Dr. King Sought an End to 'the Racial Point of View.' Stop Betraying Him | Opinion

As the nation celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day this week, it's hard not to analogize the role King plays in our discourse to religious debate. Just as the followers of the great religions of the world turn to their holy texts to debate differing interpretations to solve the quandaries of the current day, every political faction in America is quick to invoke King to defend their own ideology.

But like the religious figures of yesteryear, King was a complex man who held a range of views that evolved over time. Trying to win debates by sharing an MLK quote is doing a disservice to his intellect; only by studying his life's work and the trajectory of his thinking can one truly gain the wisdom that he offered.

King's legacy played a special role in my life because I grew up outside Atlanta, which was one of the cradles of the civil rights movement. Not far from my family's house stood a theater that was built before the passage of the Civil Rights Act; as it was being renovated for reopening, you could see the dark and dusty side entrance that was reserved for what Southerners once referred to as "colored" folks.

I craved knowledge about the movement that built a South that allowed me to live free and prosper. I attended speeches by the Reverend Joseph Lowery and Ambassador Andrew Young, colleagues of King's; I bought a copy of John Lewis's movement memoir, Walking With the Wind. And above all else, I poured over King's writing and speeches, seeking to understand the mind of the man who was so pivotal to liberating America's minorities.

One piece of writing I've always found particularly interesting was a 1961 document written by King that has been preserved by the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University. In that text, titled "After Desegregation—What" King talks about what he imagines the future would look like after the movement's battle for desegregating institutions was won. It offers a fascinating window into the breadth of King's moral vision.

The text focuses on the student movement that King is mobilizing against the forces of segregation. "The dynamism of the student movement can be understood only if we realize that it is part of a revolt of all youth—Negro and White—against a world they never made; a revolt not alone to achieve desegregation but a social order consistent with high principles on which the nation was founded," King writes.

That social order, in King's mind, wasn't just the end of formal segregation. "Almost all of them," he notes of the student movement, "realize that the new frontier will be 'integration' rather than 'desegregation' and that this makes quite a difference."

MLK Day 2022
Civil rights leader Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. delivers a speech to a crowd of approximately 7,000 people on May 17, 1967 Getty Images

What distinguishes desegregation from integration? King writes that "desegregation is the opening up of public facilities and services to everyone," while "integration is much more subtle and internal, for it involves attitudes: the mutual acceptance of individuals and groups." He posits that desegregation makes integration possible, "but this is not automatic."

The reason desegregation is a necessary but insufficient condition of integration is that even after "the laws between them have been struck down, both Negroes and Whites will need to win friends across the invisible, though nonetheless real, psychological color line."

King imagines this process of integration as demanding perseverance from not only whites but also African Americans. "The question remains," he writes, "will Negroes generally find it as easy to give up their own prejudices as it is now to demand their rights of others? Will the same forthrightness be shown in admitting whites to Negro clubs, fraternities and other voluntary associations that is now being shown in pressing for admittance to restaurants sand theaters."

"Moreover," Dr. King continues, "after the fight has succeeded in unlocking the doors to rights and opportunities, there will be the very real obligation to 'deliver the goods,' that is, to behave well and perform excellently."

In setting out these conditions to fellow African Americans, King is optimistic that they can meet them. "I am confident that the Negro college student, who is today in the thick of the desegregation fight will successfully make the transition to the campaign for integration and its consequent responsibilities," he writes. One of the reasons for his conviction is that the student movement has "never advocated justice for Negroes as such; rather justice for all men, Negros included, of course... The students have opposed "Black Supremacy" as vigorously as they have stood against "White Supremacy.'"

The part of the document that most intrigues me is what King predicts the movement towards integration will achieve. "As the color differential fades," King writes, "so will the racial point of view. Less and less will it be possible to speak with accuracy of Negro newspapers, Negro churches or the Negro vote. More and more, economic, social, and professional status will be more decisive in determining a man's orientation than the color of his skin."

What's truly remarkable about King's imagined future is that it isn't just an America where so-called racial groups have equal rights and access to opportunities; it's one where the "racial point of view" itself has dissolved. King realized that we cannot combat racism without combating the social fiction of race itself. And he believed that it was a responsibility of both whites and African Americans to help make that vision a reality (in the more diverse America of today he would likely have extended this counsel to all ethnic groups).

At a time when so many people—politicians, media outlets, well-heeled foundations, and a phalanx of corporate diversity consultants—are intent on reifying and reinforcing racial categories, we would do well to listen to King's wisdom and come together to imagine a future where our imaginations exceed the hollow confines of race.

Zaid Jilani is a journalist who hails from Atlanta, Georgia. He has previously worked as a reporter-blogger for ThinkProgress, United Republic, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, and Alternet. He maintains a Substack newsletter at inquiremore.com.

The views in this article are the author's own.