing America’s hypocrisy to the world. Black Americans’ demand for their freedom raised the question whether a nation conceived in liberty, as Lincoln said at Gettysburg 150 years ago, and dedicated to human equality could endure. The story did not end with the Civil War and Emancipation or with Reconstruction and the granting of civil and political rights to the ex-slaves in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. It continued by creative, unpredictable fits and starts. It did not end again with the so-called Second Reconstruction, culminating in the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act of the mid-1960s. Nor could it be contained in the bureaucratic, partisan, and ideological channels that defined politics-as-usual after the 1960s.

Other books on the post-King years have conveyed parts of the story but, in many instances, present them in teleological and piecemeal terms. The story is, in some of these books, one of lawsuits to extend the reach of affirmative action policies, and the representation of black populations with black representatives. In other books it is a story of the undoing of school desegregation by white flight and Supreme Court retreat. What these accounts miss are the more ambitious efforts to claim large-scale public victories. They miss above all the energies expended to expand the reach of freedom and equality, rather than simply flesh out or secure rights already won, in principle and in law, in the 1950s and 1960s. The larger-scale public efforts covered in this book—even when they failed—trace the now-flickering, now-flaring, now-fading-and flaring-again spirit that persisted after the King years, the heyday of civil rights victories that he symbolizes in national memory.

Some authors say the African-American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s simply evolved into a fuller- blown “rights revolution,” which sprouted from the yearnings of other deprived and degraded populations: women, Hispanics and other recent third-world immigrants, American Indians, the disabled, gays and lesbians. That was indeed a real expansion or series of expansions, largely inspired by the African-American movement’s dramatic successes and building on the foundation of principles established by it.

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But attention to the post-1960s rights revolution tends to eclipse the struggle for more freedom and equality for black America, and for the poor of all races—the populations for which King sacrificed his life. Indeed, to the extent that a declining post-1960s economy allowed aspiring members of other minority groups, the disabled, and many kinds of white women to claim their rights, it did so in some ways at the expense of further rights for the black population and the poor.

By narrating the vast numbers of private grassroots struggles for more opportunity under existing laws, scholars have demonstrated that some kind of freedom movement is always going on. There is always some kind of unorganized resistance to oppression; there are always countless individual evasions and partial escapes from it. But that sort of unorganized struggle is precisely what the civil rights movement, as that term is conventionally understood, rose up to overcome. After the Supreme Court finally banned segregation in the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954, black southerners did not taste freedom in the day- today reality of their lives. On the contrary, the court decision, in practice, appeared to consign them to an endless series of individual lawsuits to make the newly articulated—or, rather, newly restored—principles of equality real in their own lives and the lives of their children. Giant steps were needed. The civil rights movement culminated in two of the greatest leaps of all time, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. That kind of giant leap is what diverse bodies of activists prayed and planned and fought for after King died. Though they struggled on as people always do for improvements in their individual and local lives, the need for fundamental changes in the structure of American society on a national scale would plague King’s survivors in the movement over the next several decades. History is the winding, switchbacking trail of their hopes and failures.

If you enjoyed this excerpt, you can purchase the full book here.

From the book Waking from the Dream by David Chappell. Copyright (c) 2013 by David Chappell. Reprinted by arrangement Random House. All rights reserved.

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