In 2020, when disgruntled parties like me were reconciling ourselves with the reality of the Black Lives Matter movement, I decided to go back to a trusted source and picked up a copy of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Where do we go from here, published in 1967. It was most unsettling to discover its contemporary relevance; it could have easily been written in 2019 with a few names and terms updated. It was written toward the end of Dr. King’s career and he is reflecting on the Civil Rights movement, where it had been, how far it had come, and how far it had to go.
One of the key themes found in the book is what I would call the myth of the ‘big fix.’ That is, the idea that one large, coordinated bill or act or event or resolution will put the issue of racism behind us once and for all. It’s a tempting belief: I don’t know anyone, black or white or any other color, that wouldn’t want to have the era of prejudice and discrimination a thing of the past, never more to raise its ugly head.
But history has shown over and over again that this is a pipe dream. “There are no broad highways to lead us easily and inevitably to quick solutions,” says King, drawing this conclusion from the American experience and foreseeing it for the years to come.
Quick solutions. Possible? Maybe. But probable? Almost certainly not. How do we know? Just look at American history. For many 19th century Americans, the Civil War had brought the long-awaited end to slavery, and with it, they thought, an end to all of the exploitation and abuse of a person on the basis of skin color. Indeed, there was a beautiful path to forge of brotherhood, equity, and fairness for the young country had we chosen it. But we didn’t. Instead, we allowed the White South to put themselves back together however they’d like, recreating, just without the nomenclature, the same relationships, the same bigotry, the same preferential treatment that existed before the war, leading directly to the Jim Crow laws of the following century.
Likewise, the Civil Rights movement could have pushed us to completely overhaul our society to put a stop to all things racist. In fact, the Kerner Commission of 1968, a task force appointed by President Johnson himself, was appointed to come up with a proposal to do just that. It called on our government to create new jobs, construct new housing, and put a stop to de facto segregation in order to dismantle the destructive ghetto environment. To do so, the report recommended that government programs provide needed services, police forces should be improved by hiring more officers and educating them about their neighborhoods, and, most notably, to invest billions in housing programs aimed at breaking up residential segregation. What was the Johnson Administration’s response? To ignore all the proposals except one: more law enforcement. The result was predictable: In April 1968, one month after the Kerner report was published, leader Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated and rioting of protest and grief broke out in more than 100 cities.
What about Brown vs. the Board of Education in 1954? Didn’t that give black children just as equal access to great education as whites? No, it just got most of the black teachers fired and black children left to fend for themselves in white classrooms. In 2023, there is still an embarrassing achievement gap between blacks and whites across Montgomery County. It didn’t solve the problem.
The list goes on. Our most decisive ‘triumphs’ have never been silver bullets. No, there are no once-and-for-all fix to racism in America. If there had been, I think we would have found it and implemented it by now. But it doesn’t exist. Or it does but our incessant refusal to choose it is, for all intents and purposes, determinative for the road ahead. No, if any progress will be made, if any racism will be dismantled, if ‘justice for all’ will actually happen, it will be the result of hundreds or thousands of bold, courageous, incremental steps toward the right. I’m afraid to say ‘three steps forward, two steps back’ is likely to be our lot.
If progress will be slow but at the same time we believe that every day a black person feels less than, inferior, not quite American, or scared to live in his own culture is wrong, then how much harder, with how much more strength, with how much greater resolve should we work toward progress? It could have happened 150 years ago but it didn’t; we’re playing catch-up. And we’ve got our work cut out for us. As Dr. King said:
“Human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation.”
Let’s get going!