A betrayal of Martin Luther King

A betrayal of Martin Luther King
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At this time of year we celebrate the birth and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., for his commitment and sacrifice, and that of countless others who risked all for civil rights victories. But Dr. King, who would have celebrated his 90th birthday on Jan. 15, likely would roll over in his grave if he knew how his legacy has been commandeered by progressives who purport to act in his name while advancing a toxic racial rhetoric that paints blacks as perpetual victims of slavery, Jim Crow and institutional racism, incapable of their own uplift.

In a 1978 Ebony magazine article, one of the most provocative black American voices declared: “Our children are living in depressed neighborhoods and are on the verge of ethical collapse.” He further said, “Morally weak people not only inhibit their own personal growth, but finally contribute to the politics of decadence. … A generation of people lacking the moral and physical stamina necessary to fight a protracted civilizational crisis is a dangerous to itself, its neighbors and to future generations.”


The author was the Rev. Jesse Jackson, whose prescient warning 40 years ago stands in sharp contrast to his posturing today, such as when he harshly chastised President Obama for declaring, “What makes you a man is not the ability to have a child. It’s the courage to raise the child that makes you a father.” Instead of embracing the virtues and accomplishments of self-affirming values, Jackson’s response was to utter a vulgar assault on the president’s statement on personal responsibility.

In August 1967, in a speech to the National Association of Television and Radio Announcers (NATRA) in Atlanta, Dr. King declared, “If we’re going to be truly free, we must reach down into the inner depths of our being and sign with the pen and ink of assertive manhood our own emancipation proclamation.” His call for personal responsibility proclaimed that the highest form of maturity is the ability to be self-critical.  

In his 2018 Black History Month essay on black youths’ academic achievement, economist Walter E. Williams documented a history in which there were gains and losses. He highlights islands of success of yesteryear, in an era when racial discrimination was at its worst and blacks were much poorer. From the late 1800s until 1954, a time when segregation was at its height, numerous black schools throughout the country were models of excellence in education. In 1899, black students in Washington, D.C.’s Paul Laurence Dunbar High outscored white students on citywide tests.

In his collection of papers on educational achievement, “Education: Assumption vs. History,” economist and social theorist Thomas Sowell documented similar levels of academic success in other black schools, including Baltimore’s Frederick Douglass High School, Atlanta’s Booker T. Washington High School, Brooklyn’s, Albany Avenue School, and McDonogh 35 Senior High School in New Orleans. These students were not the children of the elite but were sons and daughters of domestic servants and manual laborers. They achieved laudable academic successes in spite of skimpy school budgets, rundown buildings and hand-me-down textbooks, often in classrooms crowded with 40 to 50 students.

Fast-forward to the dismal situation today, Sowell found that just 9 percent of the students at Frederick Douglass High School scored as proficient in reading and only 3 percent in math. At Dunbar, only 12 percent of pupils were proficient in reading and 5 percent in math. At Booker T. Washington, the percentages are 20 in English and 18 in math. The plummeting of students’ performance extended beyond the arena of academic achievement to students’ behavior and attitude as well. Today, there is a level disrespect for teachers and staff and a level of violence that would have been unimaginable during the first half of the 20th century.

We now see universities “decolonizing” further by teaching courses on the rap group N.W.A. and dropping Shakespeare, replacing Beethoven with hip-hop and rap. Yet, let us recall in 1983 when Wynton Marsalis became the first and only person to win a Grammy for both classical music and jazz in the same year. Should we demand that Marsalis return his prestigious award because it was for playing classical music?  

Low expectations and a grievance-based worldview trap blacks — especially the poor and the young — in an intellectual prison, denying them the ability to move beyond their circumstances. They will be forever limited, believing that their literal and figurative ghettos are a permanent reality from which there is no escape.

To address the challenges confronting blacks, we need to examine models of success throughout the history of black America, which will reveal that in an era when whites were at their worst, blacks were at their best. And we will find that these blacks did not waste time blaming others; rather, they achieved against the odds.

But the surest way to sabotage the prospects of blacks is to convince them that they have no agency and, therefore, no responsibility and no hope. This is insulting to the memory of Dr. King and immoral in its continued intellectual incarceration of people into a mindset of victimhood, rather than one of achievement.

Robert L. Woodson, Sr. is the president and founder of the Woodson Center. Follow him on Twitter @BobWoodson.