Sunday, January 18, 2009

Let Justice Roll Down: M.L. King

Let Justice Roll Down
by Martin Luther King Jr.
This article appeared in the March 15, 1965 edition of
The Nation.

From 1961 to 1966, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.
wrote an annual essay for The Nation on the state of
civil rights and race relations in America. This article
originally appeared in the March 15, 1965, issue.


When 1963 came to a close, more than a few skeptical
voices asked what substantial progress had been achieved
through the demonstrations that had drawn more than a
million Negroes into the streets. By the close of 1964,
the pessimistic clamor was stilled by the music of major
victories. Taken together, the two years marked a
historic turning point for the civil rights movement; in
the previous century no comparable change for the Negro
had occurred. Now, even the most cynical acknowledged
that at Birmingham, as at Concord, a shot had been fired
that was heard around the world.

Before examining 1964 in greater depth, some comment is
necessary on the events currently unfolding in Alabama.
After the passage of the Civil Rights Act and with the
defeat of Barry Goldwater, there was widespread
expectation that barriers would disintegrate with swift
inevitability. This easy optimism could not survive the
first test. In the hard-core states of the South, while
some few were disposed to accommodate, the walls
remained erect and reinforced. That was to be expected,
for the basic institutions of government, commerce,
industry and social patterns in the South all rest upon
the embedded institution of segregation. Change is not
accomplished by peeling off superficial layers when the
causes are rooted deeply in the heart of the organism.

Those who expected a cheap victory in a climate of
complacency were shocked into reality by Selma and
Marion, Ala. In Selma, the position was implacable
resistance. At one point, ten times as many Negroes were
in jail as were on the registration rolls. Out of 15,000
eligible to vote, less than 350 were registered.

Selma involves more than disenfranchisement. Its inner
texture reveals overt and covert forms of terror and
intimidation--that uniquely Southern form of existence
for Negroes in which life is a constant state of acute
defensiveness and deprivation. Yet if Selma outrages
democratic sensibilities, neighboring Wilcox County
offers something infinitely worse. Sheriff P.C. Jenkins
has held office in Wilcox for twenty-six years. He is a
local legend because when he wants a Negro for a crime,
he merely sends out word and the Negro comes in to be
arrested. This is intimidation and degradation
reminiscent only of chattel slavery. This is white
supremacist arrogance and Negro servility possible only
in an atmosphere where the Negro feels himself so
isolated, so hopeless, that he is stripped of all
dignity. And as if they were in competition to
obliterate the United States Constitution within
Alabama's borders state troopers only a few miles away
clubbed and shot Negro demonstrators in Marion.

Are demonstrations of any use, some ask, when resistance
is so unyielding? Would the slower processes of
legislation and law enforcement ultimately accomplish
greater results more painlessly? Demonstrations,
experience has shown, are part of the process of
stimulating legislation and law enforcement. The federal
government reacts to events more quickly when a
situation of conflict cries out for its intervention.
Beyond this, demonstrations have a creative effect on
the social and psychological climate that is not matched
by the legislative process. Those who have lived under
the corrosive humiliation of daily intimidation are
imbued by demonstrations with a sense of courage and
dignity that strengthens their personalities. Through
demonstrations, Negroes learn that unity and militance
have more force than bullets. They find that the bruises
of clubs, electric cattle prods and fists hurt less than
the scars of submission. And segregationists learn from
demonstrations that Negroes who have been taught to fear
can also be taught to be fearless. Finally, the millions
of Americans on the sidelines learn that inhumanity
wears an official badge and wields the power of law in
large areas of the democratic nation of their pride.

In addition to these ethical and psychological
considerations, our work in the black-belt counties of
Alabama has enabled us to develop further a tactical
pattern whose roots extend back to Birmingham and
Montgomery. Our movement has from the earliest days of
SCLC adhered to a method which uses nonviolence in a
special fashion. We have consistently operated on the
basis of total community involvement. It is manifestly
easier to initiate actions with a handful of dedicated
supporters, but we have sought to make activists of all
our people, rather than draw some activists from the

Our militant elements were used, not as small striking
detachments, but to organize. Through them, and by
patient effort, we have attempted to involve Negroes
from industry, the land, the home, the professions;
Negroes of advanced age, middle age, youth and the very
young. In Birmingham, Montgomery, Selma, St. Augustine
and elsewhere, when we marched it was as a community,
not as a small and unimpressive, if symbolic,
assemblage. The charge that we were outside agitators,
devoid of support from contented local Negroes, could
not be convincing when the procession of familiar local
faces could be seen block after block in solid array.

The second element in our tactics after Montgomery was
to formulate demands that covered varied aspects of
Negro life. If voting campaigns or lunch-counter sit-ins
appeared central in press reports, they were but a part
of our broader aims. In Birmingham, employment
opportunity was a demand pressed as forcefully as
desegregation of public facilities. In Selma, our four
points encompass voting rights, employment
opportunities, improved interracial communication and
paved streets in the Negro neighborhoods. The last
demand may appear to Northerners to lack some of the
historic importance of voting rights. To the Southern
Negro the fact that anyone can identify where the ghetto
begins by noting where the pavement ends is one of the
many offensive experiences in his life. The neighborhood
is degraded to degrade the person in it.

The Mississippi Summer Project of the combined civil
rights organizations was accorded the traditional
Mississippi welcome of murder, arson and terror, and
persisted under fire until even the Klan recognized that
its sanctuary had been overrun. The isolated Negroes of
that state were drawn into the vibrant national
struggle. To mark their new status they formed a
political party whose voice was heard loudly and clearly
at the Democratic National convention and in the

But perhaps the most significant development of 1963 and
1964 was the emergence of a disciplined, perceptive
Negro electorate, almost 100 per cent larger than that
of the 1960 Presidential election. Mississippi, the
Civil Rights Act, and the new massive Negro vote each
represents a particular form of struggle; nevertheless,
they are interrelated. Together, they signify the new
ability of the movement to function simultaneously in
varied arenas, and with varied methods.

Each accomplishment was the culmination of long years of
ache and agony. The new Negro vote best illustrates this
point. Quietly, without the blare of trumpets, without
marching legions to excite the spirit, thousands of
patient, persistent Negroes worked day in and day out,
laboriously adding one name to another in the
registration books. Finally on November 7, in an
electoral confrontation vitally important to their
existence, they displayed the power which had long been
accumulating. On the following day every political
expert knew that a mature and permanent Negro electorate
had emerged. A powerful, unified political force had
come into being.

While elsewhere electioneering was being conducted
systematically, another detachment was assaulting the
fortress walls of Mississippi, long immune to the
discipline of justice. As the confrontation boiled and
seethed even in remote rural counties, the revulsion of
decent Americans mounted. The wanton burning of
churches, the inexpressibly cruel murder of young civil
rights workers, not only failed to paralyze the~
movement; they became a grisly and eloquent
demonstration to the whole nation of the moral
degeneracy upon which segregation rests.

The Civil Rights Act was expected by many to suffer the
fate of the Supreme Court decisions on school
desegregation. In particular, it was thought that the
issue of public accommodations would encounter massive
defiance. But this pessimism overlooked a factor of
supreme importance. The legislation was not a product of
charity of white America for a supine black America, nor
was it the result of enlightened leadership by the
judiciary. This legislation was first written in the
streets. The epic thrust of the millions of Negroes who
demonstrated in 1963 in hundreds of cities won strong
white allies to the cause. Together, they created a
"coalition of conscience" which awoke a hitherto
somnolent Congress. The legislation was polished and
refined in the marble halls of Congress, but the vivid
marks of its origins in the turmoil of mass meetings and
marches were on it, and the vigor and momentum of its
turbulent birth carried past the voting and insured
substantial compliance.

Apart from its own provisions, the new law stimulated
and focused attention on economic needs. An assault on
poverty was planned in 1964 and given preliminary and
experimental shape.

The fusing of economic measures with civil rights needs;
the boldness to penetrate every region of the Old South;
the undergirding of the whole by the massive Negro vote,
both North and South, all place the freedom struggle on
a new elevated level.

The old tasks of awakening the Negro to motion while
educating America to the miseries of Negro poverty and
humiliation in their manifold forms have substantially
been accomplished. Demonstrations may be limited in the
future, but contrary to some belief, they will not be
abandoned. Demonstrations educate the onlooker as well
as the participant, and education requires repetition.
That is one reason why they have not outlived their
usefulness. Furthermore, it would be false optimism to
expect ready compliance to the new law everywhere. The
Negro's weapon of non-violent direct action is his only
serviceable tool against injustice. He may be willing to
sheath that sword but he has learned the wisdom of
keeping it sharp.

Yet new times call for new policies. Negro leadership,
long attuned to agitation, must now perfect the art of
organization. The movement needs stable and responsible
institutions in the communities to utilize the new
strength of Negroes in altering social customs. In their
furious combat to level walls of segregation and
discrimination, Negroes gave primary emphasis to their
deprivation of dignity and personality. Having gained a
measure of success they are now revealed to be clothed,
by comparison with other Americans, in rags. They are
housed in decaying ghettoes and provided with a ghetto
education to eke out a ghetto life. Thus, they are
automatically enlisted in the war on poverty as the most
eligible combatants. Only when they are in full
possession of their civil rights everywhere, and
afforded equal economic opportunity, will the haunting
race question finally be laid to rest.

What are the key guides to the future? It would not be
over-optimistic to eliminate one of the vain hopes of
the segregationists--the white back lash. It had a
certain reality in 1964, but far less than the
segregationists needed. For the most part it was powered
by petulance rather than principle. Therefore, when the
American people saw before them a clear choice between a
future of progress with racial justice or stagnation
with ancient privilege, they voted in landslide
proportions for justice. President Johnson made a
creative contribution by declining to mute this issue in
the campaign.

The election of President Johnson, whatever else it
might have been, was also an alliance of Negro and white
for common interests. Perceptive Negro leadership
understands that each of the major accomplishments in
1964 was the product of Negro militancy on a level that
could mobilize and maintain white support. Negroes
acting alone and in a hostile posture toward all whites
will do nothing more than demonstrate that their
conditions of life are unendurable, and that they are
unbearably angry. But this has already been widely
dramatized. On the other hand, whites who insist upon
exclusively determining the time schedule of change will
also fail, however wise and generous they feel
themselves to be. A genuine Negro-white unity is the
tactical foundation upon which past and future progress

The rapid acceleration of change in race relations in
the nation is occurring within the larger transformation
of our political and economic structure. The South is
already a split region, fissured politically and
economically as cleanly as the Mississippi River divides
its banks. Negroes by themselves did not fragment the
South; they facilitated a process that the changing
economy of the nation began. The old rural South,
essentially poor and retarded, had to industrialize as
agricultural regions contracted under the impact of
heightened soil productivity. The exodus from Southern
farms coincided with the influx of industry seeking the
natural resources and cheaper labor market of the area.

Negroes were drawn off the farms into urban service and
into limited, semi-skilled occupations. Though many
migrated North, most remained in the South. Just as they
had not been content to erode with the old plantations,
they were not disposed to take a permanent place as
industrial untouchables. The ferment of revolutionary
change by the backward and dispossessed peoples of the
whole world inspired them to struggle. In some areas,
economic and social change enabled them to advance
against an opposition that was still formidable but of a
different quality than that of the past. The new South,
with its local needs and with an eye to its national
image, could not adhere to the brutal, terroristic
overseer psychology of bygone days. For these reasons
Atlanta, Savannah and some cities of Florida are
markedly different from the underdeveloped belts of
Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama.

In the next period, Negroes are likely to find new white
Southern allies of even greater importance among the
rural and urban poor. It is an irony of American history
that Negroes have been oppressed and subjected to
discrimination by many whose economic circumstances were
scarcely better than their own. The social advantages
which softened the economic disabilities of Southern
poor whites are now beginning to lose some of their
attractions as these whites realize what material
benefits are escaping them. The section of the Civil
Rights Act of 1964 which withholds federal aid when it
is used discriminatorily in federally assisted programs
has revolutionary implications. It ties the interests of
whites who desperately need relief from their
impoverishment to the Negro who has the same needs. The
barriers of segregation are splintering under the strain
of economic deprivation which cuts across caste lines.
To climb the economic ladder, Negro and white will have
to steady it together, or both will fall.

This is already occurring among many who have run for
office in different areas of the South. The faces were
the same as of old, but looking closely, one could see
that some of the features had changed. Especially, the
language had changed: "Negro," not "darky"; "the law of
the land," not "States' rights"; the "new prosperity and
affluence," not the "old Southern traditions." These new
phrases may be uttered with many private agonies, but
their commitments are public.

Space does not permit a sufficient discussion of the
President's program, nor is it yet adequately
elaborated. But without wishing to diminish the high
respect which the President earned from the civil rights
movement one aspect of his program should be studied, if
only because of the emphasis he has given it. The
President's concept of consensus must be subject to
thoughtful and critical examination. The New York Times
in a perceptive editorial on December 20 asked if Mr.
Johnson really means to be a "consensus President." It
pointed out that such were Coolidge and Eisenhower, who
"served the needs of the day but not of decades to come.
They preside over periods of rest and consolidation.
They lead no probes into the future and break no fresh
ground." The Times then added, "A President who wants to
get things done has to be a fighter, has to spend the
valuable coin of his own popularity, has to jar the
existing consensus....No major program gets going unless
someone is willing to wage an active and often fierce
struggle in its behalf."

The Times is undeniably correct. The fluidity and
instability of American public opinion on questions of
social change is very marked. There would have been no
civil rights progress, nor a nuclear test-ban treaty,
without resolute Presidential leadership. The issues
which must be decided are momentous. The contest is not
tranquil and relaxed. The search for a consensus will
tend to become a quest for the least common denominator
of change. In an atmosphere devoid of urgency the
American people can easily be stupefied into accepting
slow reform, which in practice would be inadequate
reform. "Let Justice roll down like waters in a mighty
stream," said the Prophet Amos. He was seeking not
consensus but the cleansing action of revolutionary
change. America has made progress toward freedom, but
measured against the goal the road ahead is still long
and hard. This could be the worst possible moment for
slowing down.

A consensus orientation is understandably attractive to
a political leader. His task is measurably easier if he
is merely to give shape to widely accepted programs. He
becomes a technician rather than an innovator. Past
Presidents have often sought such a function. President
Kennedy promised in his campaign an executive order
banning discrimination in housing. This substantial
progressive step, he declared, required only "a stroke
of the pen." Nevertheless, he delayed execution of the
order long after his election on the ground that he
awaited a "national consensus." President Roosevelt,
facing the holocaust of an economic crisis in the early
thirties, attempted to base himself on a consensus with
the N.R.A.; and generations earlier, Abraham Lincoln
temporized and hesitated through years of civil war,
seeking a consensus before issuing the Emancipation

In the end, however, none of these Presidents fashioned
the program which was to mark him as historically great
by patiently awaiting a consensus. Instead, each was
propelled into action by a mass movement which did not
necessarily reflect an overwhelming majority. What the
movement lacked in support was less significant than the
fact that it had championed the key issue of the hour.
President Kennedy was forced by Birmingham and the
tumultuous actions it stimulated to offer to Congress
the Civil Rights Bill. Roosevelt was impelled by labor,
farmers and small-businessmen to commit the government
in revolutionary depth to social welfare as a
constituent stimulus to the economy. Lincoln signed the

Proclamation under the pressure of war needs. The
overwhelming national consensus followed their acts; it
did not precede them.

The contemporary civil rights movement must serve
President Johnson in the same fashion. It must select
from the multitude of issues those principal creative
reforms which will have broad transforming power to
affect the whole movement of society. Behind these goals
it must then tirelessly organize widespread struggle.
The specific selection of the correct and appropriate
programs requires considerable discussion and is beyond
the purview of this study. A few guidelines are,
however, immediately evident.

One point of central importance for this period is that
the distribution of Negroes geographically makes a
single national tactical program impractical. During the
Civil War, Frederick Douglass perceived the difference
in problems of Negroes in the North and in the South. He
championed emancipation, aside from its moral
imperatives, because its impact would transform the
South. For the North, his principal demand was
integration of Negroes into the Union Army.

Similarly today, the Negro of the South requires in the
first place the opportunity to exercise elementary
rights and to be shielded from terror and oppression by
reliable, alert government protection. He should not
have to stake his life, his home or his security merely
to enjoy the right to vote. On the other hand, in the
North, he already has many basic rights and a fair
measure of state protection. There, his quest is toward
a more significant participation in government, and the
restructuring of his economic life to end ghetto

Very different tactics will be required to achieve these
disparate goals. Many of the mistakes made by Northern
movements may be traced to the application of tactics
that work in Birmingham but produce no results in
Northern ghettoes. Demonstrations in the streets of the
South reveal the cruel fascism underlacing the social
order there. No such result attends a similar effort in
the North. However, rent strikes, school boycotts,
electoral alliances summon substantial support from
Negroes, and dramatize the specific grievances peculiar
to those communities.

With the maturation of the civil rights movement,
growing out of the struggles of 1963 and 1964, new
tactical devices will emerge. The most important single
imperative is that we continue moving forward with the
indomitable spirit of those two turbulent years. It is
worth recalling the admonition of Napoleon (he was
thinking of conquest, but what he said was true also of
constructive movements): "In order to have good
soldiers, a nation must always be at war."


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