X or King?
In late June I had the honor of giving a lecture on the civil-rights movement. When the sponsor initially asked me to speak on this topic, I readily agreed, stupidly presuming that he meant the era of Reconstruction, immediately following the Civil War. When I realized that he meant the civil-rights movement of the 1960s, I startled just a bit, wondering if I should back out: I have very strong opinions about 1964 and 1965, but I have next to no expertise on the subject.
In graduate school, as well as in courses I’ve taught, I’ve extensively studied the colonial origins of slavery, the debates around the institution in 1787, and the innumerable laws and codes leading up to the Civil War. I’ve read and studied the history of black soldiers in the Civil War and in the Indian Wars (the Buffalo Soldiers), as well as the noble history of the Exodusters of the Great Plains. And, being a dabbler in literature, I’ve read Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, and James Baldwin. One of my all-time favorite books is Malcolm X’s Autobiography, a book I believe firmly that should be read by all Americans.
All of this adds up to me knowing lots of stuff, very little of it about the actual civil-rights legislation of the mid-1960s.
Wisely or not, I decided not to cancel the talk. Instead, I immersed myself as much as possible in the life of Martin Luther King Jr. and the immense frustrations experienced by the American black community leading up to the 1960s. What I found absolutely fascinated me. I came to realize that historians have made two assumptions about 1964 and 1965, neither of which I think are completely true. First, historians have generally attributed the success of decreased racialism—a controversial point, to be sure—to the passage of civil-rights legislation; and second, consequently, historians have argued that the 1964 and 1965 legislation ushered in a new era. That is, they have seen the legislation as the beginning of something profoundly new and radical.
In response to the first claim, let me state what seems painfully obvious—we are far from a racially free, color-blind, or non-discriminatory society. While my belief about this is purely anecdotal, I think it’s a fair assessment.
When I came of age in the 1980s, I rarely if ever heard racial or bigoted epithets. Granted, I grew up in a devoutly Catholic family that stressed the equality of every single person—regardless of the accidents of birth—before the eyes of a loving and creative God. (I also grew up in a Goldwater family that cherished the excellence of the individual as individual.) I certainly can’t imagine anyone in my family or in my school—my grade-school principal was a fierce and brilliant Dominican nun, and I both loved and feared her—expressing beliefs defending some kind of racial inequality. Such things were simply not said. If thought, they remained unspoken.
Things were far from perfect when it came to race relations in the 1980s, but true discrimination and hatred seemed to me a thing of the past. Now, in 2016, I can’t say the same thing at all. Indeed, I believe that we Americans are far more racist and race-conscious than we were 25 or 30 years ago. Bigotries, often disguised as righteous anger, fly left and right in this insane whirligig of a world. We have once again—as a culture—embraced an “us and them” mentality. Black, white, cops, victims.
I’ll make a second argument regarding this first claim. Not only do I think the legislation of 1964 and 1965 did not produce racial equality, but I actually believe such legislation might very well have solidified the inequality of the time. I can’t help but think of Barry Goldwater, who voted against the 1964 act in the Senate while quietly funding lawsuits against white business owners who discriminated against blacks in the 1950s and 1960s. Goldwater understood that real change comes from action and the changes of heart, soul, and mind, not from the passage of legislation. For legislation to mean anything, it must follow the beliefs already accepted by its society. Otherwise, as Edmund Burke noted so wisely of the French Revolutionaries and their radical attempts to recreate the world, the law is supported only by its own terrors.
Finally, a third argument about racism then and now. If one believes in the superiority or inferiority of a person based on accidents of birth, one is simply not a conservative. A conservative, going back to Socrates, understands the individual dignity of every person, regardless of skin color or gender. Socrates might have spoken for the Athenians, but he also spoke for all of humanity when he stressed the need always to do good, never evil, and certainly never to do evil for the sake (as it seemed) of good. The true conservative, with St. Paul, believes that the divine image in which we’re made transcends Greek and Jew, male and female. The true conservative, with Martin Luther King Jr., recognizes that we must judge another by the content of his character, not the color of his skin. The true conservative, with Robert Nisbet, recognizes that racism is entirely a modern construct, the result of perversions of science.
Less personally, let me make the second argument—that the passage of the legislation in 1964 and 1965 seems much more of a conclusion of an era than a beginning of one. The two dominant personalities in the black community—that of Malcolm X and that of Martin Luther King Jr.—each represent very serious parts of the American and Western traditions. Far from being unique and revolutionary, they each gained immensely from the past and its successes, as well as its failures.
The brilliant and jaw-dropping opening to TheAutobiography of Malcolm X reveals much more than its mere words might at first indicate. As X describes the KKK raid against his pregnant mother in Omaha, Neb., he argues that he knew from the earliest moment of his awareness that his life would end in violence. Though Malcolm X rejected the name and the faith of his father, he embraced the republican tradition of violence so pronounced throughout American history. His response to racism differs very little from the response of the men of Lexington to the invasion of 6,600 British soldiers in 1774. Blacks, as exemplified by Malcolm X, embraced the republican notion of protection of hearth and home in the 20th century. They are little different from other Americans in this respect: they just came to their violence later.
In so many ways, X was not only a reflection of the Lexingtonian of 1775, but, even in his personal ethics, of the English Puritanism of the 1640s. In a brilliant and wonderful scene in Spike Lee’s biopic of X, Lee has two FBI agents surveilling X, noting that X seems a perfect saint compared to the rather worldly desires of Martin Luther King.
Though almost the same age as X, Martin Luther King Jr. embraced a very different tradition. As he noted in his “Letter From a Negro Brother”—remembered popularly as the “Letter From Birmingham Jail”—the movement for black equality in the United States worked because it had embraced and integrated the personalist and nonviolent movements of the Western tradition. In his brief letter, MLK draws upon great Western figures from Socrates to St. Augustine to St. Thomas Aquinas to T.S. Eliot. Indeed, King sounds almost like Russell Kirk in his letter. They draw upon the same sources, and they each embrace the witness of virtue against the irrationality of bigotry.
My point in writing all of this is far from profound, I suppose, and the events of last week—one of the most depressing news weeks in my adult life—made me really understand that I truly am a white guy from a small, idyllic Kansas town who has been sheltered from much of the horrors of bigotry and violence in our modern world. Still, if we want a world free of bigotries based on the accidents of birth, we must know our history. It’s not enough to claim that the two pieces of legislation passed in 1964 and 1965 solved the problem. At best, they tempered the problem, and, at worst, they stopped the real and permanent societal and civic progress dead in its tracks.
The two heroes of the black movement in the 1950s and 1960s—X and MLK—were profoundly interesting men. By their own accounts, however, they had not created anything new, but rather embraced the best of the past. Though one stood for violence and the other for nonviolence, they each represented deep and abiding strains and tensions in the Western and republican traditions. Far from being the harbingers of brave new worlds, they each saw the hope for equality and liberty in the past.
While I do not believe the solution to ending racialism is violence, I do recognize that the tensions and eruptions of anger over the last several years have very real roots. If we are to prevent the resolution of such problems with violence, we must be honest about ourselves, our neighbors, our laws, and perhaps most importantly, our history and our mores.
Bradley J. Birzer is the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in American Studies at Hillsdale College and author of the biography Russell Kirk: American Conservative.