Martin Luther King's "Where Do We Go From Here?"
A new anthology of essays on the political philosophy of Martin Luther King, "To Shape a New World" (2018) (edited by Tommie Shelby and Brandon Terry), published to commemorate the 50th anniversary of King's assassination has encouraged me to read the books King published during his lifetime to try to understand him in his own words.
The fourth of King's five books, "Where Do We Go from Here Chaos or Community"? (1967)receives considerable attention in several essays in "To Shape a New World" as offering a full statement of King's late thought. King did much of the work on this book during a four-week stay in Jamaica where he was relatively free of other commitments or pressures. Following its publication in 1967, the book remained out of print until it was republished in 2010 as part of a reissue of King's writings in the "King Legacy" series.
The book explores King's vision for the future of the Civil Rights movement at a critical time. In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson had signed the Voting Rights Act days before the beginning of riots in Watts and elsewhere. The Civil Rights movement was becoming torn by factions between King's nonviolent movement and more militant, strident movements epitomized by the slogan "Black Power". In turn, some of King's white supporters had become disillusioned by his criticism of the Vietnam War and by what they saw as the increased stridency of the movement, creating a "backlash".
In his book, King emphasizes the need for social and economic justice and for political power among the disadvantaged, both black and white. The expansive nature of King's goals becomes apparent as the book proceeds. Thus, in the opening chapter, "Where Are We", King describes the success of the movement from 1955-1965 in securing the enactment of the Civil Rights and Voting Acts. Without downplaying the importance of these accomplishments, King points out that they have been insufficient to bring justice to African Americans in terms of housing, jobs, political power, and human dignity.
In the lengthy second chapter, King examines the "Black Power" movement and various separatist movements. He strongly critiques these movements as defeatist and as impracticable while acknowledging the validity of their critique of the white power structure. King presents himself as fighting for hope and for justice and for the need for their realization in an integrated America.
In the third chapter, "Racism and the White Backlash" King examines the conflicted history of the United States from American revolutionary days with the commitment to democracy resting uneasily with slavery and then with racism. He finds the white backlash and the pulling away from the Civil Rights Movement illustrative of these tensions. King writes:
"A vigorous enforcement of civil rights will bring an end to segregated public facilities, but it cannot bring an end to fears, prejudice, pride and irrationality, which are the barriers to a truly integrated society. These dark and demonic responses will be removed only as men are possessed by the invisible inner law which etches on their hearts the conviction that all men are brothers and that love is mankind's most potent weapon for personal and social transformation."
In his discussion of "The Dilemma of Negro Americans", King continues to emphasize that the condition of African Americans remains inextricably tied to a social structure in which they are marginalized. He points to the need of continued social action by African Americans and by others disenfranchised by poverty. King also advocates for large scale social and economic governmental programs which, he argues, are being thwarted by the money spent for a bad cause in Vietnam and by other examples of militarism. He calls for a personal and government revaluation of values that depends "more on its moral power than on its military power" with African Americans "assuming the role of creative dissenters who will call our beloved nation to a higher destiny, to a new plateau of compassion, to a more noble expression of humaneness."
King maps out an economic and political program in a chapter titled, as is the book, "Where do we go from here?. In this chapter, among other things, King proposes to fight poverty, among whites and blacks, by eliminating it directly rather than working around it. He proposes a guaranteed annual income, set at something approaching a median level rather than at the poverty level. King draws heavily upon the work of the 19th Century economist Henry George. He also argues eloquently that work in the modern age should not be a matter of mere drudgery or subsistence but should serve human needs and spiritual growth.
In the book's final chapter, King carries his vision still further to apply to the poor and marginalized throughout the world and not simply in the United States.
Some readers familiar only with sanitized accounts and the "I have a dream" speech many be surprised by the militancy of King's vision. I found much that is eloquent and valuable in this book in its spirituality, quest for justice, and passion. There is also much that is both a product of and a creator of the United States of the late 1960s when the book was written. The utopianism and perfectionism in this book is disquieting. In reading this book and thinking about King's legacy fifty years after his death, it is not necessary for the reader to agree with him in full or to call the United States back in every respect to the course outlined in his book. King's book and his thoughts deserve to be read and pondered. Readers should think through what is valuable in his vision and move forward.