It is fitting that this grimly urgent article should appear in these pages. The Atlantic, in the words of one of its founders, was established “to bring the literary influence of New England to aid the anti-slavery cause.” From abolition to Reconstruction, from segregation to civil rights, from the Mississippi Delta to the northern ghettos (the subject of a series of articles by Nicholas Lemann, which formed the basis of his new book, The Promised Land: The Great Migration and How It Changed America), The Atlantic has had its (consistently liberal) say on all the major racial issues. Some of these articles have not outlived their occasions, but one of them (below) will live forever. We refer to the letter that Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote in August, 1963, from a Birmingham, Alabama, jail—one of the great landmarks of eloquence in all American literature. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” he wrote. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” In their moral grandeur the very phrases are a reproach to an era without vision, dead to dreams. In 1964 The Atlantic went so far as to endorse a presidential candidate, largely because, as its editor, Edward Weeks, wrote, Lyndon Johnson gave promise of healing the nation’s racial divisions.
Tragically, instead of removing race from our politics, the Edsalls write, “the election of 1964 was a turning point in the politics of race.” The losing party then holds the White House today and bids fair to hold it tomorrow, owing in large part to its successful manipulation of race-charged issues. And because race now plays a decisive role in presidential politics, the problem of the twenty-first century, as well, is likely to be the problem of the color line.