“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.
Here is my piece on Dr. King’s family that appears today in the London Free Press:
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).