Glenn Loury and I two years ago discussing what might have happened had Dr. King survived. I don’t believe there would be an MLK holiday. He would have remained too a polarizing figure, as he surely would have gone on to do more difficult, controversial, and worthy things.

MLK Day always makes me remember fondly the old Jewish radicals, not least my parents and grandparents, who supported the Civil Rights Movement in the 1940s and 1950s. They were way before their time.

I also remember 1968, the worst year in postwar American history. I was five, watching my parents staring in horror at our black-and-white kitchen TV. There was Coretta Scott King in mourning black. There were the sobbing mourners and the terrifying images of rioting and burning. The wheels were coming off. I didn’t know what to make of it. No one did.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect,, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

7 thoughts on “MLK Day”

  1. Well, it may still be too soon to make jokes?

    But for one thing… he'd have had one bleep of a medical bill. That much, we can know for sure. Not as bad as if it happened today, but I'm sure it still would have been a big ticket. Not sure what it says about me that that was my first reaction to your question, what if he'd survived?

    Btw… is it wrong that I find many BLM tactics to be, like, beyond counterproductive, unfocused, and annoying? Or do I just not understand what they're trying to do? And why do the people who actually know how to make change stand on the sidelines? The experienced activists? Maybe they are just worn out? As an observer, I find it fascinating and very confusing. Even while I agree with much of the substantive goals as I understand them. It is just getting wacky out there though.

    1. As I've said before, a lot of people on the left really don't understand what happened in the 1960s and 70s. The civil rights protests were effective because they specifically targeted the sources of injustice, rather than just randomly blocking roads and airports. Provoking an overreaction by the police as they defended the indefensible was the point. And the civil rights movement was very organized, choosing very carefully which people harmed by the authorities they would go all out defending.

      Rather than modeling themselves after those civil rights protests, BLM has opted to follow in the footsteps of the Vietnam War protests, in which being generally disruptive was the chosen set of tactics. They show no recognition that the Vietnam War protests were complete failures. Far from bringing the war to an end, they prolonged it by making it seem as if opposing the war was identical to opposing law and order. That will never be an effective way to win over the population. Like it or not, there is a very strong desire for order that runs through most human beings. Frame the debate as a choice between oppression and anarchy, humans will choose oppression almost every time.

      BLM will keep sabotaging themselves until they learn this lesson.

      1. The problem for BLM, is that emulating the form of civil disobedience used by the civil rights protesters requires that the law you're violating actually be perceived by a lot of people as an injustice. If you're using that technique to protest a popular law, it backfires.

        The more modern, "just randomly blocking roads" technique is designed to get around that. It's less a way of drawing attention to injustice, than a form of extortion: "Respond to us, or we'll make everybody's lives miserable!" It has wider application because it doesn't in any way depend on your cause resonating with the popular conscience. It just hinges on people wanting you out of their faces and off their lawns.

        And, BLM isn't actually sabotaging themselves. Read an essay on this topic, a while ago, (Wish I'd bookmarked it!) addressing this very question: Why, if you're protesting police killings, do you make a strong arm robber killed while attacking a police officer your poster boy, instead of an asthmatic who dies of a choke hold? Why are the poster boys so often somebody disreputable, who it turns out was properly shot, like Travon Martin being shot in self defense after trying to beat a neighborhood watch officer to death?

        Because you're not looking to solve a problem. You're feeding off a controversy, and that requires people to disagree. BLM is, in fact, doing what's healthy for BLM as an organization, even if what they're doing won't advance any reasonable cause.

        NCGatSmFcts: I've put my email address in my profile, if you want to chat. Mark has me limited to one comment per post, (If that, about half arbitrarily die in moderation.) apparently to create the illusion that I have no comeback when somebody attacks my point.

        1. It seems to me that BLM might be too amorphous a group to even have coherent enough goals to be *capable* of self-sabotage. (See above.)

          I don't *think* so. But, it's possible. The thing that I saw, a month or so back, that had a list of goals, really wasn't anything you would object to, I think. Honestly. I wish I could have found it again. They weren't saying, oh just let everyone do whatever. It was focused on stopping authoritarian abuses, a cause which I know is dear to your heart too.

          Meanwhile, the gulf between you and I on reality has just opened up again. ; ) No offense! These things happen. Being on a neighborhood watch does *not* give someone the right to interfere with someone else's law abiding activities, such as walking home. Even if he was a young black man while doing it. Sorry, nice try, but no cigar! Even a police department will not back that up. Watch folk are just supposed to *observe,* and at most, make a phone call to the police. That's all, folks! I have seen the other side of this in person and it is *ugly.* Don't do it, people. Let the professionals handle it and even that, only when *necessary.*

          Thanks for inviting me to email. Today is totally slammed though. I hope Mark lets you out of the box soon. I too am glad you are here.

      2. I wasn't around for most of that… but I agree this much, it is a lot easier to sympathize with people who look and behave like church folk, and have a clear, unassailable goal, such as wanting to vote. Now, BLM's actual substantial goals, which I did find somewhere online, seemed mostly pretty good to me — (They want more data and fewer unjustified shootings of unarmed people, and they also have some larger justice system reforms… I should go look for that link… Looking, looking … See, here's a problem right now. I should *not* have to look on **Tumblr*** to find out what your darned goals are!!! (And I think that was the wrong one.) I am abandoning this mini-project. Campaign Zero *may* be what I was looking for. But it might not. And I'm not the one to say. SunuvaB!!!! I blame those darned Occupy people. I fricking cannot stand anarchists… ay caramba.) — whereas, at least some of their local affiliates are a complete mess!!! So, it's confusing, annoying and depressing.

        So clearly BLM is a generational problem. But why…. WHY are not older African Americans helping them? Seriously, the talent and the know-how are there. What the bleeping bleep is going the bleep on??? Where are they? *That* does make me worry. What is going wrong with that? Why isn't the knowledge being passed down? I fear it is that the youngsters don't want to listen. And that's not good.

  2. I, too, fondly remember the old Jewish radicals, including my parents and grandparents. I count myself blessed to have grown up among people who had a simplistic view of right and wrong, and who were not satisfied to "go along, to get along."

    I'm not sure I agree with your characterization of 1968. At least for me, 1964 was the worst. I was in Alabama with some more "Yankee Jew meddlers" helping to register voters when I learned that Schwerner, Goodman, and Cheney had been murdered one state away. To me, the reason I think of that as the worst of times was that after the murders came to light, there was no trace of shame among the whites I was dealing with. Rather, the common sentiment was "Well, they got what they deserved, meddling where they didn't belong."

    1968, while a year filled with violence and dismay, was a watershed time in our history, because IMO it began The Revolution.

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