Timeless Reading: Dr. King’s “Where Do We Go From Here?”

By Kate Vanskike

In 1967, a year before his death, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. published “Where Do We Go From Here?” – a provoking soliloquy on what he believed to be our nation’s triple threats: racism, poverty, and militarism. Not having lived through the civil rights era he led, and only having been exposed to the most popular parts of King’s messages over time, I was struck by how much this 55-year-old piece pulses with contemporary relevance.

For my own learning and pondering – and perhaps yours, too – I’ve compiled this selection of material from the book, often choosing portions where I underlined and made asterisks and wrote in the margins – “STILL?!” – marking my naïve dismay that as a people and a nation, we are so slow to change.

On Racism & Equality

“The absence of brutality and unregenerate evil is not the presence of justice.” … “Why is equality so assiduously avoided? Why does white America delude itself, and how does it rationalize the evil it retains?” (p. 4)

“The majority of white Americans consider themselves sincerely committed to justice for the Negro. They believe that American society is essentially hospitable to fair play and to steady growth toward a middle-class Utopia embodying racial harmony. Overwhelmingly, America is still struggling with irresolution and contradictions. It has been sincere and even ardent in welcoming some change. But too quickly apathy and disinterest rise to the surface when the next logical steps are to be taken.” (p.5)

The line of progress is never straight.

“The hard truth is that neither Negro nor white has yet done enough to expect the dawn of a new day….Freedom is won by a struggle against suffering. By this measure, Negroes have not yet paid the full price for freedom. And whites have not yet faced the full cost of justice.”  (p. 20)  “No great victories are won in a war for the transformation of a whole people without total participation. Less than this will not create a new society; it will only evoke more sophisticated token amelioration.” (p. 21)

On Nonviolence vs Riots

“It cannot be taken for granted that Negroes will adhere to nonviolence under any and all conditions. When there is rocklike intransigence or sophisticated manipulation that mocks the empty-handed petitioner, rage replaces reason.” (p. 21)

“Those who argue that it is hazardous to give warnings, lest the expression of apprehension lead to violence, are in error.”… “Violence has already been practiced too often, and always because remedies were postponed.” “The average white person also has a responsibility. He has to resist the impulse to seize upon the rioter as the exclusive villain. He has to rise up with indignation against his own municipal, state and national governments …” “Negroes hold only one key to the double lock of peaceful change. The other is in the hands of the white community.” (p. 22)

“Like life, racial understanding is not something that we find but something that we must create.” (p. 28)

“If Stokely Carmichael [who advocated for a theme focused on black power] now says that nonviolence is irrelevant, it is because … he has seen with his own eyes the most brutal white violence against Negroes and white civil rights workers, and he has seen it go unpunished.” (p. 34)

“A riot is at the bottom the language of the unheard. It is the desperate, suicidal cry of the one who is so fed up with the powerlessness of his cave existence that he asserts that he would rather be dead than ignored.” (p. 119-20)

On Power  

“Power without love is reckless and abusive; love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Just at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.” (p. 38)

“There is no separate black path to power and fulfillment that does not intersect white paths, and there is no separate white path to power and fulfillment, short of disorder, that does not share that power with black aspirations for freedom and human dignity. We are bound together in a single garment of destiny.” (p. 54)

On Racist Roots and White Supremacy

“In short, America must assume the guilt for the black man’s inferior status.” … “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. The white backlash is an expression of the same vacillations, the same search for rationalizations, the same lack of commitment that have always characterized white American on the question of race.” (p. 72)

“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.” (p. 73)

“Black men, the creators of the wealth of the New World, were stripped of all human and civil rights. And this degradation was sanctioned and protected by institutions of government, all for one purpose: to produce commodities for sale at a profit, which in turn would be privately appropriated.” (p.76) “And so, with the growth of slavery, men had to convince themselves that a system which was so economically profitable was morally justifiable. This attempt to give moral sanction to a profitable system gave birth to the doctrine of white supremacy.” (p. 77)

“Soon the doctrine of white supremacy was imbedded in every textbook and preached fin practically every pulpit.” … “The greatest blasphemy of the whole ugly process was that the white man ended up making God his partner in the exploitation of the Negro.” (p. 79)

“The inscription on the Statue of Liberty refers to America as the ‘mother of exiles.’ The tragedy is that while America became the mother of her white exiles, she evinced no motherly concern or love for her exiles from Africa.” (p. 82)

[Here, King also acknowledges the brutal racism against the Native Americans – the white pursuing the physical extermination of the American Indian, which was “depicted as an example of bravery and progress.” (p. 85)]

On Responsibility of Whites

“How responsible am I for the well-being of my fellows? To ignore evil is to become an accomplice to it.” (p. 91)

“Over the last few years, many Negroes have felt that their most troublesome adversary was not the obvious bigot of the Ku Lux Klan … but the white liberal who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice, who prefers tranquility to equality.” (p. 93)

“In spite of latent prejudice, in spite of the reality that many blatant forms of injustice could not exist without the acquiescence of white liberals, the fact remains that a sound resolution of the race problem in America will rest with those white man and women who consider themselves as generous and decent human beings.” (p. 94)

“The white liberal must affirm that absolute justice for the Negro simply means … that the Negro must have ‘his due’ … a good job, a good education, a decent house and a share of power. It is, however, important to understand that giving a man his due may often mean giving him special treatment … A society that has done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years must now do something special for him, in order to equip him to compete on a just and equal basis.” (p.95)  

Continuing the Work

“The challenge we face is to unite around powerful action programs to eradicate the last vestiges of racial injustice. … If history teaches anything, it is that evil is recalcitrant and determined … it must be attacked by a counteracting persistence, by the day-to-day assault of the battering rams of justice.” (p.136)

“We must not consider it unpatriotic to raise certain basic questions about our national character.” (p. 141)

“All over the world … great masses of people are determined to end the exploitation of their races and lands.” (p. 179)

“One of the great liabilities of history is that all too many people fail to remain awake through the great periods of social change. … Today our very survival depends on our ability to stay awake, to adjust to new ideas, to remain vigilant and to face the challenge of change. … Together we must learn to live as brothers or together we will be forced to perish as fools.” (p. 181)

“Love that does not satisfy justice is no love at all.” (p. 95)


Learn more about nonviolence and justice programs through The King Center.

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