Friday, April 03, 2009

King and the End of the Civil Rights Movement

If you haven't read the discussion at the TPM Book Club of Clay Risen's new book A Nation on Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination, check it out. Risen, Todd Gitlin, and Thomas Sugrue, among others, have spent the week engaged in a fascinating conversation about King's role in the late civil rights movement, whether the assassination of King doomed the mainline movement, and whether such an outcome was inevitable.

My own feelings on the matter fall closest to Sugrue, who discusses how local African-American activists in northern cities turned to organizing their communities rather than continue focusing on a national movement. Looking at African-American activists around the nation during the 1970s, we see the same thing. In fact, we usually look at the 1960s as the great period of radicalism and organizing in the second half of the twentieth century, but I believe the 70s show much more organizing, often with great success. The main difference between, say, 1966 and 1976 were the goals and geography of activism. Activists tended to work closer to home, on the level of the neighborhood and city more than nationally. There are certainly exceptions to this, particularly with the feminist movement and, to some extent, the environmental movement. But to no small extent, the experience of the feminist movement is evidence toward my point--feminists were fighting legalized discrimination that could be overturned by federal law, thus making national movement-based organizing a great strategy. Besides, the women's movement also engaged in all sorts of locally-based activism as well.

All of this suggests that while we can't overstate King's importance, his death may be beside the point. It's a quite legitimate question to wonder whether King would continue to have remained effective during and after 1968. While the Poor People's Campaign collapsed after his death, I find it hard to believe that a King-led movement would have turned the nation to support massive investments for the poor in 1968. Nixon was campaigning succesfully against just such ideas and while King had great moral suasion, it's unlikely that would have carried the day alone. What King would have done post-1968 is unknown. But he would likely have stayed in the political wilderness at least until Carter took over in 1977 and I find it doubtful that he would have had much influence over a fairlly conservative Democratic administration either. Perhaps seeing the difficulty of national campaigning in a post-Jim Crow world, activists across the nation turned to an arena where they could still effectively organize for change: their neighborhoods and cities. And there they made real concrete differences throughout the 1970s.