The Pluralism of MLK
Fifty years after Memphis, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy remains closely tied to integration, to Brown v. Board of Education, the Montgomery bus boycott, and the creation of a society where, as King himself put it in 1963, “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”
But then what?
In 1964, Robert Penn Warren asked King about the extent to which integration should go – about the “pull, on the one hand, toward Negro tradition, or culture, or blood, and the pull on the other hand toward the white cultural heritage with, perhaps, an eventual absorption of the Negro blood?” It was a sensitive topic. The Supreme Court had called for full assimilation of African Americans into white society in Brown, even citing a study by a Swedish sociologist named Gunnar Myrdal that declared black institutions, traditions, even culture to be pathological. King balked. As he explained to Warren, the question of black culture was “a real issue,” particularly among the “Negro middle class,” but cultural pluralism and civil rights could coincide. “One can live in American society with a certain cultural heritage,” explained King, “African or what have you – and still absorb a great deal of this [mainstream] culture.” Blacks who rejected their culture, argued King, suffered for it. “Often” black individuals who “reject psychologically anything that reminds [them] of [their] heritage” find themselves “with no cultural roots.”
Calls for protecting black culture would become a prominent part of black politics in the late 1960s, fueling the Black Arts Movement, the Black Panther Party, the invention of Kwanzaa and the formation of Black Studies Departments across the country. Often, such moves are framed as a response to King’s assimilationist vision, a move away from his push for integration. Yet, they need not be. Even today, King might be viewed as a proponent of pluralism, a society where courts are authorized to bar discrimination, but where the government does not otherwise seek to enforce a unified, homogenous, culture. As much as he fought mandatory segregation, in other words, King did not call for closing black churches, nor did he necessarily imagine a society where all spaces had to be racially balanced. Whites and blacks could sit at the table of brotherhood, to be sure, but then they could go home.
Anders Walker is the author of The Burning House: Jim Crow and the Making of Modern America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018), and The Ghost of Jim Crow: How Southern Moderates Used Brown v. Board of Education to Stall Civil Rights (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009). He teaches law and history at Saint Louis University in St. Louis, Missouri.