Category Archives: Martin Luther King

What Do We Mean By Victory?

This weekend marks the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington and of Martin Luther King, Jr.‘s most famous speech.


Since fifty and one hundred and similar numbers get people excited, the media are buzzing about with article after article on the commemorations. I’m left wondering what constitutes victory in civil rights. One young man interviewed about his plans to attend this weekend’s remembrance said that he’s inspired to continue the struggle. Indeed. The struggle for what and against what?

Yes, I know, the latest thing is the debate over voter ID laws. Generally speaking, I see no need for these laws, since vote fraud is a rare occurrence, but the requirement to have ID is a common aspect of our lives today. All of us have the burden of getting the right documents to open a bank account, fly on an airplane, buy a gun, drive a car, check out a library book, and so forth. That burden is heavier on the poor and elderly, but those are not racial groups.

Another subject of protest is Stand Your Ground laws. But even there, the laws only say that if I have the right to be in a particular place, I’m not obliged to attempt to run away before defending myself against a lethal threat.

I do understand that some see these two types of laws as disproportionately affecting minorities. I don’t doubt that voter ID laws are in part aimed at electing more Republicans than Democrats. But coloring these laws as racist is precisely the kind of reflexive response that one can expect from Al Sharpton and others like him.

But let’s imagine that everything is indeed about race. Let’s imagine that we have made no progress over the last fifty years. That takes a strain to do, but try. Very well, what would victory in the struggle be?

What I see here is something like our present War on Terror. In both cases, we are offered perpetual conflict aimed at fighting ill-defined enemies with the hopes of reaching vague goals. In both, we are discouraged from feeling that the job is done. We must fight on because only in a state of constant fighting can we be made to fall in line with the official version of events. The same is seen in Orwell’s 1984.

By contrast, as an eleutherian, I want to see clearly defined goals that are worth seeking and can be achieved. In the case of civil rights, victory is when the government treats every person the same under the law, when business services are available to everyone who can afford them, and so forth. We are just about there, but for the mopping up operations.

Yes, you read that correctly. Do we still have problems? Yes. But those problems are economic and are being masked by continued fighting about race. In the book, Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society, John A Andrew shows at length how the War on Poverty (yet another vague war, alas) was derailed by turning into a program perceived as benefiting only minorities. That continues now. The social problems that we face today are ones of poverty, not racism, and shouting about race only serves to divide the poor from the poor, keeping the powerful on top. Poverty is easily defined. Helping people out of poverty is hard, but the process is clearly defined: education, assistance to small businesses, etc. It is a fact of life that money buys a person a whole lot of respect.

We can stay stuck in the past, or we can move forward. We can act like an alcoholic who looks for solace at the bottom of a bottle of whiskey, or we can take steps to make our society better. Clinging to resentment and demanding that everyone pet your resentments doesn’t solve anything. Whether we’ve won or lost, let’s count the struggle as over and get on with the process of building what comes afterward.