Dr. King, reparations and the Civil Rights Movement
Reparations United Front
Clearly, the festive, celebratory appearance each year of parades, official presidential accolades, hero-worshipping articles from both conservatives and liberals claiming Dr. King’s support for their various positions, and all the other pageantry currently associated with the Dr. Martin Luther King Holiday and week, are much more positive than negative for African Americans. Even though commercialization and time have dulled the remembrance of a lot of what Dr. King stood for, fought for, and died for in this country, not having such a holiday and annual toasting of the man and his legacy would be in-your-face unconscionable, when we really think about it. This is in spite of the fact that it is downright irritating to see a host of white Americans engage in the cognitive dissonance of selecting out the few lines of text they are comfortable with from Dr. King’s millions of words, while they conveniently ignore some of the most substantive comments about the black condition yet uttered by anyone. Too many of us only celebrate the cuddly Teddy Bear Dr. King we have fashioned in our own dreams.
One regular consequence of this phenomenon is that virtually every year there is another big controversy over competing selective remembrances of Dr. King. Thus last year, on Monday, January 16, in the city billing itself as the place where the biggest King Day Parade and Celebration annually occurs–San Antonio, Texas-almost half of the usual participants stayed away in protest as the local military base agreed with some city organizers to fly over the celebration in a show of patriotism and military power. To some Americans, that was a direct affront to Dr. King’s legacy, given that the man took a very strong anti-war position in the last few years before his assassination (a position which probably contributed greatly to his untimely death), and it was an intolerable contradiction. Perhaps this is an exemplification of the regular ying and yang-joy and pain-of MLK’s enduring influence in and on America.
Another point of contentious remembrance is whether Dr. King could be considered a reparationist and whether he would have supported the modern Reparations Movement for African Americans. Most of the chorus consistently shouts “No” to both questions, but that is again wishful thinking divorced from the historical record. True, Dr. King could hardly be considered a dyed-in-the-wool advocate of reparations as would say, Congressman John Conyers, the man who fought a 15-year plus battle in Congress to get the King holiday established, and who is now into the 18th year of that same kind of battle to get H.R. 40 passed to get a Congressional Reparations Study Commission established. Reparations was not primary on Dr. King’s agenda, since it was not the principal issue for black folks in the 1950s and 1960s. But, it must be said that reparations was on Dr. King’s agenda.
Calling it “compensatory treatment,” and recommending a “Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged,” Dr King stated in his classic, Why We Can’t Wait, that, “Whenever this issue is raised, some of our friends recoil in horror. The Negro should be granted equality, they agree, but should ask for nothing more. On the surface, this appears reasonable, but it is not realistic. For it is obvious that if a man enters the starting line of a race three hundred years after another man, the first would have to perform some incredible feat in order to catch up... No amount of gold could provide an adequate compensation for the exploitation and humiliation of the Negro in America down through the centuries. Yet a price can be placed on unpaid wages. The ancient common law has always provided a remedy for the appropriation of the labor of one human being by another. This law should be made to apply for American Negroes. The payment should be in the form of a massive program by the government of special, compensatory measures which could be regarded as a settlement in accordance with the accepted practice of common law.”
Further, Dr. King said “Special measures for the deprived have always been accepted in principle by the U.S. It was the principle behind land grants to farmers who fought in the Revolutionary Army and other measures that the nation accepted as logical and moral.”
This is a reparations argument and it fits squarely into the fabric of the modern Reparations Movement. In point of fact, Reverend Joseph Lowery, the long-time activist and co-founder along with Dr. King of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), stated forcefully in a 2001 speech, that the next and highest stage of the Civil Rights Movement is the fight for reparations.
Just as closer scrutiny of Dr. King’s speeches, writings and activities easily demonstrates that he was a dedicated Pan Africanist (he and his family attended Ghana’s first independence celebration in 1957 and he spoke for a long time with Osagyefo Kwame Nkrumah), the same attention to detail clearly shows Dr. King’s support for the reparations struggle.
During these annual gatherings, picnics, parties, speeches, floats and television shows honoring Dr. King, it is essential for some of us to remember that Dr. King was a well-grounded and very well-rounded leader for black aspirations. We should resist the growing tendency to reduce Dr. King’s legacy to one dimensionality and the incessant playing of the “I Have A Dream” oration. He stood much taller than that, and so should we.