The term “white backlash” is often used in modern contexts to apply specifically to the racial animus to the presidency of Obama that became a powerful political movement. As my colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates has argued, this backlash against “an entire nigger presidency with nigger health care, nigger climate accords, and nigger justice reform, all of which could be targeted for destruction or redemption,” can be called to account for the election of Trump to the presidency. And, for the money, that backlash has remarkable explanatory power for the suite of white nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiment that has accompanied the chords of Trumpism, and for the power he wields fighting culture wars in any theater.
As Trump’s own career indicates, the roots of this pushback reach much further than the topsoil of the Obama era. Indeed, King helped popularize the phrase and idea of “white backlash” during the civil-rights era, after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed, and after which Democrats, including President Johnson, feared a strong mobilization of white voters against the reform. “A section of the white population, perceiving Negro pressure for change, misconstrues it as a demand for privileges rather than as a desperate quest for existence,” King wrote in the Saturday Evening Post in November 1964. “The ensuing white backlash intimidates government officials who are already too timorous, and, when the crisis demands vigorous measures, a paralysis ensues.”
Through the later years of his life, King was acutely aware of and intensely concerned with white backlash, which he perceived as a rebounding force that could over time reduce the gains of integration and equal protection to mere tokens. He also suffered from that rebounding force in his own lifetime, with declining approval ratings and increasingly militant white-supremacist opponents. And then he was killed.
If only that were the end of it. The mobilization against King continued after his death, even as he was widely accepted as a modern Founding Father. The age of canonization was a dizzying study in hypocrisy. Over a hundred schools were named for King, and many of them are heavily segregated today. More than 900 streets in the United States were named for King, and today those streets often travel through the most depleted and dilapidated places in America. President Ronald Reagan bowed to public pressure and gave the country a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, and then injected billions into the War on Drugs, also creating the crack-cocaine sentencing disparity that has had an enormous impact on racial disparities in the justice system.
In King’s wake, the effort to dismantle many of the policies he’d fought for became a binding tie for strains of American conservatism. Massive resistance against school integration had permanently corrupted the Brown v. Board desegregation decision even before his death, and the clever legal machinations required to side-step integration—including certain forms of school choice and busing restrictions—became central to southern conservative politics. The new American voting-rights regime heralded in August 1965 with the Voting Rights Act was immediately challenged by a guerrilla insurgency of disenfranchisement and anti-voter fraud laws that played out in courts over the following decade. Conservative politicians and lawyers rallied against executive orders on affirmative action and campus policies supplementing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and have been rallying against it since. And the system of mass incarceration and police brutality that characterizes the modern “hyperghetto” was built on King’s bones, with Republican and Democrat politicians joining hands to create a penal, militarized response to the desperate riots across the country that marked his death.