An Interview with David Chappell on MLK's Legacy; Part I

Michael Hammond

David L. Chappell’s last book A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow provided a new interpretation of the role of religion in the civil rights movement. It was called called “one of the three or four most important books on the civil rights movement” by The Atlantic Monthly. In his new book, Waking From the Dream: The Struggle for Civil Rights in the Shadow of Martin Luther King, Jr., Chappell assesses the impact of King on ambitious yet mostly unknown civil rights efforts after his death in 1968, along with a look at the public memory of King himself. In contrast to studies of the 1970s and 1980s that focus on Affirmative Action and de facto segregation, Chappell portrays a series of aspirational efforts to honor the legacy of King with new forays into social change. Chappell analyzes the significance of the 1968 Civil Rights Act, which assured fair housing; the 1972 and 1974 National Black Political Conventions, the 1978 Humphrey Hawkins Full Employment Act, Jesse Jackson's presidential campaigns in 1984 and 1988, the Martin Luther King Jr. Federal Holiday, and the public revelations of King’s plagiarism and infidelity in the 1980s. The book goes on sale this Tuesday, January 14.

I spoke with Chappell recently about his book and its new interpretation of civil rights history. Today’s interview focuses on these overlooked efforts and how they broaden the understanding of the movement, starting in the immediate days after King's assassination. Part II of the interview includes Chappell's perspective on the MLK Day Holiday and how King's legacy is remembered. That interview is available here.

Hammond: This is a book about memory and the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. How do most Americans remember King, and how does your book add a new interpretation of his legacy?

Chappell: Well, I don't have as low an opinion of the public as most scholars do. And all they can go by is what they see on TV. Every time Black History Month comes around, or King’s birthday comes around, there’s Michael Eric Dyson saying that the people only remember this optimistic dreamer. And give the impression that it was this kind of anodyne, easy thing for us to achieve. And that he only wanted a colorblind society and did not want economic justice and didn't want anything more profound and difficult. Don’t get me wrong, Michael Eric Dyson is a great guy and doing wonderful work. But he and others complain—and I think complain with some justice—that people don’t remember King fully. And they tend to remember him in a way that’s comforting to them.  I think that’s probably true in the same way that we remember everything superficially.

What’s missing from the story—the little bit that I bit off that I thought that I could chew in this book—was what happened to him after he died; what happened to his image in the hands of people who thoughtfully and quite self-consciously sought to carry on his legacy, to carry on his unfinished business.

What I do is focus on those occasions that are ironically ignored or sidelined by other writers and scholars. And ironically, those are the times where they aim high, when the legatees of the civil rights movement and King, try to effect large scale, nation-wide, political change—not merely the local grassroots resistance. The ivory tower has focused on the grassroots, even going so far as to claim that ordinary people are the sources of historical change. I don't really disagree with that, but I think it’s become such a doctrinaire habit of thinking, and such a straitjacket, that we fail to notice when people do extraordinary things and when they really reach for the earth-shaking, headline breaking political achievements that made Martin Luther King famous and that keep him famous to this day.

We have these episodes, which are largely forgotten—and even when they are remembered in the case of the Jesse Jackson campaign—they are not appreciated fully for what they meant both in terms of how they refracted the past history of civil rights, but also for their impact on their own times, and the legacies that they left in the 1980s.

I think most people who have a reasonable acquaintance with the civil rights movement don’t remember 1968 Civil Rights Act, also known as the Fair Housing Act. Arguably it was the most radical, and the one that really boils down most closely to King's legacy. It’s more plausibly his and more directly a result of his personal sacrifice than the things people remember and associate with King such as 64 and 65 Civil Rights Acts. And to me that’s just astounding. You read books about civil rights since King died, since the great victories of the 60s, and much if not most of the focus is on residential matters, residential space, white flight, the way that so many urban, suburban, metro areas have become more racially segregated since the 1960s. And that is just so fundamental to why the march for equality has stalled in so many ways since then not just in black and white terms but more dramatically in rich and poor terms—which has always been intertwined with the black and white division but it’s distinguishable.

Both the opponents and the supporters of the 1968 Civil Rights Act, which Congress passed a week after King was shot, spoke of it as a reaction to King’s death, and secondarily to the riots that broke out in some cities in response to King’s death. So I wanted to bring that back to life and to try to include that in the story of the civil rights movement and to say that the movement’s, energies were carried on after most people think the civil rights movement proper ended or dissipated.

Hammond: So, the efforts you are pointing out from 68 and onward are much more measurable or substantial in some ways than even citizenship rights or the 65 Voting Rights Act, which grants the ability to enforce  citizenship. But jobs, neighborhoods where people live, where they can build a house and buy real estate, whether they can file suit for not getting fair employment—those are things that seem much more tangible and measurable than even the whole ideal concept of my children playing together with children of other colors and races. As you wrote, your intent was not just to lengthen the interpretation of the civil rights movement “but broaden and deepen it.”

David L. Chappell
University of Oklahoma
Chappell: I would be really distressed if people went away saying “Oh this book is about how the civil rights movement is far from ending in 1968 when King was shot-it actually continued!” That’s not what I'm saying. It's a given that we all know it continued; that the impulse, the struggle went on, and it went on in far more significant ways, far more ambitious, far more organized, far more centralized, not merely grassroots resistance, as all oppressed peoples in every part of the globe, in every period of history that we know about have done…and will, it seems reasonable to suppose, continue to do forever until there is no more oppression…if that ever happens. What this book does say is they try to change the basic structure of power and resources, severely alter the course of economic and political history in the United States.

The 1972 National Black Political Convention, probably the largest political gathering in history in the United States, was the greatest attempt to gather people together and to assert black power as an independent free political force in formal electoral politics and in other ways. (It was) attempted again in 1974 and in very diminished ways after that. That has been almost completely forgotten, even by writers, scholars who write about civil rights in the 20th century, who focus on what happened after the 60s. Like the Civil Rights Act of 1968, the National Black Political Conventions are almost completely forgotten.

It’s extraordinary to pick up books on African American politics and find just a sentence about it. Sometimes the sentences will be full of superlatives: “this was the greatest gathering,” etc. I quote some in the footnotes. And yet we get very little actual analysis. There has been virtually no fresh research done on the National Black Political Convention. At the time it was a huge deal—it was in the headlines as was the 1968 act. The people who organized the National Black Political Convention, and most of the people who commented on it in the press, referred to it in terms of the vacuum that Martin Luther King’s death had left.

Then later in the 1970s was the struggle for the full employment act. Coretta King, King’s widow, the most prominent person involved in this, gave the issue its fame, attracted a tremendous amount of publicity to the cause. That struggle, I think, is a huge historical turning point. It was largely seen as a failure in its time but I think the failures are as instructive as the successes. We need to look at the amount of effort that was put into it, and the aspirations of the people who thought it was realistic in 1974 to legislate full employment during a terrible economic crisis.

Hammond: So this breadth and depth—is that describing what you call earth-shaking experimentation? Is that the ambitious nature of what happens after King’s assassination?

Chappell:  If there is a singular struggle for African American freedom or equality, something extraordinary happens between 1954-55 and 1965, something really unique happens. There's organization, an appearance of unity that you don’t see before and after. There's a record of tremendous, undeniable, nation-wide success—transformation of some political and economic institutions. The Solid Southto all intents and purposes, a one-party stateshattered. A reign of terror ended. The Constitution changes as radically as it did in the New Deal or Reconstruction or the Progressive era. It's a major, unique, historical moment.

But it's unfair to compare previous and subsequent eras to that record of success. And if you use a fair standard—rather than comparing of what happened in 1972 or 1978 to what happened in 1964 and 1965—just compare it to what tends to happens in any random year in American history. Then by that more reasonable standard, the achievements and aspirations, the organized effortseven those that failedare quite significant and demand attention and have shaped the world that we live in as much as the very well-known triumphs of the movements and the 64 and 65 Civil Rights Acts, and the Brown decision.

The efforts are as significant as the 1963 March on Washington. If you stop the clock in August 1963, when King made that speech, nothing happened. Some guy made a speech and a bunch of people came and they said we want our rights and they didn't get them until long after that. It felt like a long time before Congress finally passed that law. And then they still didn't get the right to vote until 1965. And that was just a law. Who is to say those laws would be enforced? Who is to say these laws were going to lead to actual representation, actual power? Those were big questions, and in some ways are not settled to this day.

My point here is the National Black Political Convention is an isolated event. You get the gathering of people. I think in some ways it is as significant as the 1963 March on Washington. You can't say what their results are. They aren't as clear cut as something like the 1964 Civil Rights Act. In some ways that convention was a failure. It didn't lead to any tangible results like a Civil Rights Act. It's still a significant effort.

It's weird that people who spend their time writing books and making documentaries and in-depth news  investigations of what’s happened in civil rights, you hear about inequality of medicine and health, and education, issues like housing and the criminal justice system and economic inequality and so on. You don't hear about the National Black Political Convention. You don't hear much about the 1968 Civil Rights Act. You don't hear much about the Humphrey Hawkins Act--which actually passed. You don't hear much about the effect of Jesse Jackson's campaign. Those things not only change people's understanding of the past, but they change the way they think about the future. They say “well we tried that and we got limited success, but we have to recalibrate our strategies and try something different next time.”

Let's say arguably one of the big events is the election of Barack Obama. That’s certainly a landmark moment in the history of discrimination and the struggle for equality. But what happens between 1965 and 2008 is just confusing random events. You have the OJ Simpson trial. You have the Central Park jogger case. You have Rodney King, the LA riot, the Miami riot in 1980. What do all these things mean? Do these things mean anything? Was there any history? Is there any thread of continuity between the world we live in today? And how do we interpret the world we live in today? Some people think we have a post-racial society. Well we can't really answer that question just on the basis of Barack Obama being elected president, or Colin Powell being Secretary of State. We can only answer it by looking at it from the point of view of people who attempted to learn from the rise and fall of the civil rights movement, and their efforts to achieve the same or similar goals by other means in different historical circumstances.

Part II of the interview is available here.


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