Last week, many Americans reflected on the legacy of one of our nation’s most revered heroes, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. King’s holiday carried a special resonance this year in light of the recent tragedy in Tuscon, Arizona. In the past week, luminaries ranging from New York Senator Charles Schumer to the Revered Al Sharpton invoked Dr. King’s message in an effort to comment on the shootings, as the latter even held a special King Day Forum, focusing on the ugly prevalence of gun violence.
At the annual King Day event held in Brooklyn, many of the speakers made the same juxtaposition, calling for an end to gun violence in honor of Dr. King’s legacy. The New York Times noted that all of the speakers “knew for sure what Dr. King, were he only still alive, would have done about America’s gun culture. He would have led campaigns to reign it in, they said. And they were probably right.”
Indeed, there is no question that they were. But when Dr. King’s name emerges in the contemporary discursive, many more voices than just the good-natured community organizers in Brooklyn have attempted to appropriate it. And some of them are highly questionable at best. (I won’t divulge any names, but it’s disheartening to see right wing commentators drawing from Dr. King’s life in an effort to promote their welfare state-thinning agenda). The Times’ Clyde Haberman is correct in remarking that King enthusiasts find themselves “roughly equivalent to constitutional interpreters who claim to intuit what the nation’s founders would have thought on 21st century concerns that were unknowable 225 years ago.”
It is easy to invoke King’s name these days precisely because in many instances, we don’t know what he would have thought of such 21st century concerns. While Dr. King is remembered for his struggles against the nation’s greatest evil in the past century, Jim Crow in the South, much of his later work has consequently been forgotten. This includes, perhaps most notably, his relentless campaign for fair housing, which culminated in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 (the “Fair Housing Act”). The Act was signed into law about a week after King was killed in Memphis. And in contrast to the ceaseless speculation about what King “would have thought,” fair housing is an issue for which he spent years organizing, speaking, and protesting.
Most of Dr. King’s significant fair housing work took place in Chicago, a city known at the time as one of the most intensely segregated north of the Mason-Dixon line. His work in the Windy City in January 1965 is brilliantly recounted in Rick Perlstein’s highly acclaimed political history of the sixties, Nixonland. Perlstein describes the squalid conditions that greeted King upon his arrival in Chicago’s predominantly African-American southwest section: “he rented a four room walk-up for his family in Lawndale (“Slumdale”) neighborhood. Reporters crowded each other on move-in day, noting the smell of urine, the single hall light, the rumors the block was controlled by gangs.”
King came to Chicago at a time when the city’s mayor, Richard Daley, proudly proclaimed that there was “no segregation in Chicago,” since the city had passed an open housing ordinance a few years prior. Daley was well aware, however, that without federal enforcement, fair housing in practice would never surface.
Having chosen Chicago for this very reason—to demonstrate why desegregation would not succeed without a sufficient legal infrastructure—King’s efforts, perhaps unsurprisingly, faced fierce hostility. Perlstein chronicles constituent letters to members of Illinois’s Congressional delegation, one of which read, “Do you or any of your friends live next door to a negro—why should we have them pushed down our throat?” Later in his stay, King delivered a summer sermon at the Shiloh Baptish Church, where just beyond the church’s walls, “unbeknownst to the cops or to King, kids outside assembled Molotov cocktails.”
Despite the setbacks, King persisted. On August 5, amidst searing heat, King led a long-planned march through the city, in which he was joined by a number of African-American celebrities. Perlstein chronicles the copious insults and threats he received while marching, and after a rock grazed his ear, King was forced to pause his march briefly. Perlstein writes:
He slumped to the ground—the Gandhian moment of truth. ‘I think everybody in that line wanted to kill everybody on the other side of the line,’ a marcher later recalled. King got up and kept on marching. We shall overcome.
Indeed, Dr. King’s resilience and grace in the face of unspeakable hardship helped instill in the nation a consciousness about equal opportunity housing that paved the way for the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which outlawed racial discrimination in the sale, rental, and financing of housing. While the hatred recorded by Perlstein eventually killed Dr. King, his legacy no doubt remains strong.
Unfortunately, we are far from achieving Dr. King’s dream, evidenced by the continuance of deeply segregated neighborhoods, schools, and public institutions throughout the United States. The senseless violence in Arizona further reminds us that our nation painfully lags behind Martin Luther King’s vision. At St. Ambrose, Dr. King’s life inspires us when we think of the possibilities of service but at the same time, forces us to constantly examine the fact that there is so much work to be done.