Martin Luther King Jr.’s Vision of American Democracy

Martin Luther King Jr. (left) & Andy Young, 1966, in the Montgomery, AL airport (Photo: Bob Fitch Photography Archive, Stanford University Libraries).

Martin Luther King Jr. approached history with a reverent understanding of the complex relationship between the secular and the sacred. King’s deep religious beliefs are revealed throughout his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” His beliefs are central to his historical vision of America as a democracy that refused to live up to its creed that all are created equal. In writing his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” on April 16, 1963, King made the following observation of African Americans and their place in the larger historical narrative of American history by writing:

[T]he goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with America’s destiny. Before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, we were here. Before the pen of Jefferson etched the majestic words of the Declaration of Independence across the pages of history, we were here.”

Situated in King’s “Letter” are prominent themes, tropes, and narrative features that speak not only to King’s historical consciousness, but also illuminate King’s emphasis on a continuing theme in American history—the betrayal of the nation’s democratic ideals of liberty and justice.

America’s original sin of slavery cast a long shadow of moral deterioration on the nation. Nineteenth and twentieth-century historians wrote and emphasized progress and providential design—the belief that God is moving through history to create what Puritan leader John Winthrop referred to as “A City Upon a Hill.” Yet America was far from exceptional. King, in his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” recognized this through the ways in which he represents history. His assertion that while “[we] have waited more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights, the nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jet like speed toward gaining political independence, but we still move at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter,” speaks to the African American collective experience of a community denied freedom by a nation devoted to liberty. King’s strong judgement regarding this nation’s history not only advanced historical knowledge, but also epitomized a quintessential African American style of representing history through writing.

From 1863, when the Emancipation Proclamation was issued by President Abraham Lincoln, to 1963 when King wrote his “Letter,” America underwent a period of decline in race relations, which can be demarcated in three stages. The first stage occurred over a period of twenty years from 1863 to 1883. During this twenty year period the nation emancipated its enslaved population of nearly 4 million and the federal government undertook an ambitious plan to assist those who had been held in bondage only to retreat from the effort during Reconstruction, thus ushering in the period of Jim Crow. The second phase spanned the period from 1883 to 1930 and represented the nadir (or lowest point) of American race relations with the Supreme Court providing its official imprimatur on legalized race hatred in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which mandated “separate but equal” facilities. During this 47-year period, a series of persistent jurisprudential decisions enforced a system of racial caste based upon the principle of racial hierarchy and humiliation. Finally, the third phase of American decline in race relations revealed itself through the antagonisms between states and the federal government from 1930-1963. This 33 year period, which is referred to in this essay as the “American Dilemma,” witnessed the emergence of a national liberal vision which was coeval with southern retrenchment against overturning “separate but equal.”

During the first stage, Congress and the Supreme Court failed to commit to the ideals of justice, freedom, and equality, which were inherent in the Reconstruction process. Economically, the failure of Congress to provide reparations for centuries of forced labor in the form of land led to the economic marginalization of former slaves, which deprived the vast majority of African Americans of generational wealth. Although Congressional Reconstruction led to the ratification of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a series of detrimental decisions beginning with the Slaughterhouse Cases (1873) and continuing with U.S. v. Reese (1876) and U.S. v. Cruikshank (1876); and later the Civil Rights Cases, (1883), diminished the intent of these amendments. Indeed, the absence of reparations for formerly enslaved people and the reign of social and political terror they endured punctuate the hollowness of this period even further.

In the decades after the collapse of Reconstruction in 1877, political disfranchisement and vigilante violence, which manifested through lynching, increased with efforts to eliminate Black political power. Legal scholar Mark Weiner observed that the “vast majority of southerners depended on lynching to maintain their distinctive social and cultural order.” Lynching thus served as a defining act of justice and community for southerners. It was in this context that the 1890s ushered in what historian Rayford Logan referred to as the “nadir” for African Americans. As Booker T. Washington articulated a philosophy of separation and accommodation as the best strategy for Black advancement, America, in legalizing segregation and race hatred, exchanged its democratic ideals of liberty and justice for a form of social and economic thralldom, which the South championed. The South, consequently, was emblematic of the nation’s values in supporting segregation, the most extremes forms of racial inequality, and economic exploitation.

During this second phase of American declension, Jim Crow segregation undergirded U.S. race relations. This period was characterized by a “global awakening of whiteness” as lynching, colonization, imperialism, and the consolidation of whiteness, led to what W.E.B. Du Bois described in his essay “The Souls of White Folks,” as a “descent into hell.” Despite the promises of a progressive New South, the legacy of slavery in the United States was palpable. Looking backward 100 years since 1863, King wrote: “the Negroes greatest stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler [sic] or the Ku Klux Klaner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods.” For King, the national malfeasance of race hatred in America which white moderates supported was not simply immoral, but a violation of people’s humanity. That men and women of faith failed to see the injustice and inhumanity of segregation laws revealed to King that white supremacy was not just a southern condition, but an international imperialist and global racist system.

The final phase of American declension, “the American Dilemma,” witnessed the emergence of a national liberal vision through President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal programs. Roosevelt’s political vision and policies eased the impact of the Great Depression and the creation of a “black cabinet” of advisors provided Black America with the image of an inclusive democracy. However, there were limits to this brand of liberalism. Roosevelt’s Justice Department did very little to investigate claims of African Americans who were being victimized in the South; and Roosevelt, in courting the Southern Democratic vote, refused to speak out against lynching and disfranchisement in America, and thus America’s moral apathy continued. In this context, the 1930s was the first of a two act play; the second act came in the 1950s.

The second act of “the American Dilemma” reached its apogee in a succession of judicial decisions against segregation. The Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, I and II (1954, 1955) and the Court’s Browder v. Gayle decision (1956), which struck down segregation in public transit in Montgomery, Alabama, witnessed the continuation of a liberal vision which coexisted with southern retrenchment. It is in this climate that King states in his “Letter” that, “freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” For King, direct action protests were the most effective campaign against segregation. In wedding his narrative of America as a flawed democracy with the desire for social and economic justice, he challenged a political system that curtailed democratic participation. As Civil Rights legislation stalled in Congress during the critical year of 1963, King’s “Letter” was an exposé of its time, in which King provided historical examples and ethical arguments to explain the Civil Rights movement and exhort supporters to continue in their efforts at a crucial juncture in American history.

The American story of the long trending line of progress must consider the inevitable regressions. King’s oft-repeated quote, “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice,” is inspiring but does not allow for what is perhaps the most significant feature in the story of racial justice in America: backlash and backwards movement. That is the brutal reality facing America. 

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Karen Cook Bell

Karen Cook Bell is the Wilson H. Elkins Endowed Professor of History at Bowie State University. She is the author of Claiming Freedom: Race, Kinship, and Land in Nineteenth Century Georgia (University of South Carolina Press, 2018); Running From Bondage: Enslaved Women and Their Remarkable Fight for Freedom in Revolutionary America (Cambridge University Press, 2021) and Southern Black Women and Their Struggle for Freedom during the Civil War and Reconstruction (Cambridge University Press, 2023). She is Founding Director of the BSU Du Bois Center for the Study of the Black Experience at Bowie State University. Follow her on Twitter at @kbphd08 and at the BSU Du Bois Cenetr @BSUDuBoisCenter

Comments on “Martin Luther King Jr.’s Vision of American Democracy

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    Hello Professor Cook
    Great article! Dr. King’s Letter From A Birmingham Jail has always been in my purview a masterpiece. Always a thinker of great vision as he left us with a blueprint on deciphering the complexities of the civil rights struggle as we gaze through the lenses secular
    and sacred. Which speaks loudest to our sensibilities?

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