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The Almost Inevitable Failure of Justice

IN HIS FINAL BOOK, Where Do We Go From Here (1967), Martin Luther King, Jr., warned that the struggle for black equality had moved into a more difficult phase that would test the moral commitments of white America to democracy. King commented that, for most whites, the battles over school desegregation and the Civil Rights Act had merely “been a struggle to treat the Negro with a degree of decency, not of equality”:

White America was ready to demand that the Negro should be spared the lash of brutality and coarse degradation, but it had never been truly committed to helping him out of poverty, exploitation or all forms of discrimination.

King’s warning about the thinness of the country’s commitment ID democracy was combined with a profound optimism that ending poverty and creating a truly free society was within reach—that Americans might at last choose justice. His optimism was consonant with and informed by social and policy analysis of the time. Three years earlier, the Johnson administration had launched its War on Poverty, and in Where Do We Go From Here, ICing quoted the analysis of Hyman Bookbinder—from President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Office of Economic Opportunity—that “the poor can stop being poor if the rich are willing to become even richer at a slower rate.”

Twenty years later, when William Julius Wilson published The Tru6? Disadvantaged, his landmark assessment of the causes and consequences of ghetto poverty, it may have still been possible to view inner-city poverty as simply unfinished business from the civil rights movement. After all, African Americans had made substantial economic gains since the 1960s, and Ronald Reagan’s presidency could be seen as an aberration, the last vestige of reaction against inevitable social change. In his successful 1988 run for the presidency, Reagan’s vice president, George H. W. Bush, even allowed that he was haunted by the fate of ghetto children.

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“Genius. This extraordinary issue reminds us that Martin Luther King, Jr., was one of America’s most radical philosophers. Forget the dream, he called for a revolution in values that stood in stark contrast with the nightmare of neoliberalism, permanent war, and state-sanctioned violence. These essays will inspire a new generation to return to the source.” —Robin D. G. Kelley