On Sept. 20, 1966, in the small town of Grenada, Miss., Martin Luther King Jr. would not get out of bed. Andrew Young, his closest adviser, tried everything. He used all the techniques they had learned over the course of the movement when any one of them faced debilitating exhaustion. Nothing worked. This was not exhaustion. King had fallen into a deep depression, and he would not budge.
King’s bout hit in the midst of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s efforts to desegregate schools in Grenada County. He had witnessed, once again, the human capacity for evil. As 150 black students entered John Rundle High School and Lizzie Horn Elementary School, an angry mob gathered outside. White students were dismissed at midday. Half an hour later, black students emerged. The mob attacked the children. Grown men descended upon 12-year-old Richard Sigh and broke his leg with lead pipes. Others laughed as they pummeled a girl in pigtails. No wonder King went to bed.
Near the end of his life, King confronted the uncertainty of his moral vision. He had underestimated how deeply the belief that white people matter more than others–what I call the value gap–was ingrained in the habits of American life. He saw that white resentment involved more than fatigue with mass demonstrations and demands for racial equality–and was not simply a sin of the South. It was embedded in the very psyche of white America.
In King’s final book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, drafted in early 1967, he argued in part that white supremacy stood in the way of America’s democracy, that it was an ever-present force in frustrating the dreams of the nation’s darker-skinned citizens. At the heart of it was a distorted understanding of the meaning of racial justice. He wrote:
Negroes have proceeded from a premise that equality means what it says, and they have taken white Americans at their word when they talked of it as an objective. But most whites in America … proceed from a premise that equality is a loose expression for improvement. White America is not even psychologically organized to close the gap–essentially it seeks only to make it less painful and less obvious but in most respects to retain it.
This is a devastating judgment about our so-called national commitment to progress. It reduces racial justice to a charitable enterprise by which white people “do good” for black people. This, in turn, provides white Americans with a necessary illusion that preserves the idea of innocence and insulates their conscience or, perhaps, their soul from guilt and blame. ...