Martin Luther King Jr died fifty years ago this year at the age of 39. I can't get over the fact that I am three years older than he was when he was murdered. This was a man with so much potential, so much ahead of him, and on the cusp of a movement that was aimed at bringing the strands of race and class together into a powerful force for change.
I was born in 1975, and my entire life has been a story of backlash against the changes wrought by Dr. King and others. As Ibram X Kendi pointed out in his recent and superlative work Stamped From The Beginning, racial progress has been met in American history by racist progress. The forces of racism may face occasional defeat, but they keep coming back and recalibrating their mission and appeal.
While so many well-meaning but deluded white people thought that racism had been consigned to the dustbin of history by MLK and the election of Barack Obama, the first Klan president was elected in the form of Donald Trump. In 1924 the Democratic Party, dominated by segregationist Southerners, actually managed to prevent the Klan from getting their preferred candidate the nomination. The Republican Party in 2016 gladly and proudly managed to give the nomination to the Klan candidate. Just eight years before the fatuous voices of our media were telling us that America was a "post-racial" nation.
For things to get better we have to abandon our narrative of progress and face things truthfully. People like to quote Dr. King's lines about the moral arc of the universe bending towards justice, but when he was analyzing the situation rather than rallying the troops, he very much questioned the narrative of progress. His "other America" speech at Stanford in 1967 expressed this very well. Here he addressed very directly the backlash against the changes wrought by the movement and the difficulties remaining. In doing so he recalled how the changes wrought be Reconstruction met a similar response.
My entire lifetime has been a litany of racist backlash, from mass incarceration to murderous policing to "welfare queens" to Willie Horton to Trump. The complacency that so many white people in the middle have on racism is partly due to their misbegotten understanding that the problem was solved back in the 1960s. As a teacher of American history I am reminding myself on this day to fight that horrendously damaging myth in the classroom at every opportunity.