Let Justice Roll Down

Let Justice Roll Down

“Those who expected a cheap victory in a climate of complacency were shocked into reality by Selma.”


From 1961 to 1966, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. wrote an annual essay for The Nation on the state of civil rights and race relations in America. This article originally appeared in the March 15, 1965, issue.

When 1963 came to a close, more than a few skeptical voices asked what substantial progress had been achieved through the demonstrations that had drawn more than a million Negroes into the streets. By the close of 1964, the pessimistic clamor was stilled by the music of major victories. Taken together, the two years marked a historic turning point for the civil rights movement; in the previous century no comparable change for the Negro had occurred. Now, even the most cynical acknowledged that at Birmingham, as at Concord, a shot had been fired that was heard around the world.

Before examining 1964 in greater depth, some comment is necessary on the events currently unfolding in Alabama. After the passage of the Civil Rights Act and with the defeat of Barry Goldwater, there was widespread expectation that barriers would disintegrate with swift inevitability. This easy optimism could not survive the first test. In the hard-core states of the South, while some few were disposed to accommodate, the walls remained erect and reinforced. That was to be expected, for the basic institutions of government, commerce, industry and social patterns in the South all rest upon the embedded institution of segregation. Change is not accomplished by peeling off superficial layers when the causes are rooted deeply in the heart of the organism.

Those who expected a cheap victory in a climate of complacency were shocked into reality by Selma and Marion, Ala. In Selma, the position was implacable resistance. At one point, ten times as many Negroes were in jail as were on the registration rolls. Out of 15,000 eligible to vote, less than 350 were registered.

Selma involves more than disenfranchisement. Its inner texture reveals overt and covert forms of terror and intimidation–that uniquely Southern form of existence for Negroes in which life is a constant state of acute defensiveness and deprivation. Yet if Selma outrages democratic sensibilities, neighboring Wilcox County offers something infinitely worse. Sheriff P.C. Jenkins has held office in Wilcox for twenty-six years. He is a local legend because when he wants a Negro for a crime, he merely sends out word and the Negro comes in to be arrested. This is intimidation and degradation reminiscent only of chattel slavery. This is white supremacist arrogance and Negro servility possible only in an atmosphere where the Negro feels himself so isolated, so hopeless, that he is stripped of all dignity. And as if they were in competition to obliterate the United States Constitution within Alabama’s borders state troopers only a few miles away clubbed and shot Negro demonstrators in Marion.

Are demonstrations of any use, some ask, when resistance is so unyielding? Would the slower processes of legislation and law enforcement ultimately accomplish greater results more painlessly? Demonstrations, experience has shown, are part of the process of stimulating legislation and law enforcement. The federal government reacts to events more quickly when a situation of conflict cries out for its intervention. Beyond this, demonstrations have a creative effect on the social and psychological climate that is not matched by the legislative process. Those who have lived under the corrosive humiliation of daily intimidation are imbued by demonstrations with a sense of courage and dignity that strengthens their personalities. Through demonstrations, Negroes learn that unity and militance have more force than bullets. They find that the bruises of clubs, electric cattle prods and fists hurt less than the scars of submission. And segregationists learn from demonstrations that Negroes who have been taught to fear can also be taught to be fearless. Finally, the millions of Americans on the sidelines learn that inhumanity wears an official badge and wields the power of law in large areas of the democratic nation of their pride.

In addition to these ethical and psychological considerations, our work in the black-belt counties of Alabama has enabled us to develop further a tactical pattern whose roots extend back to Birmingham and Montgomery. Our movement has from the earliest days of SCLC adhered to a method which uses nonviolence in a special fashion. We have consistently operated on the basis of total community involvement. It is manifestly easier to initiate actions with a handful of dedicated supporters, but we have sought to make activists of all our people, rather than draw some activists from the mass.

Our militant elements were used, not as small striking detachments, but to organize. Through them, and by patient effort, we have attempted to involve Negroes from industry, the land, the home, the professions; Negroes of advanced age, middle age, youth and the very young. In Birmingham, Montgomery, Selma, St. Augustine and elsewhere, when we marched it was as a community, not as a small and unimpressive, if symbolic, assemblage. The charge that we were outside agitators, devoid of support from contented local Negroes, could not be convincing when the procession of familiar local faces could be seen block after block in solid array.

The second element in our tactics after Montgomery was to formulate demands that covered varied aspects of Negro life. If voting campaigns or lunch-counter sit-ins appeared central in press reports, they were but a part of our broader aims. In Birmingham, employment opportunity was a demand pressed as forcefully as desegregation of public facilities. In Selma, our four points encompass voting rights, employment opportunities, improved interracial communication and paved streets in the Negro neighborhoods. The last demand may appear to Northerners to lack some of the historic importance of voting rights. To the Southern Negro the fact that anyone can identify where the ghetto begins by noting where the pavement ends is one of the many offensive experiences in his life. The neighborhood is degraded to degrade the person in it.

The Mississippi Summer Project of the combined civil rights organizations was accorded the traditional Mississippi welcome of murder, arson and terror, and persisted under fire until even the Klan recognized that its sanctuary had been overrun. The isolated Negroes of that state were drawn into the vibrant national struggle. To mark their new status they formed a political party whose voice was heard loudly and clearly at the Democratic National convention and in the Congress.

But perhaps the most significant development of 1963 and 1964 was the emergence of a disciplined, perceptive Negro electorate, almost 100 per cent larger than that of the 1960 Presidential election. Mississippi, the Civil Rights Act, and the new massive Negro vote each represents a particular form of struggle; nevertheless, they are interrelated. Together, they signify the new ability of the movement to function simultaneously in varied arenas, and with varied methods.

Each accomplishment was the culmination of long years of ache and agony. The new Negro vote best illustrates this point. Quietly, without the blare of trumpets, without marching legions to excite the spirit, thousands of patient, persistent Negroes worked day in and day out, laboriously adding one name to another in the registration books. Finally on November 7, in an electoral confrontation vitally important to their existence, they displayed the power which had long been accumulating. On the following day every political expert knew that a mature and permanent Negro electorate had emerged. A powerful, unified political force had come into being.

While elsewhere electioneering was being conducted systematically, another detachment was assaulting the fortress walls of Mississippi, long immune to the discipline of justice. As the confrontation boiled and seethed even in remote rural counties, the revulsion of decent Americans mounted. The wanton burning of churches, the inexpressibly cruel murder of young civil rights workers, not only failed to paralyze the~ movement; they became a grisly and eloquent demonstration to the whole nation of the moral degeneracy upon which segregation rests.

The Civil Rights Act was expected by many to suffer the fate of the Supreme Court decisions on school desegregation. In particular, it was thought that the issue of public accommodations would encounter massive defiance. But this pessimism overlooked a factor of supreme importance. The legislation was not a product of charity of white America for a supine black America, nor was it the result of enlightened leadership by the judiciary. This legislation was first written in the streets. The epic thrust of the millions of Negroes who demonstrated in 1963 in hundreds of cities won strong white allies to the cause. Together, they created a “coalition of conscience” which awoke a hitherto somnolent Congress. The legislation was polished and refined in the marble halls of Congress, but the vivid marks of its origins in the turmoil of mass meetings and marches were on it, and the vigor and momentum of its turbulent birth carried past the voting and insured substantial compliance.

Apart from its own provisions, the new law stimulated and focused attention on economic needs. An assault on poverty was planned in 1964 and given preliminary and experimental shape.

The fusing of economic measures with civil rights needs; the boldness to penetrate every region of the Old South; the undergirding of the whole by the massive Negro vote, both North and South, all place the freedom struggle on a new elevated level.

The old tasks of awakening the Negro to motion while educating America to the miseries of Negro poverty and humiliation in their manifold forms have substantially been accomplished. Demonstrations may be limited in the future, but contrary to some belief, they will not be abandoned. Demonstrations educate the onlooker as well as the participant, and education requires repetition. That is one reason why they have not outlived their usefulness. Furthermore, it would be false optimism to expect ready compliance to the new law everywhere. The Negro’s weapon of non-violent direct action is his only serviceable tool against injustice. He may be willing to sheath that sword but he has learned the wisdom of keeping it sharp.

Yet new times call for new policies. Negro leadership, long attuned to agitation, must now perfect the art of organization. The movement needs stable and responsible institutions in the communities to utilize the new strength of Negroes in altering social customs. In their furious combat to level walls of segregation and discrimination, Negroes gave primary emphasis to their deprivation of dignity and personality. Having gained a measure of success they are now revealed to be clothed, by comparison with other Americans, in rags. They are housed in decaying ghettoes and provided with a ghetto education to eke out a ghetto life. Thus, they are automatically enlisted in the war on poverty as the most eligible combatants. Only when they are in full possession of their civil rights everywhere, and afforded equal economic opportunity, will the haunting race question finally be laid to rest.

What are the key guides to the future? It would not be over-optimistic to eliminate one of the vain hopes of the segregationists–the white back lash. It had a certain reality in 1964, but far less than the segregationists needed. For the most part it was powered by petulance rather than principle. Therefore, when the American people saw before them a clear choice between a future of progress with racial justice or stagnation with ancient privilege, they voted in landslide proportions for justice. President Johnson made a creative contribution by declining to mute this issue in the campaign.

The election of President Johnson, whatever else it might have been, was also an alliance of Negro and white for common interests. Perceptive Negro leadership understands that each of the major accomplishments in 1964 was the product of Negro militancy on a level that could mobilize and maintain white support. Negroes acting alone and in a hostile posture toward all whites will do nothing more than demonstrate that their conditions of life are unendurable, and that they are unbearably angry. But this has already been widely dramatized. On the other hand, whites who insist upon exclusively determining the time schedule of change will also fail, however wise and generous they feel themselves to be. A genuine Negro-white unity is the tactical foundation upon which past and future progress depends.

The rapid acceleration of change in race relations in the nation is occurring within the larger transformation of our political and economic structure. The South is already a split region, fissured politically and economically as cleanly as the Mississippi River divides its banks. Negroes by themselves did not fragment the South; they facilitated a process that the changing economy of the nation began. The old rural South, essentially poor and retarded, had to industrialize as agricultural regions contracted under the impact of heightened soil productivity. The exodus from Southern farms coincided with the influx of industry seeking the natural resources and cheaper labor market of the area.

Negroes were drawn off the farms into urban service and into limited, semi-skilled occupations. Though many migrated North, most remained in the South. Just as they had not been content to erode with the old plantations, they were not disposed to take a permanent place as industrial untouchables. The ferment of revolutionary change by the backward and dispossessed peoples of the whole world inspired them to struggle. In some areas, economic and social change enabled them to advance against an opposition that was still formidable but of a different quality than that of the past. The new South, with its local needs and with an eye to its national image, could not adhere to the brutal, terroristic overseer psychology of bygone days. For these reasons Atlanta, Savannah and some cities of Florida are markedly different from the underdeveloped belts of Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama.

In the next period, Negroes are likely to find new white Southern allies of even greater importance among the rural and urban poor. It is an irony of American history that Negroes have been oppressed and subjected to discrimination by many whose economic circumstances were scarcely better than their own. The social advantages which softened the economic disabilities of Southern poor whites are now beginning to lose some of their attractions as these whites realize what material benefits are escaping them. The section of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which withholds federal aid when it is used discriminatorily in federally assisted programs has revolutionary implications. It ties the interests of whites who desperately need relief from their impoverishment to the Negro who has the same needs. The barriers of segregation are splintering under the strain of economic deprivation which cuts across caste lines. To climb the economic ladder, Negro and white will have to steady it together, or both will fall.

This is already occurring among many who have run for office in different areas of the South. The faces were the same as of old, but looking closely, one could see that some of the features had changed. Especially, the language had changed: “Negro,” not “darky”; “the law of the land,” not “States’ rights”; the “new prosperity and affluence,” not the “old Southern traditions.” These new phrases may be uttered with many private agonies, but their commitments are public.

Space does not permit a sufficient discussion of the President’s program, nor is it yet adequately elaborated. But without wishing to diminish the high respect which the President earned from the civil rights movement one aspect of his program should be studied, if only because of the emphasis he has given it. The President’s concept of consensus must be subject to thoughtful and critical examination. The New York Times in a perceptive editorial on December 20 asked if Mr. Johnson really means to be a “consensus President.” It pointed out that such were Coolidge and Eisenhower, who “served the needs of the day but not of decades to come. They preside over periods of rest and consolidation. They lead no probes into the future and break no fresh ground.” The Times then added, “A President who wants to get things done has to be a fighter, has to spend the valuable coin of his own popularity, has to jar the existing consensus….No major program gets going unless someone is willing to wage an active and often fierce struggle in its behalf.”

The Times is undeniably correct. The fluidity and instability of American public opinion on questions of social change is very marked. There would have been no civil rights progress, nor a nuclear test-ban treaty, without resolute Presidential leadership. The issues which must be decided are momentous. The contest is not tranquil and relaxed. The search for a consensus will tend to become a quest for the least common denominator of change. In an atmosphere devoid of urgency the American people can easily be stupefied into accepting slow reform, which in practice would be inadequate reform. “Let Justice roll down like waters in a mighty stream,” said the Prophet Amos. He was seeking not consensus but the cleansing action of revolutionary change. America has made progress toward freedom, but measured against the goal the road ahead is still long and hard. This could be the worst possible moment for slowing down.

A consensus orientation is understandably attractive to a political leader. His task is measurably easier if he is merely to give shape to widely accepted programs. He becomes a technician rather than an innovator. Past Presidents have often sought such a function. President Kennedy promised in his campaign an executive order banning discrimination in housing. This substantial progressive step, he declared, required only “a stroke of the pen.” Nevertheless, he delayed execution of the order long after his election on the ground that he awaited a “national consensus.” President Roosevelt, facing the holocaust of an economic crisis in the early thirties, attempted to base himself on a consensus with the N.R.A.; and generations earlier, Abraham Lincoln temporized and hesitated through years of civil war, seeking a consensus before issuing the Emancipation Proclamation.

In the end, however, none of these Presidents fashioned the program which was to mark him as historically great by patiently awaiting a consensus. Instead, each was propelled into action by a mass movement which did not necessarily reflect an overwhelming majority. What the movement lacked in support was less significant than the fact that it had championed the key issue of the hour. President Kennedy was forced by Birmingham and the tumultuous actions it stimulated to offer to Congress the Civil Rights Bill. Roosevelt was impelled by labor, farmers and small-businessmen to commit the government in revolutionary depth to social welfare as a constituent stimulus to the economy. Lincoln signed the Emancipation

Proclamation under the pressure of war needs. The overwhelming national consensus followed their acts; it did not precede them.

The contemporary civil rights movement must serve President Johnson in the same fashion. It must select from the multitude of issues those principal creative reforms which will have broad transforming power to affect the whole movement of society. Behind these goals it must then tirelessly organize widespread struggle. The specific selection of the correct and appropriate programs requires considerable discussion and is beyond the purview of this study. A few guidelines are, however, immediately evident.

One point of central importance for this period is that the distribution of Negroes geographically makes a single national tactical program impractical. During the Civil War, Frederick Douglass perceived the difference in problems of Negroes in the North and in the South. He championed emancipation, aside from its moral imperatives, because its impact would transform the South. For the North, his principal demand was integration of Negroes into the Union Army.

Similarly today, the Negro of the South requires in the first place the opportunity to exercise elementary rights and to be shielded from terror and oppression by reliable, alert government protection. He should not have to stake his life, his home or his security merely to enjoy the right to vote. On the other hand, in the North, he already has many basic rights and a fair measure of state protection. There, his quest is toward a more significant participation in government, and the restructuring of his economic life to end ghetto existence.

Very different tactics will be required to achieve these disparate goals. Many of the mistakes made by Northern movements may be traced to the application of tactics that work in Birmingham but produce no results in Northern ghettoes. Demonstrations in the streets of the South reveal the cruel fascism underlacing the social order there. No such result attends a similar effort in the North. However, rent strikes, school boycotts, electoral alliances summon substantial support from Negroes, and dramatize the specific grievances peculiar to those communities.

With the maturation of the civil rights movement, growing out of the struggles of 1963 and 1964, new tactical devices will emerge. The most important single imperative is that we continue moving forward with the indomitable spirit of those two turbulent years. It is worth recalling the admonition of Napoleon (he was thinking of conquest, but what he said was true also of constructive movements): “In order to have good soldiers, a nation must always be at war.”

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