Reclaiming MLK’s Unspeakable Nightmare: The Progression of Racism in America

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When Americans remember Martin Luther King Jr., we first and foremost remember his “dream” that “my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” And when we celebrate and observe King’s dream from the March on Washington on August 28, 1963, we celebrate and observe America’s march of racial progress over the last five decades.

Americans have thoroughly integrated King’s dream of racial progress into the American dream of liberty and equality. Both marching bands have played sweet sounding music for Americans over the last five decades.

But Americans often ignore something crucial about King and America’s recent history. While hailing racial progress over the last five decades, Americans have largely ignored the concurrent progression of racism in America. If King’s well-known dream symbolized the glorious march of racial progress over the last five decades, then King’s unknown nightmare symbolized the inglorious march of racism’s progression over the last five decades.

King’s nightmare is somewhat unknown even among those who have taken part in King’s reclamation project—all those serious efforts over the last week to #ReclaimKing from the paragons of post-racialism, from the scions of colorblindness, from the centerpiece of American liberalism that King so deftly tried to excise himself from as early as 1963 in his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.” We are reclaiming King from all those people who like to imagine that King had nothing else to say after 1963. We are reclaiming King from all those people who have buried the socialist MLK, the antiwar MLK, the MLK of Black power. We are reclaiming all aspects of King’s ideas for African American intellectual history.

But, we must reclaim much more. We must reclaim King’s nightmare—and place it forever more beside the dream along the banner of King’s memory. We must reclaim the nightmare as a symbol of the progression of racism—a progression that liberals tend to downplay and conservatives tend to dismiss outright.

According to popular history, King’s dream started its march to reality when President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964. Indeed, it was the most influential piece of civil rights legislation since the Civil Rights Act of 1875. The bill outlawed intentional discrimination in nearly every sector of society. But what about those institutions with discriminatory policies that could not be proven to be intentional? By Congress focusing on intent instead of outcome, discriminators merely had to delete their racial language from their documents and rhetoric in order to hide their intent. And that is precisely what they did.

Therefore, as much as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 closed the door on obviously intentional discrimination, it also opened the door to policies where the discriminatory intent was consciously or unconsciously hidden. And so, as much as the Civil Rights Act brought on racial progress, it also brought on the progression of racism.

Some Senators and Representatives in Congress were well aware of these hiding forces in 1964. But they choose not to explicitly bar all those seemingly race-neutral policies that sustained or brought into being racial disparities.

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The intent-focused Civil Rights Act of 1964 was not nearly as effective as the more outcome-focused Voting Rights Act of 1965—the next major act in America’s popular story of racial progress. In Mississippi alone, Black voter turnout increased from 6 percent in 1964 to 59 percent in 1969. Even still, LBJ’s Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach testified before Congress that “increased voting strength might encourage a shift in the tactics of discrimination.” We have seen these new tactics on full display in the U.S. Supreme Court chambers, in Florida, Ohio, Virginia, Pennsylvania, North Carolina—all over the nation.

King saw these new tactics emerging during his final years. In recoiling from the urban rebellions growing in size and intensity from 1964 to 1967, King recoiled against the effects of the old (and new) discrimination that the civil rights movement failed to terminate. Even President Johnson, in an address to Howard University graduates in 1965, took note of the fact that racial disparities in unemployment had grown, income disparities had grown; and disparities in poverty, infant mortality, and segregation had all grown during the civil rights movement.

King took note of this fact weeks after he finally turned his nonviolent activism towards the U.S. war machine in Vietnam. On May 8, 1967, King participated in a wide-ranging conversation with veteran NBC News correspondent Sander Vanocur. King told Vanocur that he had gone through a lot of “soul searching” and “agonizing moments” since his famous speech in 1963. His “old optimism” was “a little superficial” and he had replaced it with “a solid realism,” he said. King foresaw “difficult days ahead,” candidly admitting to Vanocur that his “dream” had “turned into a nightmare.” King sounded eerily like Malcolm X. “We don’t see any American dream,” Malcolm lectured in Detroit on April 12, 1964. “We’ve experienced only the American nightmare.”

King’s (and Malcolm X’s) nightmare was—and turned out to be the progression of racism in America. Racist policies have evolved since the 1960s, sustaining the nation’s racial disparities, and mass impoverishing and incarcerating Black people. Racist ideas have evolved since the 1960s, sustaining those policies with false conceptions that there is nothing wrong  with Whites remaining on the socioeconomic top and Blacks on the bottom. These contemporary racist ideas have done what racist ideas have always done: they have repressed resistance to discrimination and cast blame on Black people for the nation’s racial problems. But these racist ideas could not repress those people blaring that Black Lives Matter, demanding that we Say Her Name.

Americans can no longer celebrate King’s dream of Barack Obama’s America and ignore King’s nightmare of Tamir Rice’s America. In reclaiming King, we must reclaim the totality of this visionary, the totality of America’s recent racial history. We must observe the beauty and the ugliness—America’s racial progress and its simultaneous progression of racism—or King’s nightmare will continue to shoot and kill King’s unarmed dream.


Ibram X. Kendi

Ibram X. Kendi is the associate editor of Black Perspectives. His second book, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (Nation, 2016), won the 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction. In August, Kendi begins a new position as Professor of History and International Relations and the Founding Director of the Anti-Racist Research and Policy Center at American University. Follow him on Twitter @DrIbram.