An Interview with David Chappell on MLK's Legacy, Part II



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President Ronald Reagan signs
the MLK federal holiday into law
This is part 2 of my interview with David Chappell on his new book, Waking From the Dream: The Struggle for Civil Rights in the Shadow of Martin Luther King, Jr., which goes on sale tomorrow. In part 1, Chappell explained his purpose in writing on civil rights from 1968 through the 1980s, was not only to “lengthen” the interpretation of the civil rights movement, but to “broaden and deepen it.” Toward that end, Chappell explained that efforts such as the 1968 Civil Rights Act, the National Black Political Conventions in 1972 and 1974, and the Humphrey Hawkins Full Employment Act were attempts “to change the basic structure of power and resources, severely alter the course of economic and political history in the United States.” While these events have been ignored by many historians, Chappell believes they are “as significant as the 1963 March on Washington.”

In part two of the interview, Chappell discusses the origins of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Federal Holiday and King's legacy today.

Hammond: So, getting at this broad and deep story, you wrote in your introduction that after the victories of the civil rights era, there is no heroic narrative. The years after King appear aimless, without one unifying force. As I read the book, this is not the story most of us have heard before: the story of busing, affirmative action, the Bob Jones case, for example. Those battles are left out of your book, probably intentionally. Does this aimlessness in the story point back to Martin Luther King as an exemplary leader? Or is this just the random nature of history as it unfolds in different times?

Chappell: There is a narrative thread through the story I tell in the book. Many people saw themselves carrying on Martin Luther King’s unfinished business, even in cases where they came to disagree with him. Martin Luther King’s name signifies changes in our social and political system. And he wasn’t finished. If you pay any attention to what he actually said before he died, he was nowhere near. That gives the story a kind of coherence, but I don’t want people to go away with that as the point of the story.


You could see it more loosely as just this ongoing struggle for African American freedom that’s been going on since the middle passage, and some ways since before the middle passage. I think each new chapter takes a very, very different perspective and tells a very, very different story from the previous chapter. And I do think I am more of a splitter than a lumper—that it’s the uniqueness of historical events and historical characters historical circumstances that leap out to you and demands attention.

Hammond: Let’s talk about the MLK holiday. Of everything in your book, the holiday may be what most people would identify right away if you ask “what is the legacy of Martin Luther King?” What is your book suggesting about the holiday that puts it in a different perspective?

Chappell: Well for one thing, it came on the heels on the defeat of the ambition behind the Humphrey Hawkins Act of 1978. It’s not until 1978 that people really give up on a comprehensive, massive, millennial, legislative change on the scale of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It’s not until 1978 that people give up on the larger vision of social democracy. The Democratic Party itself seems to abandon or lose its faith in that program where workers and ordinary, middle-class folk, have a government that defends and protects their interests as zealously as it does the lucky few. It’s clear that in the presidency of Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and now Barack Obama, that there’s only the palest flicker of that sort of ambition, that sort of aspiration for the Democratic Party. The Humphrey Hawkins Act is significant—that battle is significant—in that it rallied forces enough to make one final stand for that vision of social democracy. That went on for a good four years—1974-1978. Then the King holiday is partly a result of resignation: “we’re not going get anything that King wanted.” The King holiday is what happens when people recognize that for the foreseeable future we’re not going to be able to get a substantive leap forward, if you pardon the expression, toward the social democratic society that even some Republicans, actually quite a few Republicans support.

President Jimmy Carter signs the
Humphrey Hawkins Act
, 1978
Ironically, as very few but some astute opponents of the King holiday rightly pointed out, this isn’t anything that King himself would have wanted. He disdained the whole cult of personality thing. He would rather people devote the money and energy to advancing the goals—freedom, equality, saving the poor from the desperate situation that we consign them to.

But perhaps the holiday supporters made a virtue out of necessity. They thought the King holiday could provide something meaningful. And I think it did. It’s a show of respect which I think is actually quite meaningful, not just to King but to what he stood for. I say in the book that it brings King’s legacy, whatever it is, as battered and misunderstood and minified as it is, out into the public light. Every year, if people take the opportunity and are clever and energetic enough about it to get the ear and the eye of their fellow citizens, it’s an opportunity to keep the legacy alive and to remind people that he died believing he had only begun.

Hammond: How is the actual debate over the MLK federal holiday important to King’s legacy?

Chappell: Of course nobody’s forgotten there is a King holiday. But I do think they have forgotten how it came about. The story itself is quite interesting. You have these right-wing fanatics like John Ashbrook of Ohio, Larry McDonald of suburban Atlanta, and late in the game Jesse Helms, a senator from North Carolina who just poured forth this character assassination and guilt by association. By doing so, they made their own cause of fighting King’s legacy untenable.

The King holiday handed a defeat to these extreme right-wingers. It also handed a defeat to people who were not necessarily that conservative, who did not necessarily hate King—but who had least had the sense not to say in public that they hated him or that they had contempt for his cause. They were tainted by the extreme image just as moderate segregationists and middle-road gradualists liberals and the white liberals in the South were in King’s day. They were tainted by the image of the Bull Connors and Sheriff Clarks who resorted to ugly extreme tactics.

There wasn’t any violence that I’m aware of in opposition to the King holiday but there was that nasty McCarthyite guilt by association character assassination in the congressional hearings and on the floor of Congress. It was really just these three guys who played that game, and Helms only late in the game when it went to the Senate. McDonald and Ashbrook carried on in that fashion and played into the hands of the people who supported the holiday, in a replay—intentionally or not—a very close reply of what King had engineered in places like Birmingham and Selma. People back in the 50s and 60s came to realize that if you went up against the ugliest, sloppiest enemies—the ones who had the least public relations sense, you could be a weak minority. You could be outgunned, outvoted, and outspent and you could still have a victory. You could still play your opposition like a violin in the mass media for the broader American public. That’s what happened in the battle of the King holiday.

Some people who opposed a King holiday said it was a huge expense to idle the American work force for an entire day during a recession. All sorts of very credible numbers turned up about this. There was also a very reasonable argument that we don’t decide on the historical significance of a character 15 years after he’s dead. We wait for a generation or two to pass so that harsh memories can mellow a little and we can gauge them better. The problem was that the people who were getting the most attention, who were making the loudest and most dramatic case against the holiday were Ashbrook and McDonald, who claimed he consorted with communists, and that he incited violence and was not worthy of a national honor like this. It became untenable to make a reasonable but uninteresting argument, when all the media attention was going to those who were foaming at the mouth about what bad character King was, how he incited violence, crime, disrespect for the law, and consorted with communists.

Interestingly though, the opponents did not bring up his sex life, which shows that they could claim there was somebody more indecent than they were, namely J. Edgar Hoover. That speaks to the strength to the taboo that comes down only six years later, the public taboo on discussion of King’s sex life. Helms said that the FBI files should be unsealed as they had been sealed by a judge in the late 1970s. Helms knew and I’m sure McDonald and Ashbrook knew that in addition to the communist allegations that FBI material that had been sealed was largely concerned with his sex life. They didn’t bring that up in Congress, even though it had been touched on in Congress during the Church committee hearings in 1975. They could have used that, and reflecting back to my first chapter, another thing they could have done was they could have said Congress gave Martin Luther King a tribute already, a tribute that would have meant more to him, the 1968 Civil Rights Act that he actually wanted passed, unlike this holiday which he never would have wanted to pass.  They did not make that argument either; just to show you how unremembered that 1968 Civil Rights Act was. A significant number of Republican conservatives wanted the holiday by then, and very strongly argued for it.

What the opponents of the holiday were really about was disparaging King and what he stood for. They appeared to be ideological opponents of King and everything that he represented. And they appeared willing to use any tactic to attempt to pull that off. It was stupid from a public relations and legislative strategy point of view. They gave an advantage to people like Coretta Scott King, Stevie Wonder, and all the people including the Republican leadership and a significant number of Republican conservatives. They gave them a great advantage because they could point to these nuts, oddballs, extremists like McDonald, Ashbrook, and Helms, to say “this is what they all think but only a few of them will say.”

From the perspective of the news, that was all you heard. That was the only interesting story coming from the opposition of the King holiday. The arguments that it would cost more money, or that we needed more time for historical perspective: who cares? That was not going to get the front page. That was not going to make the top slot of the 6 o’clock news. What made it was that Jesse Helms was making a stink about association with commies and inciting violence.

Hammond: If you think about the MLK holiday and King’s legacy now, he will be invoked by people on opposing sides on various debates. Every corporation, just about every educational institution will have something in mid-January to honor King. So we can say that honoring King-- or at least a certain appropriation of King—has become very mainstream, very safe. What does that say about his legacy?

Chappell:  That transformation of King is something that happened to Lincoln. It never really happened with Garfield and McKinley, so it’s not purely a function of being assassinated. And it is a process that is well under way before the holiday. It’s not the holiday that causes that to happen. If you want to know what King’s legacy is, he is arguing for something much more radical—if you want to use that word—much more far reaching, a fundamental change in our political and economic system.

I also have to say that we don’t really know what he thought about abortion and gay rights. I don’t think Coretta Scott King ever said anything about abortion that I am aware of despite her niece Alveda King getting very active in favor of the conservative position on abortion, using Martin Luther King’s name. But Coretta Scott King did join hands with gay rights advocates before she died. She argued that had Martin been alive he would have been here marching on this side of the issue, in opposition to her niece who had claimed her uncle on the other side. And one of her daughters, Bernice did take a public stance on that. I have a certain amount of deference and respect for Mrs. King, God rest her soul. But I think it is a mistake for people blithely to claim where King would have stood on various issues that have become so prominent and so polarizing, so central to the political culture we live in today. And the issues that King spoke out on weren’t really all that central, all that prominent before he died. I think it fair for people to claim that Coretta King’s legacy is support of gay rights, but I don’t think there’s a public record to justify King’s own support for such a cause, I don’t think we can presume.

I don’t think people can claim him for liberal or moderate purposes any more than they can claim him for conservative purposes. People often bring up that William Bradford Reynolds, Reagan’s assistant attorney general on civil rights made his best effort to claim that King stood for a color-blind society and therefore opposed affirmative action. We know that’s not true because King did speak in favor of affirmative action, which actually was in embryonic form as an issue before he died. He was very clearly in favor of it. Though you could observe, if you were going to be strict about it, that he had a very different justification from the one that’s generally used today. The one today is diversity, and his was more a question of practical justice for people who have been deprived for so long, and that was Lyndon Johnson’s justification for it as well.

Surprisingly, affirmative action is becoming less of an issue. I don’t think that conservative opponents today make King’s words or alleged intentions or beliefs an issue. I think supporters of affirmative action bring that up in order to ridicule it, to point out how wrong it is, more than you hear any opponent of affirmative action bringing it up and making a claim. That’s exactly what happened with the religious defense of segregation. You hear more anti-segregation people quoting the segregationist in order to ridicule them. You hear them quoting segregationists making them look sordid, more often than you hear segregationists making the argument. And that’s an easy mark.


Part 1 of the interview is available here.

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