Martin Luther King, Jr’s “A Testament of Hope” and Our Current Moment
Last Friday, I sat down with Marie Cochran, curator of the Affriclacian Artist Project, at the Lillian E. Smith Center to record an episode of “Dope with Lime.” We sat there, on the ground where Smith worked, on what would have been Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 92nd birthday and talked about King, Smith, and memory. Preparing for our discussion, I read King’s “A Testament of Hope” which was published posthumously in Playboy in 1969. As I read King’s essay, I could not help but think about this current moment and the importance of his words to us today in 2021. Today, I want to look at some of King’s essay.
King penned “A Testament of Hope” in 1968, only a few years removed from the Civil Rights and the Voting Rights Acts, during the Vietnam war and protests to he United States’ militarization, during “urban decay,” and during a time of overt white backlash to the progress of the past decade. Throughout, King points out that the issues facing the nation did not arise overnight, they exist “because the tragic evasions and defaults of several centuries have accumulated to disaster proportions.” This accumulation, feeding the nation’s roots, would not, and will not, end with integration or with superficial gains such as diversity initiatives or political positions. While these are good steps, they do not get at the root issues.
King talks about the progress that has been made with Black congressmen in state legislatures and Blacks on police forces in the Deep South. In order for these moments to lead to true equality there needs to be, as King points out, “a real sharing of power and responsibility.” King knew that integration merely served as a coat of paint, leaving the structural bones intact. To even start renovating the bones, equal sharing of power and responsibility must occur. Until then, we merely slap a new coat of paint on to of a decaying house.
King points out that the issues facing the nation “ — providing jobs, better housing and better education for the poor throughout the country — will require money for their solution, a fact that makes those solutions all the more difficult.” King is pointing out structural racism, and you notice he says “poor” with no noun, so he is talking about all individuals, not just Blacks. He knew, as so many of us do, that the issues we face stem from those who want to keep division going among those underneath them. They fear coalitions.
Part of the tools that those at the top use to stoke fears and antagonism within individuals is the press and myths, and King points out each of these in “A Testament of Hope.” He notes, “The fact that most white people do not comprehend this situation — which prevails in the North as well as in the South — is due largely to the press, which molds the opinions of the white community.” He continues by noting that most whites did not interact with Blacks, and that getting information from a skewed source, that basically peddles hegemonic information, shapes the views of the audience. This sounds very familiar to specific media outlets today such as Fox News, Newsmax, OAN, and more.
Conjoined with this, King directly confronts the mythologized narratives we tell ourselves about the United States, and as he does this he notes the importance of dissent and the role that dissent has in addressing the structural changes that oppress so many. He points out that the words of the Declaration of Independence did not refer to all at their inception, and he writes, “There were slaves when it was written; there were still slaves when it was adopted; and to this day, black Americans have not life, liberty nor the privilege of pursuing happiness, and millions of poor white Americans are in economic bondage that is scarcely less oppressive.”
King returns again and again in “A Testament of Hope” to the economic struggles of both Blacks and whites. While he acknowledges the disparity in salaries for those with little education or the same education, he highlights, in various ways, the economic disadvantages faced by both groups. When mentioning school integration, King writes, “White schools are often just as bad a black ‘schools,’ and integrated schools sometimes tend to merge the problems of the two without solving either of them.”
Along with all of this, King makes it clear that we have a long way to go to renovate the house we have built. While many viewed the election of Barack Obama in 2008 as the ushering in of a post-racial United States, we know that was never the case, and King makes a similar point following advances made during the Civil Rights Movement. King states, “Many whites hasten to congratulate themselves on what little progress we Negroes have made. I’m sure that most whites felt with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, all race problems were automatically solved. Because most white people are so far removed from the life of the average Negro, there has been little to challenge this assumption. Yet Negroes continue to live with racism every day.”
This is the key. We are not in a colorblind society because Obama was president. We are not in a post-racial society because Obama was president. We are still dealing with all of this, and as King points out, there are structural issues we need to reconcile within our nation. King points out, “The price of progress would have been high enough at the best of times, but we are in an agonizing national crisis because a complex of profound problems has intersected in an explosive mixture.”
One of those issues, as King explains again and again in his works, is police brutality, and he spends a large portion of “A Testament of Hope” focusing on it. He notes that “[v]irtually every riot has begun from some police action,” and the past and present bear this out. Look at the protests during the summer of 2020, protests that arose after police involved shootings and killings of individuals such as Jonathan Jefferson, Trayford Perrelin, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. King does not talk about defunding the police and diverting funds, but he argues that police need to be courteous and respectful. However, this cannot happen when, as King puts it earlier, “the largest part of white America is still poisoned by racism, which is as native to our soil as pine trees, sage brush or buffalo grass.” King calls for studies on policing, and in this manner, his position is not far removed from the present as it initially appears.
He concludes by listing America’s history of dissent and revolution, and he tells us, “Today’s dissenters tell the complacent majority that the time has come when further evasion of social responsibility in a turbulent world will court disaster and death. America has not yet changed because so many think it need not change, but this is the illusion of the damned.” In this moment, King links the nation’s history with the movement and work towards social equality, and in the same breath he pushes back against the crumbling myths that we have merely painted over, again and again. To avoid damnation, a total inspection and renovation of the house must occur. Until that moment, we will continue to run around and around and around always moving backwards and forward and backwards again.