This seldom-cited passage is from “The Three Evils of Society,” Dr. King’s speech to the National Conference on New Politics, in Chicago, August 31, 1967. It is highly relevant to much current discussion about work for racial justice and equity.
King: Ever since the birth of our nation, White America has had a Schizophrenic personality on the question of race. She has been torn between selves: a self in which she proudly professes the great principle of democracy and a self in which she madly practices the antithesis of democracy.
This tragic duality has produced a strange indecisiveness and ambivalence toward the Negro, causing America to take a step backwards simultaneously with every step forward on the question of Racial Justice; to be at once attracted to the Negro and repelled by him, to love and to hate him.
There has never been a solid, unified and determined thrust to make justice a reality for Afro-Americans. The step backwards has a new name today, it is called the white backlash, but the white backlash is nothing new. It is the surfacing of old prejudices, hostilities and ambivalences that have always been there. It was caused neither by the cry of black power nor by the unfortunate recent wave of riots in our cities.
The white backlash of today is rooted in the same problem that has characterized America ever since the black man landed in chains on the shores of this nation.
This does not imply that all White Americans are racist, far from it. Many white people have, through a deep moral compulsion fought long and hard for racial justice. Nor does it mean that America has made no progress in her attempt to cure the body politic of the disease of racism or that the dogma of racism has been considerably modified in recent years.
However for the good of America, it is necessary to refute the idea that the dominant ideology in our country, even today, is freedom and equality while racism is just an occasional departure from the norm on the part of a few bigoted extremists. Racism can well be that corrosive evil that will bring down the curtain on western civilization.
[Historian] Arnold Toynbee has said that some twenty-six civilizations have risen upon the face of the Earth, almost all of them have descended into the junk heap of destruction. The decline and fall of these civilizations, according to Toynbee, was not caused by external invasion but by internal decay. They failed to respond creatively to the challenges impinging upon them.
If America does not respond creatively to the challenge to banish racism, some future historian will have to say, that a great civilization died because it lacked the soul and commitment to make justice a reality for all men [and women].