On NBC News' Interview with MLK, May 8th, 1967
I yield my time to a far more effective teacher than I am.
I yield my time to a far more effective teacher than I am. Below, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King. The linked interview is incredible. There's not a thing he says which fails to encourage historical reflection or account for how things work. I am amazed to see leadership so engaged, so conscious of what is happening. For some strange reason, I feel like that has been lost nowadays:
I believe three specific items from this interview should be discussed further. First, the deep understanding of history accompanying his political and ethical views. Second, the significance of visibility not just for remedial action, but for knowing a problem exists at all. Third, his address of the complaints of a younger generation who believe not enough is being done. Each of these items has radical import. Lots of people talk about knowing history, but they often mean getting Jeopardy! questions correct. Many are outright dismissive of visibility or awareness, as if these weren't related to dignity. And I don't need to say much about the gerontocracy that currently constitutes the government of the United States.
Starting around 15:30, MLK speaks of the post-Civil War situation. The freed slaves were given nothing to start a new life. At that exact moment, millions of acres were being given to immigrants. The cause of this disparity is both ironic and telling. In order to populate the West, promote economic growth, and win the election of 1860, Lincoln promoted the Homestead Act, which would grant substantial acreage to citizens if the claimed land was made productive for five years. In other words, a policy which cemented the alliance between the Midwest and the North, making the election of Lincoln possible, also demonstrates glaring inequality and injustice. The liberatory moment--MLK cites the Emancipation Proclamation by name--is tied to severe neglect. Without providing freed slaves anything, it was only a matter of time before a reactionary regime established itself over them. Meanwhile, newly arrived immigrants had a real chance to prosper because of favorable policy. Some may say the solution is for government to never give anyone anything, but experience teaches that material wealth aids a defense of rights. Poverty is a powerful tool for oppressors.
My classes talked about this interview. I believe it challenges how some ethics courses are run. An ethics class typically introduces an ethical framework (e.g. "the greatest good for the greatest number") and applies it to a case. Cases establish a timeline of events to highlight motivations and behaviors. The temptation is to identify each motivation or behavior as definitively good or bad. As a consequence, there is less engagement with reality and more focus on passing judgment.
By contrast, history, not a mere timeline, is knotted. The good and bad mix in ways which cannot easily be separated. You can identify what is good and bad, as they are usually clear enough. But achieving what is good for all requires conditions which allow everyone to benefit. Those conditions are not simply material. They concern the development of ideas, various groups fighting for power, the mood of the nation, notions of legitimacy, the ability to perceive a crisis, etc. MLK identifies history's knots and thus invokes the necessary scale of change. I don't know ethics is possible without historical consciousness. It certainly does not look possible for those who have positively transformed the world.
It's hard to think of visibility as a moral concept. We're swamped with people who want it at all costs and are ashamed of nothing. But MLK talks about it in a variety of ways related to moral change. To wit: visibility is necessary so others can bear witness to the brutality visited upon the vulnerable. The law enables visibility, as everyone can understand the phrase "equal protection of the laws" and see if that is actually happening. And when people are used to their circumstances, injustice can be invisible to the victims themselves.
MLK details each of these propositions. Villains such as Bull Connor helped bring positive national attention to protests. The clarity of the 14th Amendment made being reminded of Jim Crow sickening. And African-Americans in the North did not always see the gravity of their situation. I find myself struck by how something I've struggled to argue as key to morality is assumed by MLK to be vital and developed by him in no small detail.
Perhaps MLK's embrace of a younger generation's frustration also brings us to the theme of visibility. Plenty of people wanted to hear that a younger generation was more militant because they were impatient and lawless. But the whole interview is MLK saying that the protests which worked with older parishoners were fine for one phase of the Civil Rights Movement. Different, more difficult problems require a new phase as well as young people, and the young correctly see that structural impediments to progress are more subtle and run deep. Their anger is the sign that everyone else's patience is a form of inaction, if not an unwillingness to see injustice. Around the 20 minute mark, MLK sides with the younger generation that, in a number of cases, has explicitly broken with his movement. He sees their critique of America as essential. My jaw was on the floor hearing him endorse them, because in my lifetime I've watched the "you are the leaders of tomorrow" rhetoric vanish. It is very clear that a number of those in charge think the job of young people is to be a combination of a tax base and cheap labor. It's hard to state how insidious and ubiquitous that moral rot is. You can't think of your own kids as anything other than taxpayers or workers?
Philosophy, in general, struggles to give activists their due. Philosophers are much more comfortable arguing how one thinker alludes to an idea another thinker had. It isn't immediately clear it is in the realm of philosophy to see how someone articulates a problem in order to identify its actionable aspects. That the actionable gets messy is a cardinal sin. Think of the messiness MLK has to deal with: the very success of the Civil Rights Movement leads to complacency and even the ludcrious feeling that backlash is warranted. This is not something philosophers want to discuss. Leave it to historians and other activists. We aim for indubitable goods.
But it is an indubitable good to be MLK. And if you're going to be him, then artificial notions of ethical goods cannot suffice. You're going to have to make a positive change, see through the consequences, and then keep building. We don't discuss the complications in order to avoid doing what's right, but to prepare ourselves for the difficulties and then resume the work. That idea, building a future, is strangely absent from a world flush with technology and lifestyle gurus. It's almost like you can't get your news, or any news, from the TV. You've got to make news for the right reasons in order to have news.