The “Radical” King and a Usable Past

Martin Luther King, Jr., Coretta Scott King, and Harry Belafonte near the podium at Montgomery March in 1965 (Wikimedia Commons)

Last September, Black Perspectives published a piece about Martin Luther King, Jr’s use of the year 1619 as a waypoint in his speeches and sermons about Black history at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. This essay, published on the anniversary of his death, takes a brief look at King’s use of history in the final years of his life. As King publicly associated himself with radical elements of the broader human rights movement in American society—pushing for an end to the Vietnam War and a broad-based economic rights agenda, coupled with civil rights—he also utilized specific ideas from America’s radical and progressive past to make his views known to listening audiences. There is much, much more to be written about how Martin Luther King, Jr. used this history in his speeches, sermons, and books, but what follows is but a brief sampling of how he achieved this. Public uses of history by prominent figures matters, because it showcases how the public—or, to be specific, various publics—remember the past. In the examples that follow, King responds to the Civil Rights Movement’s final great triumph—the 1965 Voting Rights Act—and the rise of Black Power. In the process, his sermonizing allowed King the opportunity to once again present to the American public a different, more radical way of thinking about America’s past. 

By 1965, King’s stature as a moral and social leader in American society had been fully cemented. King received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. That year also saw the passage of the Civil Rights Act, and by the spring of 1965, King helped give voice to the fight for voting rights proceeding in Selma, Alabama. His speech at the end of the Selma to Montgomery march on March 25, 1965, reminded his audience of history’s importance to King and the movement. But for King, it was a particular interpretation of recent Southern history that formed the heart of his text.

C. Vann Woodward’s The Strange Career of Jim Crow became known as “the Bible of the Civil Rights Movement,” laying out a usable history of the segregation regime in the South. Quite simply, Woodward’s book made clear that Jim Crow segregation was not the “natural” way of things—but was, instead, merely a political system. King, in analyzing The Strange Career of Jim Crow for his audience members, was crafting Woodward’s book as part of a usable past for both Black and white Americans. It was one that showed how “the segregation of the races was really a political stratagem employed by the emerging Bourbon interests in the South to keep the southern masses divided and southern labor the cheapest in the land.” It was, in other words, a system that could be altered by political will.

King showcased Woodward’s analysis of post-Civil War Southern history—one focused on the rise of Jim Crow segregation and the collapse of the Populist movement. It was a speech that reminded the audience of the long history of political battles in Alabama and the entire South, and how the Civil Rights Movement was both a political and moral battle for the future of the former Confederacy. He reminded his largely Black crowd what Jim Crow segregation had wrought on white Southerners, that it was all poor white Southerners had. It was their only power over mostly poor Black Americans. “And his children, too, learned to feed upon Jim Crow, their last outpost of psychological oblivion.” King lamented the price poor whites in the South paid for Jim Crow segregation: earning the psychological “wages of whiteness” that W.E.B. Du Bois wrote about in Black Reconstruction in America, but losing access to genuine economic power and stability taken by the wealthy class of white Southerners in the region.

Yet as the 60s wore on, King’s speeches continued to use history to make a case for urgent reforms in American society. However, they were not just calling for an end to racial discrimination, but they began to approach the problems of economic inequality that the Populists and other radical groups fought against throughout the late 19th century. At the same time, King also faced challenges from the Black Power movement, which swore off nonviolence as a useful tactic and pressed for further changes in society. 

On August 27, 1967, King defended the practice of nonviolence and civil disobedience against the rapid rise of Black Power. In the process, he once again used history to argue for the need to save America’s soul—for the sake of Black people. “They can talk, these groups”—referring to Black Power and Black Nationalist groups on the rise in the mid-to-late 1960s—“some people talking about a separate state, or go back to Africa. I love Africa, it’s our ancestral home.” While King always linked Africa to the fate of Black Americans, however, he also believed that Black America’s homeland was the South. “My grandfather and my great-grandfather did too much to build this nation for me to be talking about getting away from it.” He then linked all of American history to the presence of Black people in North America: “Before the Pilgrims landed in 1620, we were here. Before Jefferson etched across the pages of history the majestic words of the Declaration of Independence, we were here. Before the beautiful words of the “Star Spangled Banner” were written, we were here.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s use of history in his speeches, books, and sermons was his attempt to help Black Americans steel themselves for a long and difficult Civil Rights Movement. At the same time, his creation of a “usable past” linked to the works of other historians, Black and white, working in the middle of the 20th century to craft a more accurate representation of the past. Above all, however, King’s “usable past” was part of a long tradition of Black Americans claiming a place for themselves in the larger tapestry of American history and memory. 

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Robert Greene II

Robert Greene II is an assistant professor of history at Claflin University and Senior Editor of Black Perspectives. He studies American history after 1945 with a focus on the American South, political history, and memory. Follow him on Twitter @robgreeneII.

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