U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Martin Luther King, Jr. and Black America’s Intellectual Crisis of 1967

Often, the year 1968 is thought of as a watershed moment in both American and world history. The Tet Offensive, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the tumultuous election of that year, and a myriad of crises in France, Czechoslovakia, and Mexico (among other places) has kept the year 1968 in the minds of many scholars. In addition, the continued memory of the year has done a great deal to shape American politics until the present. I submit, however, that it’s also quite important to look at the intellectual ferment of the year 1967, in which various Black intellectuals found themselves confronting a new, backlash-oriented white America and a political climate that was still reeling from the civil rights gains of the previous decade.

First off, this year of unrest and intellectual debate can’t be divorced from the 1966 midterm elections, in which conservatives in the Republican Party made considerable gains at the hands of liberals in both parties. “Law and order” became the new catch phrase that catapulted, among others, Ronald Reagan into national prominence in 1966. The United States had endured several years of “long, hot summers” and many white voters were showing less sympathy for liberal explanations of black dissatisfaction. Several books were released in 1967 that showed a growing unease among Black Americans about their place in American society and where race relations were headed next.

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community is an interesting text with which to begin this discussion. By this point King, who’d led successful marches in the South against Jim Crow segregation, found himself by 1967 working against Northern discrimination in cities such as Chicago, and also formally entering the fray against the Vietnam War. In Where Do We Go From Here King’s thoughts reflect those of a leader weary after years of resistance, but still willing to deal with the multiple crises facing the American state. He noted in his introduction, “…white backlash had become an emotional electoral issue in California, Maryland and elsewhere. In several Southern states men long regarded as political clowns had become governors or only narrowly missed election, their magic achieved with a witches’ brew of bigotry, prejudice, half-truths and whole lies.”[1] King himself noted that the events from Brown v. Board until the signing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act were a “first phase” in the “civil rights revolution”, but white Americans failed to see it that way.[2] Instead, King argued that his emphasis on economic reform and structural changes to American society were a natural progression of what he stood for before.

Pessimism is an emotion King attempts to stay away from in the book, but the difficulty of what he wants to achieve—nothing less than a revolutionary change in the way white Americans treated Black Americans as political and economic actors in society—comes throughout the book. King offers up a nuanced, and I’d say correct, analysis of Black Power as an ideology. While he does condemn the more violent aspects of Black Power rhetoric, King asks his audience to consider where this anger comes from. And don’t forget that, when it comes to thinking about the rise of Black Power, King was there at the creation: Greenwood, Mississippi, in June of 1966, when Stokley Carmichael first coined the phrase. The ideology is explained as a “cry of disappointment” and a “reaction to the failure of white power” to deal with the intractable problems of racial discrimination in the United States.[3] King voiced hope that this new phrase could, instead of intimidating Americans, would instead inspire the best of people: “It will be power infused with love and justice, that will change dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows, and lift us from the fatigue of despair into the buoyancy of hope.”[4]

King’s voice is a radical, yet hopeful, argument against the status quo in American society. He still sees white racism as the central curse of American society, responsible for the myriad problems plaguing the country.  The chapter that follows his meditation on Black Power is titled “Racism and the White Backlash”, and it provides a chance for King to critique the worst of American culture. “In the final analysis the white man cannot ignore the Negro’s problem, because he is part of the Negro and the Negro is part of him,” King offered.[5] His hope for the future takes on practical fashion later in the book, when King surmises that perhaps “an awakened poor and backward white voter will heed and support the authentic economic liberalism of former Governor Arnall of Georgia and former Lieutenant Governor Flowers of Alabama.”[6] This, in many ways, foreshadows modern liberal arguments to focus on class instead of race when garnering support for economic and political reforms. Of course, King doesn’t want to ignore race; instead, he is putting the onus on white voters to change their attitudes, and to acknowledge the reality that economic problems were affecting both Black and white voters.

What I’m starting here are a series of posts on the year 1967 and its influence on Black intellectual thought. Of course, King wasn’t the only voice being heard, with Harold Cruse and Carmichael himself both releasing books in 1967 that also dealt with Black America’s place within larger society. I’ll look at those, and other writings, in the coming weeks, but it’s important to understand 1967 as a watershed in Black intellectual history. Martin King posed the question “Where Do We Go From Here?” Many Black Americans struggled with that same question.

[1] King, Martin Luther. Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community. New York: Harper and Row, 1967, p. 2.

[2] King, 3.

[3] King, 33.

[4] King, 66.

[5] King, 101.

[6] King, 153.