“White lives, for the forces which rule in this country, are no more sacred than black ones, as many and many a student is discovering, as the white American corpses in Vietnam prove. If the American people are unable to contend with their elected leaders for the redemption of their own honor and the lives of their own children, we, the blacks, the most rejected of the Western children, can expect very little help at their hands; which, after all, is nothing new. What the Americans do not realize is that a war between brothers, in the same cities, on the same soil, is not a racial war but a civil war. But the American delusion is not only that their brothers all are white but that the whites are all their brothers.”
-James Baldwin, “An Open Letter to My Sister Angela Y. Davis” (November 19, 1970)
In the days following Dr. King’s assassination, Washington D.C. experienced the most destructive rioting in its history. I think that the disturbances which followed King’s murder are worth revisiting because of what they can tell us of the disparity between the promise of American life and its reality for many. I also think it is worth revisiting on account of the role of racism in shaping the physical, economic, psychological, and sociological landscape of urban and black life in the United States.
In the fall of 1968, the Washington Post put out a book on the riots which still stands as a valuable document that has helped me to understand a world I grew up adjacent to but also very far away from.
Next week is the 50th anniversary of the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
One of the things that I think that has been neglected over the years is how Coretta Scott King and her four children were impacted by his death. I am currently working on an editorial on this topic and I am hoping that the London Free Press -or someone else- will run it.
In the meantime, I recommend watching this segment from 60 Minutes (11:37-24:52). Just before Christmas 1968, Mike Wallace went to the King household to see how they were faring.
I am currently weighing John Rawls’ ideas on “justice as fairness” with my own re-envisioning of the history of my native land. I recently read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ collection of essays “We Were Eight Years In Power” and found myself sitting once again with a bedevilling problem, which has long disturbed me: the tension between theory and practice; that distance between the careful and necessary study of ideas, especially ideas about fairness, liberty and equality as first order principles and, frankly, reality: the socio-economic and political realities of race and class, which play such a formative role in the application of fairness, liberty and equality.
I remember so well being confronted with a terrible feeling of inadequacy when I was immersed in graduate studies whereby I felt that my work in history was irrelevant; irrelevant to the concerns of contemporary society. The inadequacy was, I think in hindsight, the result of a flaw in my approach to my research (these things often are). But I have never been able to move away from, or beyond, a terrible sense that the careful examination of first order principles of how a fair and just society is to be constructed are somehow far removed from the historical legacy and the contemporary socio-economic and political -not to mention ecological- realities of the United States (Canada, too). I mention the U.S. specifically as it is my native land and therefore the society I know best.
In the short clip that follows, Noam Chomsky speaks to this dilemma I am facing as I read and re-read Rawls and try and respond to the claims and criticisms Ta-Nehisi Coates has so profoundly drawn together in his essays on the 2009-2017 period in American history (with all of its antecedents).