The best non-fiction book I read last year -- probably the best book of American political history I have ever read -- is Rick Perlstein's Nixonland. As a transplanted Canadian, there is a lot of recent American history that I am only dimly aware of. Learning about certain emblematic incidents -- the Newark Riots, for example -- really helped clarify a lot of things about why America is the way it is. Obviously, events such as these still resonate incredibly strongly for the people who lived through them.
One of the best things about Nixonland is how unflinchingly it looks at race as a shaping force in American politics. Viewed from the lens of today -- especially in light of the impending inaugural -- it's easy for Americans of all races and all political stripes to see Martin Luther King as a unifying figure, a universally admired beacon of hope and harmony.
In Chicago on July 29 , Martin Luther King led what was supposed to be an all-night vigil in front of F.H. Halvorsen Realty in the Bungalow Belt [i.e., all-white] neighborhood of Gage Park. The police rescued his group from an advancing mob. They returned to the same spot the next morning and were met by a hail of rocks.
Five hundred marchers first moved out into the Bungalow Belt on Sunday, July 31, daring the mob of four thousand to attack as if it were Selma, to offer the spur to a nation's conscience that might deliver up transcendence.
A fusilade of rocks, bottles, and cherry bombs came. Priests and nuns ("Whores!") were singled out. A first-grade teacher, Sister Mary Angelica, was pummeled to the ground. A cheer went up: "We've got another one!"
"White Power! White Power!"
"Polish Power! Polish Power!"
"Burn them like Jews!"
Marchers returning to their cars found them torched, overturned, or rolled into the muddy Marquette Park lagoon. Dante's inferno, right there in the Bungalow Belt.
A neighborhood newspaper called it "the blackest day in the history of the Southwest Community," but also found the violence "understandable." The attackers, after all, had "earned their way into the community by hard work and expect others to do the same."
[B]ack in Chicago, Mayor Daley met with Bungalow Belt civic leaders, who looked forward to solidarity with one of their own.
But Daley was in a difficult spot. Arrest Martin Luther King and Daley would become an international pariah. A committee of Chicago VIPs was shuttling back and forth from D.C. to lobby for the Democratic Party's 1968 convention. Hosting it was Mayor Daley's dream. Winning elections for the Democratic Party was the focus, the meaning, of Richard J. Daley's entire life. Here before him was the heart of his machine. Black Chicago had, meanwhile, given him 90 percent of their vote in 1963 -- and his margin of victory. This was perfect agony: his constituencies were at war with each other. And so he did something extraordinary: he lectured the stunned white ethnics. Told them not to demonstrate. And ordered the police to offer King's marchers safe passage.
August 5. Six hundred open-housing activists, ten thousand counter-demonstrators. Some wore Nazi helmets. Other waved Confederate battle flags, carried George Wallace banners, swastika placards that helpfully explained THE SYMBOL OF WHITE POWER.
Martin Luther King, Mahalia Jackson by his side, led his legions forth: "We are bound for the promised land!"
"Kill those niggers!"
"We want Martin Luther Coon!"
Police trying to keep the two sides apart were screamed at: "Nigger-loving cops!" "God, I hate niggers and nigger-lovers," a reporter overheard an old lady say.
Martin Luther King walked past.
"Kill him! Kill him!"
"Roses are red, violets are black, King would look good with a knife in his back."
Instead he got a baseball-size rock above his ear. He slumped to the ground -- the Gandhian moment of truth. "I think everybody in that line wanted to kill everybody that was on the other side of that lie," a marcher later recalled. King got up and kept marching. We shall overcome.
On the approach to Halvorsen Realty, someone did throw a knife at King's back. It caught some white kid in the neck instead. King had marched six weeks earlier through the Mississippi town where the civil rights workers Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner were murdered. He had called it the most savage place he had ever seen. Now he revised his opinion. "I think the people of Mississippi ought to come to Chicago to learn how to hate."
There's been a lot of talk since Obama's election about how we are now living in "post-racial America." It would be hard to overstate how incredible it is that just forty years after MLK's assassination -- a few days after what would have been King's 80th birthday -- America is about to inaugurate its first black president. It's worth celebrating how far we've come. But it's also worth remembering where we've been, and how far we have yet to go.
See also Pam Spaulding. And Andrew Golis on the Santa Clausification of MLK. And Matt Yglesias about the radicalism of nonviolence. And (via Alex) Wynton's pre-inaugural thoughts. And, once again, Mr. Jay Smooth with "Ten OTHER Things Martin Luther King Said":