In my post on dead civil rights leaders, I noted that even the scion of light, Dr. Martin Luther King, was the subject of vigorous and vicious attacks from the mainstream right at the time of his activism. These attacks take very similar forms to the contemporary assaults the right regularly lobs at modern-day civil rights activists, which should be grounds for suspicion. Apropos of that, I happened to be assigned an old National Review article written in the aftermath of the Los Angeles race riots, by (I regret to say) Jewish theologian Will Herberg. Here’s an excerpt:
It did not come easy for us in this country, under the weight of the vast influx of immigrants and the residual effects of the frontier tradition, to consolidate a secure internal order based on custom and respect for constituted authority; but finally we managed. This internal order is now in jeopardy; and it is in jeopardy because of the doings of such high-minded, self-righteous “children of light” as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and his associates in the leadership of the “civil rights” movement. If you are looking for those ultimately responsible for the murder, arson, and looting in Los Angeles, look to them: they are the guilty ones, these apostles of “non-violence.”
For years now, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and his associates have been deliberately undermining the foundations of internal order in this country. With their rabble-rousing demagoguery, they have been cracking the “cake of custom” that holds us together. With their doctrine of “civil disobedience,” they have been teaching hundreds of thousands of Negroes — particularly the adolescents and the children — that it is perfectly alright to break the law and defy constituted authority if you are a Negro-with-a-grievance; in protest against injustice. And they have done more than talk. They have on occasion after occasion, in almost every part of the country, called out their mobs on the streets, promoted “school strikes,” sit-ins, lie-ins, in explicit violation of the law and in explicit defiance of the public authority. They have taught anarchy and chaos by word and deed — and, no doubt, with the best of intentions — and they have found apt pupils everywhere, with intentions not of the best. Sow the wind, and reap the whirlwind. But it is not they alone who reap it, but we as well; the entire nation.
It is worth noting that the worst victims of these high-minded rabble-rousers are not so much the hated whites, but the great mass of the Negro people themselves. The great mass of the Negro people cannot be blamed for the lawlessness and violence in Harlem, Chicago, Los Angeles, or elsewhere. All they want to do is what decent people everywhere want to do: make a living, raise a family, bring up their children as good citizens, with better advantages than they themselves ever had. The “civil rights” movement and the consequent lawlessness has well nigh shattered these hopes; not only because of the physical violence and insecurity, but above all because of the corruption and demoralization of the children, who have been lured away from the steady path of decency and self-government to the more exhilarating road of ‘demonstration’ — and rioting. An old friend of mine from Harlem put it to me after the riots last year: “For more than fifteen years we’ve worked our heads off to make something out of these boys. Now look at them–they’re turning into punks and hoodlums roaming the streets.
Will Herberg, “‘Civil Rights’ and Violence: Who Are the Guilty Ones?”, The National Review Sept. 7th, 1965, pp. 769-770.
If you read carefully, nearly all the familiar tropes are there. Casting civil rights leaders are the real villains in America’s racial drama? Check. Calling them demagogues, rabble-rousers, or race-baiters? Check. Pinning the blame for racial tensions on Black cultural institutions? Check. Refusing outright to engage in the substance of the Black claims? Check. Claiming that they’re the ones really looking out for Black interests? Check. Hell, they even played the “my Black friend” card with the citation to his “old friend from Harlem.” It’s all there. The same arguments, thrown out just as easily against Dr. King as they are against any Black leader with the temerity to speak up against White racism.