MLK Jr. and the Black Bourgeoisie

After Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream Speech” in Washington D.C., Malcolm X stated:

“The Negroes were out there in the streets. They were talking about how they were going to march on Washington…. That they were going to march on Washington, march on the senate, march on the White House, march on Congress, and tie it up, bring it to a halt, not let the government proceed. They even said they were going out to the airport and lay down on the runway and not let any airplanes land. I’m telling you what they said. That was revolution. That was revolution. That was the black revolution.”

Malcolm X was able to capture the ears of many who grew frustrated with America’s lack of political and economic progress. Moreover, with that heighten sense for change, King started to see his voice silenced within the black community. The recent film Selma showcased this well. However, earlier king would write in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail:

“You speak of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist. I began thinking about the fact that I stand in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community. One is a force of complacency, made up in part of Negroes who, as a result of long years of oppression, are so drained of self-respect and a sense of “somebodiness” that they have adjusted to segregation; and in part of a few middle-class Negroes who, because of a degree of academic and economic security and because in some ways they profit by segregation, have become insensitive to the problems of the masses. The other force is one of bitterness and hatred, and it comes perilously close to advocating violence. It is expressed in the various Black Nationalist groups that are springing up across the nation, the largest and best known being Elijah Muhammad’s Muslim movement. Nourished by the Negroes’ frustration over the continued existence of racial discrimination, this movement is made up of people who have lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded that the white man is an incorrigible “devil.”

King was aware of the challenge Malcolm X and other Black Nationalist groups presented; his voice was soft and passive, though he was a powerful and articulate speaker. Blacks’ sense of Christianity was one of division. Why follow a church and a God that allows such hatred to take place — many contended. King feared the evils of materialism and comfort as many who made up the black bourgeoisie became comfortable with their status in life. As I stated before, today the black middle class is far more conservative than many realize. In part — this comfort is an indictment of the failures of the civil rights movement.

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