What does white America owe black America? To even broach that question 50 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 seems straight-out wacky. Did not the election of a black president redeem the nation? At a minimum, it’s rude—refusing to avert the eyes from that elephant in the room: “America begins in black plunder and white democracy.” That’s how Ta-Nehisi Coates deemed it recently in his extraordinary “The Case for Reparations.”
Far from fringe lunacy, the idea of a primal debt was obvious to Martin Luther King Jr. Exactly 50 years ago this month in Why We Can’t Wait, his Harper & Row account of the Birmingham, Ala., protests, he made his own impassioned case for compensation. And yet no matter how much he shared Coates’ desire to square accounts, King would settle on a rival solution for the crimes of slavery and all the forms of racism that succeeded it.
In the rapture of King’s crescendo at the March on Washington, it’s easy to forget the language of bankers that pervaded the first half of “I Have a Dream” (pdf): “America had defaulted on this promissory note” of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” One year later, in Why We Can’t Wait, he was not coy about the nation’s “need to pay a long overdue debt to its citizens of color.” He retold the story of his 1959 visit to India, where Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru recounted all the preferential policies that aided the untouchables: “This is our way of atoning for the centuries of injustices we have inflicted upon these people.”
Invoking the sacred precedent of “our fighting men [in World War ll]” who “had been deprived of certain advantages and opportunities,” King ticked off all the things—the GI Bill of Rights—that were done “to make up for this.” Then King pivoted and pounced: “Certainly the Negro has been deprived” and just as surely “robbed of the wages of his toil.” You didn’t need a course in logic to complete the syllogism.
The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not diminish King’s zeal for reparations. “Frederick Douglass said we should have 40 acres and a mule,” he told a mass meeting not long before his death. Instead, the nation left blacks “penniless and illiterate after 244 years of slavery.” Calculating that $20 a week for the 4 million slaves would have added up to $800 billion, he noted acerbically, “They owe us a lot of money.”
The failure to repair thus added a new crime to the original one. It was like putting a man in jail and discovering his innocence years later: “And then you go up to him and say, ‘You are free,’ but you don’t give him any bus fare to get to town. You don’t give him any money … to get on his feet in life again. Every code of jurisprudence would rise up against that.”
There was still one more twist in the torment to come. All those “white peasants from Europe” who enjoyed the largesse of land grants and low-interest loans “are the very people telling the black man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps. … It’s a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.”
Are the progeny of those “white peasants” readier to reckon with our racist legacy? Thirty-five years ago, a Brooklyn, N.Y., woman fumed to me about the TV program Roots, “If they keep shoving that stuff down our throats, there’s never going to be peace. … that was over 200 years ago that this slavery bit was!”
Today, countless Americans think blacks have received compensation in the form of anti-poverty money and quotas. As one person told political consultant Stanley Greenberg (pdf), “Didn’t they get 40 acres and a mule? That’s more than I got.” West Indians and African immigrants, too, sometimes complain that black Americans are too racial, and many millennials who used to thrill to President Barack Obama’s exalted flights are preoccupied with their own plights and the grit of a post-Lehman Brothers economy.
Meanwhile, the vast majority of whites even reject apologies for slavery, which cost nothing save one’s dignity. Many of the supporters of affirmative action whom Stanford political scientist Paul Sniderman queried in the 1990s endorsed the remedy only if blacks were not its sole recipients and the rationale was universal: “help people who are out of work” rather than “because of the historic injustices blacks have suffered.”
It’s possible that attaching a race to the injustice made the respondents squirm. Perhaps it forced whites to dwell on this unsettling fact: Our success in part is a windfall, reaped from the access black exclusion gave us to jobs, slots in housing markets and much else.
In truth, white psyches and circumstances are too varied to sustain such generalities. The woman who recoiled from “that slavery bit” didn’t lack empathy. She filled up with emotion as she observed, “The blacks were treated worse than animals; they were taken up from their own happy soil.” When Greenberg returned to McComb County, Mich. (pdf), before the 2008 election, some of the same Reagan Democrats (or their children) who had seen blacks as the source of all their ills in the 1980s and heard Jesse Jackson’s “Our time has come” as “Your time is over,” could now acknowledge America’s special burden: “We did hold them back, and a lot of people were cheated.” As for Sniderman’s respondents, likely many of them saw universalism as a different, equally righteous take on healing and helping.
Maybe, then, it’s best to settle for those modest moral advances, especially if that’s the price of any coalition of conscience that might some day be motivated to remedy the ills of suffering Americans. Better to leave the fuller atonement to those Deep South museums that have confronted their louche local past; people who exit Twelve Years a Slave in turmoil; lawsuits seeking compensation for specific violations like the racist rampage in Tulsa, Okla. Anything more perfect might be the enemy of the good, even the moral good.
Ultimately, in the very chapter of Why We Can’t Wait in which he laid out the justice of reparations, King rejected the idea of recompense for blacks alone. It’s not that he was prepared to abandon this equation of restorative justice: The nation that did something special against the Negro had to do something special for him.
But the special thing that King proposed—“A gigantic Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged, our veterans of the long siege of denial”—left plenty of room for white “veterans” in the mix. He offered solace to the least of these, no matter what their complexion. Inevitably, there was a shrewdness to this inclusion, part of the effort to woo white allies and crystallize the liberal coalition on race that had been growing since Birmingham. It was also, King underlined, “a simple matter of justice.”
Already in 1964, King was looking beyond the Civil Rights Act. He could grasp its limited power to effect “improvements” in the Negro’s “way of life.” He could see that rights and respect might arrive more quickly than economic equality. He could also see that however much white supremacy left blacks vulnerable to inimical forces, the forces could be unsentimentally free of bigotry and wreak havoc on whites and blacks alike.
At the March on Washington, King invited whites to join the “we” who could sing, “Free at last … we are free at last,” and thus share in bondage and deliverance. He did something just as generous in Why We Can’t Wait. Likely it took a Christian whose idea of a fair exchange was blessing those who curse you to offer poor and middling Southern whites this face-saving gift: He defined them not as beneficiaries of white supremacy but as “victims of slavery” who suffered their own “derivative bondage.” This wasn’t masochism talking, but a faith at once hard-boiled and brimming with grace.
What, then, about balancing the ledger for specifically black injuries? Throughout Why We Can’t Wait, there are hints that resolving matters of policy and politics didn’t still all the feelings churning within King. “A price can be placed on unpaid wages,” he underlined, but “no amount of gold could provide an adequate compensation for the exploitation and humiliation of the Negro in America down through the centuries.” He rejected an easy “four-minute atonement” as inadequate to “400 years of sinning.”
Atone, you sinners! That is the sound of the muffled voice of the preacher rising up through the printed page. And in the end it seems Coates, too, is seeking something similar: recognition as much as reparations; “not a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe” but “the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences.”
King harbored no illusions that whites as a whole had the moral gumption to undergo that ordeal. In the Letter From the Birmingham Jail, he observed, “I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race.”
The evidence for pessimism only intensified as 1964 unfolded. George Wallace broke out of his Southern lair. White backlash quickened in the North. By 1968 King could warn, “a nation that put as many Japanese in a concentration camp … could put black people in concentration camps.”
And so, in the absence of full justice, the preacher could be a chastising prophet, who once told a mass meeting: “Do you know that in America the white man sought to annihilate the Indian, literally to wipe him out, and he made a national policy that said in substance, the only good Indian is a dead Indian? Now, a nation that got started like that has a lot of repentin’ to do.”
But even rebuke did not close the case. There remained the work of memory and mourning. King never stopped honoring that history, whose pain could not be fully assuaged by rebuke or recognition. In the refuge of a black church, in the nurturant embrace of his people, he grieved: “We read on the Statue of Liberty that America is the mother of exiles.” But whites “never evinced the maternal care and concern for its black exiles who were brought to this nation in chains. And isn’t it the ultimate irony … that the Negro could sing in one of its sorrow songs, ‘Sometimes I feel like a motherless child.’”
As the audience erupted in applause, King demanded, “What sense of estrangement, what sense of rejection, what sense of hurt could cause a people to use such a metaphor?”
Jonathan Rieder, a professor of sociology at Barnard College, Columbia University, is the author most recently of Gospel of Freedom: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter From Birmingham Jail and the Struggle That Changed a Nation and The Word of the Lord Is Upon Me: The Righteous Performance of Martin Luther King Jr.