How Richard John Neuhaus remembered Martin Luther King, Jr.

The First Things blog re-posted Neuhaus’ essay from 2002, reviewing a Penguin biography by Marshall Frady. Since Neuhaus was active in the civil rights movement and knew King, he’s able to review both the book and King’s life in the context of the times and his personal experience. I’d recommend the whole thing if this is a topic that you’re interested in.

As a side note, Neuhaus quotes Frady’s insightful characterization of the national tenor of the civil rights movement: “The civil rights movement became the nation’s latest attempt to perform in the South an exorcising of its original sin, and it turned out our most epic moral drama since the Civil War itself.” That’s a great way to put the usual attitude toward racial injustice in the South, conveniently exonerating the rest of the country. To be sure, a race-based ideology of slavery and the Jim Crow system were coarsely obvious in the South, but the South hardly had a monopoly on personal, systemic, or institutionalized racism. Neuhaus portrays this well (although Malcolm X was already dead by the time that King went to Chicago):

The effort to take the movement to the North, to Richard Daley the Elder’s Chicago, was a disaster. King’s courtly Southern ways did not resonate with the slum dwellers of the North. He was not angry enough. As he said, “You just can’t communicate with the ghetto dweller and at the same time not frighten many whites to death.” At that time, Malcolm X was exulting in frightening whites to death, and King looked moderate—i.e., weak—by comparison.

He led marches for housing desegregation through white neighborhoods of Chicago, meeting with outraged anger. At one point he said, “I have never seen so much hatred and hostility on the faces of so many people as I’ve seen here today.” Frady writes, “He had in fact come up against the innermost reality of racism in America.” The larger fact is that King had no plan for the racial integration of Chicago, nor did anyone else. Nor, except for a few mainly upper-income neighborhoods, has anybody come up with a successful plan for integrating housing to this very day.

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