A Lesson from Martin Luther King

Racial segregation and “Jim Crow” were created to break up Black-White cooperation

 By Edward Spannaus

Jan. 14, 2024–At a time when Dr. Martin Luther King’s image has become so sanitized as to become almost unrecognizable, it is useful to recall what he actually said, as opposed to what it is reduced to today. For example, sections of his speech given at the State Capitol in Montgomery, Alabama, on March 25, 1965, after the long-delayed completion of the Selma-to-Montgomery march, described a piece of United States history that few today know – history that has really been “erased.”

A Lesson from Martin Luther kKng
Dr. King addresses the crowd after the march from Selma to Montgomery

What Dr. King was attempting to do, was to revive the memory of how racism and segregation came about in the United States, and to educate Americans as to our real history.  Racial segregation is not something that is part of the natural order of things (as some on the right might claim), nor was it baked into our nation from its founding and long before (as some on the left assert).  It was deliberately created by the Southern aristocracy – the “Bourbons” — as means of breaking up the alliances between poor and working-class whites and blacks which emerged in every southern state in the 1880s, after the formal end of Reconstruction, these alliances were called “Populist” or “Fusion” parties in many southern states.

In Virginia, this alliance was known as the “Readjusters” – because they wanted to “readjust” payments on the state’s pre-war debts so that more money was available for public schools and other government services. I wrote about the Virginia Readjusters a few years ago, without explicitly recalling Dr. King’s 1965 speech – although it is almost certain that I knew of it at the time.

The Readjuster movement has been called “the most successful interracial political alliance in the post-emancipation South,” and it actually governed Virginia and several of its major cities from 1879 to 1883 – making giant economic gains for poor and working-class whites and blacks, including farmers. It was broken up by race riots in Danville, which the Democratic Party played up across the state to oust the Readjusters and Republicans, and to disenfranchise not only Blacks, but up to half of white voters.[i]

Here is Dr. King’s telling of this important but little-known story:

Racial segregation as a way of life did not come about as a natural result of hatred between the races immediately after the Civil War. There were no laws segregating the races then. And as the noted historian, C. Vann Woodward, in his book, The Strange Career of Jim Crow, clearly points out, the segregation of the races was really a political stratagem employed by the emerging Bourbon interests in the South to keep the southern masses divided and southern labor the cheapest in the land. You see, it was a simple thing to keep the poor white masses working for near-starvation wages in the years that followed the Civil War. Why, if the poor white plantation or mill worker became dissatisfied with his low wages, the plantation or mill owner would merely threaten to fire him and hire former Negro slaves and pay him even less. Thus, the southern wage level was kept almost unbearably low.

Toward the end of the Reconstruction era, something very significant happened.  That is what was known as the Populist Movement. The leaders of this movement began awakening the poor white masses and the former Negro slaves to the fact that they were being fleeced by the emerging Bourbon interests. Not only that, but they began uniting the Negro and white masses into a voting bloc that threatened to drive the Bourbon interests from the command posts of political power in the South.

To meet this threat, the southern aristocracy began immediately to engineer this development of a segregated society. I want you to follow me through here because this is very important to see the roots of racism and the denial of the right to vote. Through their control of mass media, they revised the doctrine of white supremacy. They saturated the thinking of the poor white masses with it, thus clouding their minds to the real issue involved in the Populist Movement. They then directed the placement on the books of the South of laws that made it a crime for Negroes and whites to come together as equals at any level.  And that did it. That crippled and eventually destroyed the Populist Movement of the nineteenth century.

If it may be said of the slavery era that the white man took the world and gave the Negro Jesus, then it may be said of the Reconstruction era that the southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow.  He gave him Jim Crow.  And when his wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide, he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than the black man.  And he ate Jim Crow.  And when his undernourished children cried out for the necessities that his low wages could not provide, he showed them the Jim Crow signs on the buses and in the stores, on the streets and in the public buildings.  And his children, too, learned to feed upon Jim Crow, their last outpost of psychological oblivion.

Thus, the threat of the free exercise of the ballot by the Negro and the white masses alike resulted in the establishment of a segregated society. They segregated southern money from the poor whites; they segregated southern mores from the rich whites; they segregated southern churches from Christianity; they segregated southern minds from honest thinking; and they segregated the Negro from everything.  That’s what happened when the Negro and white masses of the South threatened to unite and build a great society: a society of justice where none would pray upon the weakness of others; a society of plenty where greed and poverty would be done away; a society of brotherhood where every man would respect the dignity and worth of human personality.

Transcriptions and videos of Dr. King’s entire Montgomery speech, known as the “How Long, Not Long’ speech, or the “Our God is Marching On” speech, are available in various locations, including here.

Dr. King’s full speech is definitely worth reading, of course. In his conclusion, he expresses the faith that inspired the fight of his movement: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

[i] “The Readjusters: The Black-White Alliance that Once Governed Virginia,” Bulletin of Loudoun County History, 2019 edition, pp. 36-54.

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