This Black History Month is particularly ironic and meaningful given the widespread attacks on teaching the most basic elements of Black history in America. I remain optimistic and believe Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s admonition that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” America has a long history of moving two steps forward and taking one step backward. We live in a time where the latter prevails.
Dr. King had a dream, but he also was a realist, and I’m afraid he would find our present situation quite familiar. He was clear that the White backlash we are currently experiencing “is merely a new name for an old phenomenon… The fact is that the state of California voted a fair housing bill out of existence before anybody shouted black power or before anybody rioted in Watts… There has never been a single, solid, monistic, determined commitment on the part of the vast majority of White Americans on the whole question of civil rights and on the whole question of racial equality. This is something that truth impels all men of goodwill to admit.” One need not travel to Florida from California to see this, when communities from San Francisco to San Diego routinely charge over $100,000 in development fees to build affordable housing. Nor should it be lost on anyone the appalling fact that in cities across America, many Black homeowners today have had to “whitewash” their homes to get a fair appraisal so they could benefit from the record low-interest rates that no longer exist.
On April 14, 1967, a little less than a year before he was murdered in Memphis, Tennessee, Dr. King addressed the faculty and students at Stanford University. He spoke about “the other America,” a theme he would revisit in speeches throughout the country over the next year. In this address, he directly addressed the issues of systemic racism in the economy, particularly in housing, and the intense resistance of Whites in the North, who considered themselves progressive allies of the cause for civil rights, to fair and equal housing in their own neighborhoods.
Below are excerpts from Dr. King’s Other America speech.
David M. Dworkin
Mr. Bell, and members of the faculty and members of the student body of this great institution of learning, ladies and gentlemen. I have several things that one could talk about before such a large, concerned, and enlightened audience. There are so many problems facing our nation and our world, that one could just take off anywhere. But today, I would like to talk mainly about the race problem… And I’d like to use as a subject from which to speak this afternoon, the other America. And I use this subject because there are literally two Americas. One America is beautiful for our situation. And in a sense, this America is overflowing with the miracle of prosperity and the honey of opportunity. This America is the habitat of millions of people who have food and material necessities for their bodies and culture and education for their minds, and freedom and human dignity for their spirit. In this America, millions of people experience every day the opportunity of having life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in all of their dimensions. And in this America, millions of young people grow up in the sunlight of opportunity.
But tragically and unfortunately, there is another America. This other America has a daily ugliness about it that constantly transforms the buoyancy of hope into the fatigue of despair. In this America, millions of work-starved men walk the streets daily in search for jobs that do not exist. In this America, millions of people find themselves living in rat-infested, vermin-filled slums. In this America, people are poor by the millions. And they find themselves perishing on a lonely island of poverty, in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity…
Now, let me say that the struggle for our civil rights and the struggle to make these two Americas one America is much more difficult today than it was five, [or] ten years ago… We’ve fought across the South, in various struggles to get rid of legal, overt segregation and all of the humiliation that surrounded that system of segregation… But we must see that the struggle today is much more difficult. It’s more difficult today because we are struggling now for genuine equality, and it’s much easier to integrate a lunch counter than it is to guarantee a livable income and a good, solid job. It’s much easier to guarantee the right to vote than it is to guarantee the right to live in sanitary, decent housing conditions. It is much easier to integrate a public park than it is to make genuine quality integrated education a reality.
And so today, we are struggling for something which says we demand genuine equality. It’s not merely a struggle against extremist behavior toward Negros. And I’m convinced that many of the very people who supported us in the struggle in the South are not willing to go all the way now. I came to see this in a very difficult and painful way in Chicago, over the last year, where I’ve lived and worked. Some of the people who came quickly to march with us in Selma and Birmingham weren’t active around Chicago. And I came to see that so many people who supported morally and even financially what we were doing in Birmingham and Selma were really outraged against the extremist behavior of Bull Connor and Jim Clark toward Negros, rather than believing in genuine equality for Negros. And I think this is what we’ve got to see now, and this is what makes the struggle much more difficult.