"Lift yourself by your own Bootstraps!"
There are many sermons and speeches by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that are referenced in the writings I’ve read over the course of my life. I imagine the most commonly referenced is the famous “I Have A Dream” speech at the march on Washington in D.C. Clearly that was one of the most inspiring speeches in American history, filled with the idealism that we all embrace for our country’s unity. However, 5 yrs later and 11 months before his assassination, Dr. King gave an interview to NBC News’ Sander Vancour, where he admitted that the period of the August 1963 speech was “a great watershed moment, but I must confess that uh, that dream I had that day has in many forms turned into a nightmare…” Dr. King went on to say that in the following years, what he had become aware of was one of the “greatest expressions of hypocrisy” by many citizens and politicians.
King stated that the first phase of the civil rights struggle was a quest for decency, but the second phase was to be for Genuine Equality for the Negro. King further noted that whenever there has been progress towards justice for Blacks, it is always followed by what he called ‘White Backlash’. King states “there has never been a single, solid determined commitment of large segments of white America on the whole question of racial equality.” The movement was facing “vacillation and ambivalence” from white Americans, because they “never intended for it to go this far.” While the support in Selma and Birmingham came from whites who were outraged about the extremist behavior toward Negroes, “they were not at that moment nor are they now committed to genuine equality for Negroes…” King states. “People were reacting to Bull Conner and to Jim Clark, rather than acting in good faith toward the realization of genuine equality.” Dr. King had evolved in his thinking by this time. He realized that being allowed to sit at the lunch counter with whites wasn’t enough if you don’t have the money to buy a sandwich and a cup of coffee. He realized that being given a slice of another’s pie is fine, but it’s far better for one to have his own pie so that he can decide for himself what size slice he wants to eat. That Blacks aren’t asking for anything they aren’t entitled to, having been oppressed for hundreds of years in this country. However King was now very realistic about the barriers to freedom posed by so many who were eager to protect the status quo.
The interviewer asked a very interesting question of King. “Do you think white people in this country, and I’m talking non – segregationist, people who are devoid or think they’re devoid of racism… Do you have any idea what they want the Negro to be in America?” Dr. King responded…
“You have to make the distinction between the people who are genuinely and absolutely committed in the white community on the question of racial equality, and I must confess that I believe they are in a very small minority."
"I think the vast majority of white Americans will go but so far. It’s a kind of installment plan for equality. And they are always looking for an excuse to go but so far.” The interviewer then asked Dr. King, “Why are they (whites) looking for the excuse?” He then drew a comparison between Blacks and others, stating how so many other immigrant groups who have come to America had “somehow got around it… What is it about the Negro? Is it because he is Black?” Dr. King’s response was, “you can’t ‘Thingify’ anything, without depersonalizing that Something. If you use something as a means to an end, at that moment you make it a ‘thing’ and you depersonalize it.” King explained that the willful act of making the Negro a slave, putting him in chains and treating him in a very inhuman fashion, and even making his color a stigma, are what led to the “Thingification” of the Negro.
King explains that whites had to find ways to rationalize and justify slavery morally, biologically and (theologically). Further, no other Immigrant groups have had to be slaves on American soil. Other immigrant groups came to America willingly and were given millions of acres of land in the West and mid-west, proving that the (American) government was willing to give the white peasants from Europe an economic base. Yet Black peasants from Africa who had been forced here involuntarily in chains and had worked for Free for 244 years, were denied land or any kind of economic base. “So, Emancipation for the Negro was freedom to hunger and freedom to the winds and rains of heaven. Freedom without food to eat nor land to cultivate, and so it was freedom and famine at the same time.” I believe that one of the most important questions asked in this interview was “Does the Negro know what he wants to be?” Dr. King explained
“we want to be people, we want to be men, we want equality, period.” King goes on to say, “There are those Negroes who’ve been so scarred by the system that they’ve become pathological in the process…” all Negroes battle with this pathology on some level and “no one really knows what it’s like to be a negro unless they’ve experienced it (the effects of this kind of Pathology).”
Let us delve a bit deeper into this pathology that Dr. King mentions. I find it particularly interesting that he uses the term Pathology when describing the condition of many Blacks in America. By using this one term, he incorporates two phenomena. One has to do with pathology as it relates to medicine, it involves examining the cause of illness, how it develops, the effect of the illness on cells and the outcome of the illness. 244 years of slavery, Jim Crow Laws which followed and the systemic oppression in all of America’s institutions has taken it’s toll physically on Blacks. These cellular changes due to distress and trauma could no doubt contribute to many of the medical maladies and diseases faced by many Black descendants of slaves. However, in Dr. King’s explanation has another implication, which is the psychopathology that Black Americans have faced. Psychopathology derives from two Greek words: “psyche’ meaning ‘soul’, and pathos’ meaning ‘suffering’. Currently, ‘psychopathology’ is understood to mean the origin of mental health disorders, how they develop and their symptoms. What could bring on such trauma and stress? Dr. King explains that it results from a constant drain from the feeling of “nobodyness” Blacks face. King explains that this feeling of ‘nobodyness’ comes from the conditions Blacks lived with, the syndrome of deprivation in housing, economics, schools, vicious credit practices that they face, closed doors and constant defeats. Brought on by all of these years of oppression, and a society that deliberately made the Negro’s color a stigma and something worthless and degrading.
My previous three blogs addressed other factors that contribute to Black psychopathology. Some other manifestations derived from the conditions of enslavement result in self – loathing. Manifested in colorism, becoming masters of the “put down”, and going to great lengths to make our hair more closely resemble that of whites in texture and color. Truly much of the psychopathology was addressed by scholars such as Frederick Douglass, Marcus Garvey, W.E.B. Du Bois and others who sought to remedy it. In the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, with the rise of conscious Civil Rights Activists as well as the lyrics in Soul, pop and R&B artists and music. James Brown’s anthem “Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud”, Malcolm X’s cry “By Any Means Necessary”, Reverend Jesse Jackson’s chant “I Am Somebody”, the call for “Black Power” by the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, the poetry and writings of James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovani and so many others.
Still with the vast number of heroes, came the lingering oppression, the beatings, murders, humiliation of many of our Black leaders and citizens, and the burning down of their homes, businesses and communities by imbittered and jealous whites. These practices perpetuated damage to the psyche of Blacks.
While the interviewers’ questions did not prompt Dr. King to refer to the behavior of whites in these terms, there is clearly a pathological component to the behavior of those who would treat Blacks with such vitriol for illogical reasons. The nuances of this particular psychopathology in whites are explained when Dr. King describes how slavery had to be rationalized and justified by those who reduced the enslaved Africans to mere legal property.
Clearly whites were not oblivious to the fact that Blacks were human beings, but they justified their cruel and inhumane treatment of Blacks by creating laws that symbolically turned the Negro into a ‘Thing’.
Only for political advantages was the Negroes status elevated to Three – Fifths human in the Three – Fifths compromise enacted by the House of Representatives at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. If I’m honest, I don’t really care how slavery was ended, I’m just happy that it was brought to an end. I am grateful that Abraham Lincoln felt that his only recourse to saving the Union was to Emancipate the enslaved Blacks. That said, I am also aware of his ignorant stance on race. Lincoln underscores his belief in the inferiority of Blacks in the Great Debates with Sen. Stephen Douglas in 1858. Lincoln explains to the crowd that he was against any social or political equality between Blacks and whites, not in favor of giving Blacks the right to vote or serve as jurors, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor intermarry with white people. Lincoln states additionally that the physical differences between the Black and white races will forever forbid the two from living together on terms of social and political equality. He further states that while they do live together, there must be a position of superior and inferior, and that he himself was “in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.” Therefore, Lincoln was a certified White Supremacist. This thinking has become pathological and is what carries over into modern day white American psyche.
Dr. King recognized this pathology in whites during a series of marches in Chicago for equality in housing and employment. King states, “I have never seen, even in Mississippi and Alabama, mobs as hate – filled and hostile as I’ve seen in Chicago.” He went on to continue the marches, as Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley offered lip service from the political machine, but no real efforts towards true concessions. King in another speech spoke very candidly with his followers stating:
“I’m tired of marching for something that should have been mine at birth… I’m tired of living everyday under the threat of death, I have no martyr complex. I want to live as long as anybody in this building, and sometimes I begin to doubt I’m gonna make it through, I must confess I’m tired!”
The question becomes, what kind of psychopathology can drive the majority of whites to exhibit such disdain for Blacks more than 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation? What could cause an insurrection in 1898, where a white mob overturned a free and fair election in Wilmington North Carolina, massacred hundreds of Black citizens and running more than 2,000 others out of the city, rendering them homeless? What could so stir up white citizens, deputized and given arms by city officials to destroy ‘Black Wallstreet’ in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921? What am I to say of the mechanics wife in Portland Tennessee, who deems it necessary to call me the ‘N’ word when I challenge her on the inflated prices she attempts to charge me for parts? Or the white gentleman who follows me to the gas pump and yells, “Go back to Africa!”
Do all whites suffer from this pathology? I believe just as Dr. King said regarding Blacks, that whites must all battle this pathology.
For what else can be said to explain the condition of whites who shake their fists in disdain for the vicious maltreatment of Blacks by police, but vacillate and become ambivalent to the need for immediate social justice for Blacks in this present day?
What is it that makes whites upset at the idea of Blacks wanting Reparations, or wanting every vestige and painful reminder of white supremacy to come down? Why do whites still buck at the idea of economic equality for Blacks? I honestly wonder if my white neighbor would be as kind to me if he knew that I had exactly what he has or more than he has… if my boat or my home were bigger, if my job paid more or if I owned hundreds of acres of land passed down from my great grandparents. I wonder if my white neighbor believes in his heart of hearts that I am never supposed to have equal to or more than he has. I wonder why some whites are quick to think that I’m either an Athlete or Drug dealer if I appear too prosperous…
Unfortunately, we still have a culture that socializes us to believe certain things even when those beliefs are contradicted by reality. Dr. King says that “we have deluded ourselves into believing the myth that Capitalism grew and prospered out of the protestant ethic of hard work and sacrifice. The fact is that Capitalism was built on the exploitation and suffering of Black Slaves.” Justice and equality have to be a reality for all men. Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968 just prior to his scheduled Poor People’s Campaign march in Washington D.C. That march would have been the catalyst for an economic Revolution for Blacks and poor people across the United States.
"It's alright to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps." - Martin Luther king Jr.
By Any Means Necessary by Malcolm X
The Prosaic Soul of Nikki Giovanni by Nikki Giovanni
My Bondage And My Freedom by Frederick Douglas
On The Pulse of Morning by Maya Angelou
The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois
1. MLK Talks ‘New Phase’ of Civil Rights Struggle
2. MLK The Three Evils of Society
3.Say It Loud, I'm Black And I'm Proud by James Brown
4. American Dream by Willie Jones (please post the video)
From left top: Malcolm X, W.E.B Du Bois, Frederick Douglas, Maya Angelou
From Left Bottom: Rev. Jesse Jackson, James Brown, Nikki Giovanni