Victim Status

In the early days of the civil rights movement, King had resisted the temptation to define black people simply as victims of white oppression. Instead he tried to encourage initiative, self-reliance, and responsibility. 

He understood that people who thought of themselves as victims either remained helplessly passive or became vindictive and self-righteous.

His later attempt to organize a national alliance of "disadvantaged" groups, however, forced him to rely on just this kind of morally flawed appeal, since a common feeling of marginality was the only thing that could hold such an alliance together.

As victims of racism, exploitation, and neglect, King now argued, outcast groups had a right to "compensatory treatment." In his earlier account of direct action in Montgomery, he tried to assure whites that "the Negro, once a helpless child, has now grown up politically, culturally, and economically" and that "all he seeks is justice, for both himself and the white man." The Negro, King said, "understands and forgives and is ready to forget the past."

Ten years later, he went out of his way to remind people that blacks had suffered a special history of discrimination that set them apart from white immigrants. "When white immigrants arrived in the United States in the late nineteenth century, a beneficent government gave them free land and credit to build a useful, independent life.” Blacks, on the other hand, experienced nothing but prejudice and persecution.

Their history of oppression, as King explored its implications, appeared to justify a double standard of political morality. Black rioters, he admitted, had engaged in "incontestable and deplorable” crimes, but those crimes were "derivative," "born of the greater crimes of the white society."

[Christopher Lasch]
The True and Only Heaven, p.406

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