Editor's note: This story was originally published in 2021.
At a low point in his career of activism, Martin Luther King Jr., asked himself a question - one also relevant to the wider Civil Rights Movement and just as pertinent today: Where do we go from here?
He was so torn about the state of civil rights, the possible fracturing of the movement and the pressures the Vietnam War was exerting on the country that King took a brief break from the action, secluded himself in a villa in Jamaica and wrote a book, appropriately titled, "Where Do We Go from Here?"
It was June 1965, and there was little question that race relations were dire and getting worse. Washington Post columnist William Raspberry put it bluntly: “Anybody who can look you in the eye and tell you Black America is in good shape is either a fraud or a fool.” The movement was at a crossroads, as was the nation. Then, as now, there was bickering, debate and disagreement over the best path forward.
WORDS OF UNITY AND TRUTH: Martin Luther King Jr.'s words transcend how they are often twisted
The mix of emotions and opinions on the state of race relations ranges from those who believe that progress is obvious to others who say things are not what they seem. Courtland Cox and Clifford Alexander, Jr., two prominent figures from the '60s, represent those positions.
Alexander was a pillar of establishment power in the fight for integration when he served as chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) under President Lyndon B. Johnson and as the first Black secretary of the Army under President Jimmy Carter. He is not at all pleased with race relations today.
“There is more racism now. It’s much worse than in the past,” he said. “There are more racists now who just don’t care. They feel Black people are not needed. And the Trump administration has made racism more respectable.”
Cox, who was with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) when it took on Jim Crow in the most rigidly segregated states in the Deep South, expresses optimism about the future.
“Yes, there is more awareness, more consciousness today, and that gives me hope,” he said. “The more different groups are involved, the better. Black Lives Matter signs across the country are different from the 1960s and that gives me hope.”
His SNCC colleague, Judy Richardson, referring to the dangers Blacks faced in the South, noted that “the difference now is the degree of the threat, it’s a little less now than in Mississippi.” Another SNCC veteran, Jennifer Lawson, added that there now is more awareness of rights, that “a greater number of Blacks are aware of their rights and are prepared to defend themselves.”
In those days, moderate organizations such as King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference were strongly challenged by the college students and members of SNCC. The youngsters accused King and other leaders of being out of step with the times and of being too cozy with whites, thus, too willing to go along to get along.
That debate is similar to the one raging today between youthful leaders and supporters of Black Lives Matter and older establishment leaders. Then as now, race was front and center. The youngsters of SNCC had kicked whites out of the group, while the SCLC and other organizations were strong proponents of integration.
In 1960, the theme was "Black and white together" after students at North Carolina A&T, an all-Black college in Greensboro, demanded service at a whites-only lunch counter at Woolworth’s Department Store. Their action triggered demonstrations throughout the South, resulting in the modern Civil Rights Movement.
The irony of SNCC’s birth and nurturing is striking. After its founding at Fisk University in Nashvilleand the decision to set up headquarters in Atlanta, SCLC leaders provided the youngsters a desk in a corner of its Auburn Avenue offices. That assistance was at the urging of Ella Baker, SCLC’s first executive director. Two white students, Jane Stembridge and Ann Curry, ran the makeshift operation from a corner desk until the new group moved across the street.
I witnessed those developments from my perch as a reporter for the Atlanta Daily World – and Baker lived three doors away at the Waluhaje Apartments. Atlanta was de facto headquarters of the movement, much as London was Allied headquarters during the European phase of World War II.
Despite the mutual distrust between the groups, the sit-in phase of the movement, as well as subsequent protest activity, was mostly successful. Lunch counters were desegregated, ending official Jim Crow in public places; jobs previously denied were opened to Blacks and other nonwhites; and many segregated neighborhoods opened up – thanks to civil rights laws of 1964, 1965 and 1968.
A schism developed among Black people after Stokely Carmichael, the SNCC leader from 1966-67, raised a clenched fist and shouted, “Black Power,” and said Blacks should cut ties to whites. He was also part of the effort that led to name changes from centuries-old labels of “colored” and “Negro” to African American and Black, which once was deemed an insult.
We at the New York Times were puzzled at first over which term to use in our reporting. Executive Editor A. M. Rosenthal finally threw up his hands and instructed writers to use whichever term their sources preferred. For a while, we did just that, until Black and African American became the standards.
The decades of the '70s and '80 marked a significant shift with slow but sure progress. More Blacks were elected to political office; there was economic improvement and more progress for other ethnic groups; and the general racial climate began to improve.
Recent elections have propelled even more nonwhites and women into elected office.
Also of significance is the reach of the movement today. During recent BLM protests, demonstrations occurred in every state. Plus, there were more white participants than during the Civil Rights Movement.
Finally, another promising sign was the election of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. They have pledged to make their administration look more like America; if successful, it would mean more nonwhites and women in the national government than ever.
How did King answer the question of where we go from here? He resolved, “Never again will I be silent.” He returned to Atlanta from his Jamaican retreat and devoted his attention to the war and organizing the Poor People's Campaign. . He vowed to broaden the alliance of groups to include Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, Indians and poor whites.
“Let us be those creative dissenters who will call our beloved nation to a higher destiny, to a new plateau of compassion, to a more noble expression of humaneness,” he wrote.
— Paul Delaney is a former New York Times editor and a co-founder of the National Association of Black Journalists.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1967 question still resonates