Random House has just published Waking From The Dream: The Struggle For Civil Rights In The Shadow Of Martin Luther King, by David L. Chappell. Chappell says his book tries to bring back to life the civil rights struggle that carried on after Martin Luther King Jr.’s death. King’s bereaved comrades in the movement pushed on to achieve real black political and economic power, along with dignity and genuine opportunity for the poor of all races.
Professor Chappell spoke with CACG’s own Fred Rotondaro about his research and his new book, especially about King’s legacy after achieving the landmark passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, and the efforts of King’s followers after his death to carry on the causes for which he fought.
Here is what Chappell had to say:
“Dr. King died believing that his mission to achieve freedom and power for African Americans and the poor was far from complete. Indeed, it had only just begun. Many people strove to carry on King’s unfinished business.”
“They had some startling successes, including enactment of the third Great Civil Rights Act of what historians call the Age of Martin Luther King, the Civil Rights Era, or the Second Reconstruction. This far-reaching new law, also known as the Fair Housing Act of 1968, was in many ways the most radical of the three major Acts of Congress that King had pushed for. It targeted the largely private market of individual home sales and rentals. Many activists and scholars saw that multi-million-dollar business--vastly inflated by government subsidies to banking and infrastructure--as the toughest and most fundamental source of discrimination. But this last great Civil Rights Act has been almost completely forgotten. Most Americans remember the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and reflexively associate both with King and the crippling demonstrations he staged to dramatize the need for such legislation. But the Act of 1968 was far more directly and exclusively a result of King’s self-sacrificial work than the Acts of 1964 and 1965. King had fought on for what became the Fair Housing Act since early 1966. Like most people, he had pretty much given up hope that Congress would ever pass it, especially after the ‘backlash’ election of November 1966. Almost immediately after King was killed in April 1968, however, Congress rallied to grant him this one final wish. Both opponents and supporters of the 1968 Act saw it as a direct response to King’s assassination, and secondarily of the riots that broke out in some cities in reactions of grief, anger, and despair.”
“King’s legatees in the struggle—many of whom had disagreed with him over tactics and priorities—kept up the battle even after this great achievement and tribute to the martyr of their cause. Hollywood and academia have all but ignored their efforts. A few scholars out there do note that a ‘long civil rights movement’ continued to hobble along. Ironically, however, these scholars often contribute to the obscurity of the ongoing struggle, and its occasional successes, because they focus exclusively on scattered, incremental actions, and loosely defined ‘resistance,’ by unorganized ‘grassroots’ protesters. All that grassroots activity is important. But what people ironically miss is that activists were on a number of signal occasions highly organized, and that they aimed high. They formed powerful new coalitions, took up new strategies, or revived and refined old ones. They pooled their resources across the nation in pursuit of major political and economic changes of national significance. What’s more, they sometimes succeeded. But even when they failed, they shaped the future struggle, altering their tactics and alliances for changing conditions and new opportunities.”
“Among the greatest efforts analyzed in Waking from the Dream was the National Black Political Convention, held in Gary, Indiana, in 1972. It was probably the largest political gathering in African-American history. Organizers and the press said they were responding to the perceived ‘leadership vacuum’ that King and the fractured civil rights movement had left. Over 3,400 delegates attended—including some of the most famous black activists and elected officials, from Black Panther Bobby Seale to the widows of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X; from Gary Mayor Richard Hatcher to Cleveland Mayor Carl Stokes; from future Detroit Mayor Coleman Young to future presidential candidate Jesse Jackson; from Amiri Baraka to Queen Mother Moore. The delegates included militants from ghettoes all over the country, organizers from the major unions, and civil rights lawyers and other professionals who had dedicated themselves to the struggle for decades. An additional four or five thousand observers, including prominent journalists and columnists, also attended. Yet again, you hear nothing about this historic event in most academic studies, documentary movies, and TV shows that commemorate civil rights and black history month.”
“Another major effort left an ambiguous and unsettled legacy. Coretta Scott King, Stevie Wonder, former Vice-President Hubert Humphrey, Los Angeles Congressman Augustus Hawkins, major labor leaders, and others sustained a massive organizing drive over five years to achieve what they saw as King’s most urgent bit of unfinished business: passage of what became the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act of 1978. Many saw the final legislation as an anti-climax—since it fell short of the radical goal that its supporters had believed was realistic when they started: an end to unemployment through a judicially enforceable right to a decent job. Over the years since the watered-down final bill passed, however, Americans came to take for granted the commitment of the U.S. government, and even the Federal Reserve, to accept public responsibility for unemployment. But that sense of responsibility had been quite precarious as the 1960s ended. It was not officially on the national agenda of basic governmental duties until 1978. The effects of the Act, though far from revolutionary, may be greater, in historical perspective, than its most radical supporters gave it credit for at the time. They did not realize how radical—how historically unusual—the assumptions of their labor-liberal coalition were. Nor did they realize that theirs was to be the last stand of the New Deal-Great Society generation for a modern social democracy. They did not foresee the complete rout of America’s modern economic liberals and the left, who had shaped history in many ways since Teddy Roosevelt’s day, and had defined the boundaries of policy since Franklin Roosevelt’s. They did not anticipate that the flat-earth, trickle-down theories of William Graham Sumner and Andrew Mellon would become legitimate, even popular, again in the Reagan years. They did not know that ‘liberal’—which to them meant moderate and centrist—would become a pejorative label that even northern, urban Democrats (let alone electable presidential candidates) were afraid to wear.”
“After this last stand of a confident, broad-based coalition of labor, liberals, and minority groups failed to achieve its dreams in the economically unstable 1970s, Martin Luther King’s legacy gained some recognition that, in retrospect, seems far more significant than it did to many at the time: the achievement of the King Holiday in 1983. This is all the more remarkable for happening after the Senate and the White House were captured by the Republican Party, which had been lurching far to the right of the Eisenhower and Nixon days, and in many ways to the right of Herbert Hoover. Though it is tempting to see the Holiday as a symbolic sop to distract sentimental people from the lack of substantive remedies for the worsening condition of a disproportionately black underclass, and declining real incomes overall, the holiday again gave the tattered and discouraged forces of the civil rights movement a fire to hold the nation’s feet to every year. The enemies of freedom and equality would continue to minify and mangle the meaning of King’s work. But they would not be able to sweep it under the historical rug altogether. People who really devoted themselves to his unfinished business would have a national spotlight, at least once a year, to amplify and animate his legacy. Though civil rights leaders understandably complain that people just use the holiday to go skiing and shopping, they also complained of similar apathy and complacency during the heyday of civil rights agitation. King is rightly remembered as a man of action, but he was also a contemplative man, who urged activists to reflect and reconsider their positions. The day provides space for them to do that. Those who are cynical about symbolic gestures like this ought to pause to consider how a massive amount of lip service to King’s cause—indeed elevation of it in the official calendar of the Nation to the level of Washington, Columbus, and Jesus—was an amazing achievement, at the height of the electorate’s rightward leap. They might also grasp that the new demographic pattern this victory revealed—a shift of opposition to civil rights from the deep South to Western states and New Hampshire (along with Jesse Helms’s increasingly exceptional North Carolina)—yielded more than the symbolic holiday. The 1980s—characterized by repudiation of liberalism in so many areas—actually witnessed several significant victories for one element of liberalism, civil rights. In addition to the King holiday in 1983, Congress renewed and significantly expanded the Voting Rights Act in 1982; enacted, over President Reagan’s veto, comprehensive sanctions on racist South Africa in 1986, a rare achievement of the Congressional Black Caucus, in an area that had legendarily stymied King, foreign policy; defeated the nomination of right-winger Robert Bork to the Supreme Court in 1987; overturned a reactionary trend in the Supreme Court with the Civil Rights Restoration Act, passed again over Reagan’s veto in 1988; and finally fulfilled Congress’s original tribute to King, by strengthening, in 1988, the enforcement provisions in the Housing Act of 1968 with which Waking from the Dream began.”
“Other events covered in the book include the two presidential campaigns of King’s most famous and controversial successor, Jesse Jackson. Though Jackson overstated his case when he later claimed his runs at the White House paved the way for Barack Obama’s later successes, he did achieve some amazing feats, including great increases in black voter registration. Ultimately, black voters supported the far more conservative, white southern leadership of Bill Clinton and his anti-liberal Democratic Leadership Council (as they had supported Jimmy Carter’s similar leadership in the late 1970s, and for that matter Lyndon Johnson’s in the 1960s). But Jackson demonstrated that even a deeply flawed and erratic black candidate could mobilize black voters—and often startlingly large numbers of white ones—to put effective pressure on and disrupt the complacency of the Democratic party, if not the national state itself. Finally, Jackson proved that charismatic leadership—which many black activists and nearly the entire academic establishment believed had become outmoded and irrelevant after the victories of the 1960s—still meant a great deal. In that sense, Jackson not only carried on King’s unique legacy, though in a very different style, but also anticipated Barack Obama’s again very different brand of charismatic leadership.”
“The book concludes by taking measure of King’s historical reputation in American memory, by examining the revelations of his moral failings. These suddenly became subjects of broad public discussion when King’s persistent record of cheating on his wife made the headlines for several weeks in 1989 (after the publication of what some called a traitorous memoir by his best friend and designated successor, Ralph Abernathy), and the extensive record of his plagiarism as a doctoral student, which was revealed in 1990. Though some opponents of King’s cause tried to use these failings to undermine his ongoing mission, and his self-appointed defenders and protectors did an embarrassingly shabby job of trying to obscure or dismiss the evidence, King’s reputation and his cause survived the onslaught of often well founded criticism of his character. Indeed, his stature as an inspiring, world-wide moral leader only deepened and grew. The cause King symbolized was certainly not helped by this anguished and often troubling examination of his personal behavior, but it was not noticeably hurt either.”