As the country celebrates Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., history Professor Andrew Moore reflects on King’s impact then and now, 46 years later. In the Q&A below, Moore gives historical context to the movement King led, discussing the question of equality, King’s affect on the civil rights acts, and how we can continue to honor his legacy.
Moore, an expert in religion, race and gender relationships post-Civil Rights era, is currently teaching a course on “Contemporary America,” which explores the political, social, and cultural movements since 1945.
Andy Moore (AM): Americans have always wanted to believe that ours is a country where every one is equal. It makes us unique. King was able to highlight that this talk about equality was just talk. There was not equality. He was able to articulate that reality in a way that got people’s attention.
He’s relevant still because he represents the two different sides of the American idea of equality – equal opportunity and equal outcomes.
On the one hand, the mainstream civil rights movement wanted an end to legal segregation. That is, they wanted the law not to restrict people based on race. The speech that everyone knows at least part of is an example of this. King had a dream that his children would be judged “not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” A lot of people latch on to that quotation and claim that King stood for equal opportunity – and that’s very American. We all expect this equal opportunity. At the very least, the law should be color blind. King and the civil rights movement achieved this, when Congress passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
On the other hand, if we look at King’s entire career – especially the few short years after the Voting Rights Act – we hear him saying that equal opportunity (or equality before the law) was not enough. That did not go far enough to achieve actual equality in real life circumstances. When he was assassinated, he was pushing for an economic version of the Civil Rights Act. In his Poor People’s Campaign, there was a broader focus on equality—on equal outcomes—so he was arguing that everyone was still not starting from the same place.
He’s still, then, relevant because the question of equality is still an open question.
Q: What about now? How was he successful?
AM: It depends on which side you look at. People who believe in equal opportunity would say we’re on the path moving forward to a color blind society, that legally and culturally there is less awareness of race as a dividing factor. The other side says race is still a dividing factor, there is persistent inequality. They point to economic, education, employment, and crime statistics and say there is not equal opportunity; race still does matter. There is ample evidence to support both positions.
Q: How do we continue to honor King?
AM: First, as a historian I think one should learn as much about King’s life and the civil rights movement as possible. That way we can better understand how the issues King was concerned about are still relevant. For example, we would better understand last year’s Supreme Court decision striking down part of the Voting Rights Act. We could then vote or pressure congressmen in an informed way.
Second, no matter which side of the question of equality we come down on, King and the civil rights movement provide a model for political activity that was effective. Grassroots organizing plus a principled moral stance is a formula for being an engaged citizen. So one could honor King by organizing and pressing for political and moral reform in a way that is always respectful of one’s opponent.
Q: What are the social and political implications of Barack Obama as our first African American President? How has that affected perspectives on race in this country?
AM: I think this is not a straightforward answer – again, there’s something for everyone. People who point to equal opportunity say, ‘hey we elected an African American president. There’s change.’ At the same time, President Obama has not talked about race a lot, but when he has, he has done so in a way that presidents since Lyndon B. Johnson have not. He’s been able to address continued racial inequality and cultural perceptions of race. He’s been able to articulate the continuing relevance of racial issues in a way others have not.
Q: How are you reviewing Martin Luther King Jr. in your Contemporary America course this spring?
AM: The students will read some speeches by him, and they will learn in general about the civil rights movement. They’ll also read the book, “Coming of Age in Mississippi” by Anne Moody. This was published in 1968. Moody was an African American woman who was active in the civil rights movement but – like other black students and young people who came of age in the late 1950s and early 1960s – was critical of King and other leaders, saying they were not radical enough, they compromised too quickly. She represented a popular sentiment of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) that thought King wasn’t willing enough to be arrested and spend time in jail or spend enough time at local demonstrations.
King was the movement’s national leader. Without his insistence on non-violence and his political skills, the movement probably would not have been as successful as it was when it was. So this book also lets me highlight the tension between grassroots activists and King – with the understanding that the movement was successful because of a powerful combination of King’s national leadership and grassroots activism.
Also, Moody wrote just a couple of years after the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act had been passed by Congress. Still, she ends the book on her way to the 1963 March on Washington. When someone asks her whether the movement song, “We Shall Overcome,” was true (i.e., whether they truly would overcome), she responded,“I wonder. I really wonder.” She was not hopeful that simply changing the law would accomplish true equality.
Professor Moore is also an expert in the history of the American presidency and presidential politics.