Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., one of the architects of America’s struggle for racial justice, would have been 90 years old on Tuesday. This year also marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival of enslaved Africans on the shores of Jamestown, Va., the dawn of the black experience in what would become the United States. These two historic milestones offer us an opportunity to examine King’s political legacy, influence and resonance in our own time. The modern civil rights struggle represented a Second American Reconstruction, the sequel to the nation’s original post-Civil War attempt to fundamentally remake the nation as a true democracy. These efforts ended in the heartbreak of massive anti-black violence, lynching, imprisonment and land dispossession. By the end of the 19th century, America had indeed been remade, not as a racially integrated democracy but as an apartheid state euphemistically referred to as Jim Crow.
Reconstruction is usually framed as the period from 1865 to 1877 that witnessed the passage of the 13, 14, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. Those amendments ended slavery, institutionalized birthright citizenship and provided the vote for black men. The subsequent period from 1877 to 1896 featured the systemic disenfranchisement of blacks through organized racial terror and state and local laws that “redeemed” white supremacy in the South. The historian Rayford Logan famously referred to this period as the “nadir” of African American history. In truth, the period of Redemption was part of the Reconstruction era. The hopes that interracial democracy could usher in black citizenship through a literal and figurative reconstruction of American democracy proved premature. But a substantive transformation did, in fact, take place. The Jim Crow system enshrined in law, upheld by the Supreme Court’s 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision and guaranteed through the violent subjugation of black bodies — African Americans were murdered by night riders, incarcerated through convict-lease systems and slaughtered in racial pogroms across the country — fundamentally altered the nation-state.
Martin Luther King Jr. served as the major political mobilizer during the Civil Rights Movement’s heroic period. Bookended by the legal integration of public schools in 1954 and the passage of voting rights in 1965, this era represents the first half of the Second Reconstruction. The subsequent Black Power era, the first three years of which King lived to see, ratcheted up the civil rights movement’s push for radical reform by offering a structural or systemic critique of racism, war, poverty, inequality, sexism and violence.
King’s radical legacy continues to be overwhelmed by his iconography at the exact time we need it the most. King is presented to school children and the general American public as an advocate of nonviolence who quietly pushed for racial and political reforms that achieved black citizenship before his untimely assassination. Nothing could be further from the truth. King wielded the specter of nonviolent civil disobedience as both sword and shield in his unrelenting quest for black citizenship. He questioned the fundamental structure of American capitalism, inspired by the racial uprising in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles in 1965, and openly wept after witnessing barefoot children in Marks, Miss., accompanied by parents who went without heat and blankets in the winter and food year-round.