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MLKJ’s dream no longer woke

On this day, 56 years ago, Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.

King is, of course, best remembered as one of the most prominent leaders of the civil rights movement that, from 1954 to 1968, sought to abolish legalised racial segregation, discrimination, and disenfranchisement in the United States.

The day before his death, King delivered what was to be his final speech. Popularly known as ‘I’ve Been to the Mountaintop’, it was primarily concerned with a current Memphis sanitation strike that King was supporting. In it, he called for unity, economic actions, boycotts, and nonviolent protest. He also challenged the United States to live up to its ideals.

The best-known part of the speech came towards the end, and is fairly frequently quoted because King referred to threats against his life and seemed to presciently foreshadow his impending death:

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live – a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will.”

It is, however, not nearly so well known – nor quoted – as King’s ‘I have a Dream’ speech, which he’d delivered in 1963 and painted a picture of an integrated and unified America.

The most often quoted paragraph?

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!”

Although at the time – and for a number of years afterward – King’s advocation for a ‘colour-blind’ society was considered an inspiring clarion call for racial justice, it recently appears to have fallen out of favour with ‘anti-racist activists’.

The whys and wherefores of this shift are covered in Coleman Hughes’ recent book, The End of Race Politics: Arguments for a Colorblind America.

Hughes – who, for what it’s worth, is of African American and Puerto Rican descent – has written that “Once considered a progressive attitude, color blindness is now seen as backwards—a cheap surrender in the face of racism, at best; or a cover for deeply held racist beliefs, at worst”, something he claims is a result of “activist-scholars” writing “a false history of color blindness meant to delegitimize it”, incorrectly casting it as “an idea concocted after the civil rights movement by reactionaries who needed a way to oppose progressive policies without sounding racist”.

It’s a view he emphatically rejects, arguing that “color blindness is neither racist nor backwards … to advocate for color blindness is not to pretend you don’t notice color. It is to endorse a principle: we should strive to treat people without regard to race, in our public policy and our private lives.”

For Hughes, such an approach “is the best principle with which to govern a multiracial democracy. It is the best way to lower the temperature of racial conflict in the long run. It is the best way to fight the kind of racism that really matters. And it is the best way to orient your own attitude toward this nefarious concept we call race.”

It’s a position that’s made Hughes extremely unpopular among ‘woke progressives’ in the US; one suspects he’d receive a similar reception here.

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