The Mind in Motion

Going through one of Martin Luther King's assessments of Black Power, and I came across this quote:


Unfortunately, when hope diminishes, the hate is often turned most bitterly toward those who originally built up the hope. In all the speaking that I have done in the United States before varied audiences, including some hostile whites, the only time that I have been booed was one night in a Chicago mass meeting by some young members of the Black Power movement. I went home that night with an ugly feeling. Selfishly I thought of my sufferings and sacrifices over the last twelve years. Why would they boo one so close to them? But as I lay awake thinking, I finally came to myself, and I could not for the life of me have less than patience and understanding for those young people. 

For twelve years I, and others like me, had held out radiant promises of progress. I had preached to them about my dream. I had lectured to them about the not too distant day when they would have freedom, "all, here and now." I had urged them to have faith in America and in white society. Their hopes had soared. They were now booing because they felt that we were unable to deliver on our promises. They were booing because we had urged them to have faith in people who had too often proved to be unfaithful. They were now hostile because they were watching the dream that they had so readily accepted turn into a frustrating nightmare.

King doesn't retreat from his ultimate belief that Black Power is a "nihilistic philosophy." But what I love here is that there's actual movement in King's writing, a willingness to grapple with the failings of his own struggle--personal and political--even as he pushes his point home.

I don't want to speak to broadly, or slip into nostalgia, but I read so much argumentation that really doesn't have any depth. It's basically debate club--find the weakest portion of your opponents argument, and attack it. As a writer, I've always believed in attacking your opponents strongest arguments, like seeking out the biggest bully in the neighborhood and kicking his ass. As much as possible, the smashing should be total and convincing.

Of course it's more than that. There's an aspect of combat here, but at least equally importantly, there's self-discovery as you must also be willing to put your weakest arguments out on the table. That reminds me of this passage from Lincoln:

If all earthly power were given me, I should not know what to do as to the existing institution. My first impulse would be to free all the slaves and send them to Liberia, to their own native land. But a moment's reflection would convince me, that whatever of high hope, as I think there is, there may be in this, in the long run, its sudden execution is impossible. 

What then, free them all, and keep them among us as underlings? Is it quite certain that this betters their condition? Free them and make them politically and socially our equals? My own feelings will not admit of this; and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of white people will not. Whether this feeling accords with justice and sound judgment, is not the sole question, if indeed, it is any part of it. 

A universal feeling, whether well or ill-founded, cannot be safely disregarded. We cannot, then, make them equals. It does seem to me that systems of gradual emancipation might be adopted; but for their tardiness in this, I will not undertake to judge our brethrens of the South.

Now obviously I don't agree with this argument. I think it's Eurocentric, and deeply flawed. (For the record, I also don't agree that Black Power was a "nihilistic philosophy." For people like my mother, it was full of hope.) But I also can't help but see in it an intellect at work, a mind that's churning and moving, a brain that exhibits some willingness to consider its own prejudices. Perhaps I award too much credit. But I came away impressed.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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