At issue between King and some of his thoughtful critics are both their divergent diagnoses of the proximate causes of lingering black disadvantage and their suggested remedies.
For King, working amid circumstances in which the opinion of blacks’ natural inferiority remained widespread and socially powerful, it was a moral and prudential imperative to argue that the causes of black socioeconomic disadvantage were not natural but conventional.
This is what he meant by the claim, quoted by Professor Allen, that the “crisis” in blacks’ condition was “culturally and socially induced.” In our own day, however, the debate over the causes of persisting black disadvantage is no longer framed by the antinomy of nature versus convention (or “culture” in the sense in which King used the term).
It is instead commonly framed by the antinomy of culture versus structure, with “culture” denoting the complex of institutions, customs, opinions, and sentiments that operate to form (or deform) individuals’ moral characters, and “structure” denoting the political-economic institutions and policies within which individuals operate in their efforts to improve their material conditions.
Viewed by reference to the latter terms of debate, King appears clearly as a proponent of structural explanations of black disadvantage.
In that same passage quoted from (1967), he contended that the “root” of that disadvantage was “pervasive and persistent economic want” and that a “fair opportunity for jobs, education, housing and access to culture” would suffice as a remedy.With those remedies in place, he predicted, “[T]he decline in school dropouts, family breakups, crime rates, illegitimacy, swollen relief rolls and other social evils would stagger the imagination.” It seems safe to observe that experience has not vindicated King’s optimism.For present purposes, however, a more fruitful inquiry concerns why King was so optimistic about the prospects for a prompt transformation of the condition of impoverished blacks, given the seeming pessimism that Professor Allen notices in his account of the black “dilemma.” King was deeply impressed by the damage that centuries of subjection to injustice had cumulatively wrought.Whereas the first phase was aimed at securing the civil and political rights proper to individuals in their formal identities as persons and citizens (including rights of association, rights of access to public accommodations, educational institutions, and workplaces, and rights to vote and to seek public office), a “second phase,” aimed at “the realization of equality,” would seek to achieve specific substantive, socioeconomic outcomes.The latter, in other words, concerned the fruitful exercise of rights as distinct from the legally guaranteed possession of rights.At deeper levels, they implicate profound questions concerning the nature of civil rights themselves, along with the natural rights and natural laws from which they derive. Allen addresses the Act not primarily as law or policy, therefore, but as political philosophy.As a result of his inquiry into the philosophic vision informing the law, an essay on the Civil Rights Act becomes an essay on Martin Luther King, Jr., whom he singles out as the preeminent spokesman of the civil-rights thinking that stands, for many in our own day, as the authoritative legacy of the Civil Rights Movement. failed”—is attention-getting, certainly in its bold directness if not also in its countercultural substance.Professor Allen’s closing comments indirectly suggest that amid that zeal may be a Machiavellian sort of ambition.To conceive of his people as suffering the depth of degradation and disability would certainly appeal to one who, seeking the glory proper to the founder of new orders, understood that the greatest glory would belong to one who led his people in rising from the lowest beginnings.One hundred years after Emancipation, he lamented in the “Dream” speech, “the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled”—not only presently confined or shackled, but crippled, disabled—“by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.” Such characterizations of the condition of black Americans would seem to cast grave doubt on their near-term prospects for full, fruitful integration into the mainstream of American society.Yet King’s optimism, reflecting in part the faith of the progressive Left in the power of governments to engineer desirable social outcomes, reflects also his judgment that the limited forms of agency that remained available to black Americans were yet adequate to their most important purpose.