Dr. King Tried to Warn Us About American Fascism. Will We Listen Before It’s Too Late?
In his final book, Where Do We Go From Here?: Chaos or Community (1967), Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr. issues a sobering appraisal of American politics that could’ve been written just after the 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
King employs an entire chapter to describe “a new wave of white resistance” to racial progress triggered by the Civil Rights Movement, but he doesn’t describe that resistance in terms of lynchings, bombings, and burnings of vigilante white terror groups like one might expect.
Instead, he writes mostly about the Supreme Court’s “Pupil Placement Decision,” which undermined school desegregation laws by empowering the state legislatures to decide where to place students based on things like family background or special ability.
This white backlash caused King to conclude a constituency of white Americans “have declared that democracy isn’t worth having if it involves equality.” He continues:
“The segregationist goal is the total reversal of all reforms with the reestablishment of naked oppression and if need be a native form of fascism.”
It’s worth noting that King describes white backlash as fascist because of the flagrant use of law as a tool to secure white dominance–namely, by directly attacking the legal victories of the civil rights movement. Such use of the law embodies the legal theory of Hitler’s personal lawyer Hans Frank, who believed “law was meant to serve the race.”
That faction of Americans willing to abandon democracy to preserve racial hierarchy are still trying to manipulate the law to serve the race, fifty-five years after King penned those words.
Driven by The Big Lie that voter fraud cost Donald Trump the 2020 election, bad-faith partisan actors are determined to undermine another precious victory of the Civil Rights Movement: voting rights.
19 states passed 34 voter suppression laws in 2021. “At least 13 bills restricting access to voting have been pre-filed, for the 2022 legislative session in four states. In addition, at least 88 restrictive voting bills in nine states will carry over from 2021,” reports the Brennan Center for Justice. These attacks on the electoral process are an assault on American democracy altogether.
As the U.S. commemorates what would’ve been King’s 93rd birthday, it behooves us to heed his diagnosis of America’s political tradition, if we hope to ever see his famous dream of racial unity become real.
Near the end of his life, King spoke publicly about a more radical shift in his perspective on America’s politics. He told journalist David Halberstam, in an April 1967 interview:
“For years I labored with the idea of reforming the existing institutions of the South, a little change here, a little change there. Now I feel quite differently. I think you’ve got to have a reconstruction of the entire society, a revolution of values.”
King’s prescription implies that inequality isn’t a cosmetic problem in America’s political tradition. If the entire society needs to be reconstructed, if a revolution at the level of values is necessary, something must be askew in the foundation. There’s something at the headwaters of America’s political tradition that keeps bringing us back to the same intersection where Black freedom movements trigger fascist counter-revolutions.
The contaminant in the font of America’s politics is no mystery. Nazi author Albert Wirth identified it in his 1934 Volkisch World History, when he wrote:
“The most important event in the history of the states of the Second Millennium…was the founding of the United States of America. The struggle of the Aryans for world domination thereby received its strongest prop.”
In his address to the Second International Writers Conference, poet Langston Hughes identifies the problem similarly:
“We are the people who have long known in actual practice the meaning of the word fascism. In many states Negroes are not permitted to vote or hold office…freedom of movement is greatly hindered, especially if we happen to be sharecroppers…we know what it is to be refused admission to schools and colleges, to theaters and concert halls, to hotels and restaurants…In America, Negroes do not have to be told what fascism is in action. We know.”
Perhaps racial progress in the United States continues to feel like a regressive dance–one step forward, three steps back — because we’re trying to deny what people like Wirth, Hughes, and later King were pointing out generations ago.
Many Americans want to think of American racism like a paper jam in an otherwise healthy and working democratic system: if we could just find the lodged paper, we could get back to liberty and justice for all as usual. But America is an empire founded on racial violence and oppressive politics, an unequal society by design. The pro-democracy uprisings it experiences from time to time are the paper jams that voter suppression laws, conspiracy theories, patriotic education, and mob insurrections attempt to dislodge. If this isn’t the premise from which we begin to address the problem with American democracy, we’re setting ourselves for failure.
Radical problems require radical solutions. King knew that hence his conclusion that America is in need of a revolution, not reform. He also knew that nonviolent struggle “massively organized, powerfully executed, and militantly developed” is the most viable pathway to achieve that radical change.
Contemporary movement experts echo King’s conviction about nonviolent struggle. In his book This Is An Uprising, movement historian Paul Engler explains that nonviolent movements can change a nation’s “political weather.” I’ve had the privilege to join the Serbian activists of the Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS) as a guest speaker in their trainings and university classes, and heard founder Srdja Popovich explain on numerous occasions that nonviolent mass movements are most effective at shifting a society’s values.
The global Black Lives Matter uprisings of 2020 confirm what nonviolence experts say: that nonviolent movements shift values. Before the murder of George Floyd, the idea of police abolition was most popular among activist and academic types. Now it’s a point of public contention.
That’s a sign of shifting values–away from the retributive values that produce punitive strategies for social control in the name of crime management and toward values of care and restoration that produce strategies of crime prevention.
If strategic, skillfully organized, nonviolent campaigns have gotten us this far, it means we’ll need more to push us where we need to go. The best way to honor Dr. King’s legacy is to take his diagnosis and prescription seriously and seek to expand and strengthen grassroots organizing for racial progress.