On April 4, 1968, only a couple of hours before he would be assassinated, Martin Luther King, Jr. sat in his room, working on his Sunday sermon, aptly titled “Why America May Go to Hell.” It was a speech that would never be finished. After years of fighting for integration, it was obvious to the folks who knew him and to those who were listening closely to his speeches that the King of 1967 who said that white people’s belief in the fairness of America was “a fantasy of self-deception and comfortable vanity” was a much different man than the King of 1955 who led the Montgomery Bus Boycott and told us to “love our enemies and be good to them.”
This is the Dr. King that I was taught about, the radical one who would have supported Black Lives Matter and who would have challenged White supremacy. The same man who in 1967 asked the question that I have been asking myself since Charlottesville, “Why does White America delude itself, and how does it rationalize the evil it retains?” The question was relevant back then and it is even more relevant now. It is a question that demands an answer and it can only be answered by White America. I have received countless emails from White people asking me what they should be doing right now, I would argue that wrestling with this question and attempting to answer it should be somewhere near the top of their To-Do list.
In reading through his sermon notes, King was not arguing that America should go to hell but that it might –based upon its inability to end racism, poverty, militarism and materialism. It was a speech that America still needs to hear.
Sixty-two years ago this week, Emmett Till was taken from his home and brutally murdered by White men. There was no justice in that case and for many, who have lost their loved ones to state sanctioned police violence or White vigilantes, there is still no peace. Fifty-four years ago this week, at the March on Washington, John Lewis challenged us to march through this country until we splintered the segregated South into “a thousand pieces” and put it back together in the “image of God and democracy.” Segregation has legally ended and the signs have come down but our country is more divided than ever. Forty-eight years ago, King argued that the U.S. government was “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” A year later, the man that the F.B.I. deemed the most dangerous man in America was assassinated. Three weeks ago, Heather Hayer—in a country that had elected a Black man twice to be its president and is racially more diverse than it has ever been—was killed while protesting against the Alt-Right in Charlottesville, VA.
We find ourselves once again back at a moment of reckoning where we must realize that tomorrow is today and we are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. I would add that this fierce urgency requires us to do more acting than reflecting and more action than conversation. We are at a moment where we must organize and focus our energies and our attention on fighting White supremacy. It is the ugly beast that always rears its head in the midst of Black Reconstruction. It is an overt reminder that there still some White people who are willing to sacrifice themselves on the altar of Whiteness to keep the pillars of separation erected.
American enslavement lasted for 267 years but the remnants of it—the belief that certain people are superior and certain folks are inferior—have remained with us, in our statutes, in our statues, in our policies, in our practices, in our nation-wide history curriculum and in the hearts and minds of some people. Forty-nine years ago, Dr. King wondered if America, due to its inability to change and grow and be better, might go to hell; I sometimes wonder—when I look around at all of this hatred and anger and violence and destruction and poverty and pessimism—if we are already there.
Dr. Karsonya Wise Whitehead is an associate professor of communication and African and African American studies at Loyola University Maryland. She is the author of “Letters to My Black Sons: Raising Boys in a Post-Racial America” and “Notes from a Colored Girl.”