The Perfectionist Tradition

The Perfectionist Tradition

The African American perfectionists offered “faith” instead of “hope”—emphasizing the struggle to realize a vision of justice rather than passive assurance that it would prevail.

Billie Holiday (Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

The Darkened Light of Faith: Race, Democracy, and Freedom in African American Political Thought
by Melvin L. Rogers
Princeton University Press, 2023, 400 pp.

King: A Life
by Jonathan Eig
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2023, 688 pp.

 

In recent years, the United States has seen the entrenchment of an insurgent and overtly racist hard right, a retreat from fleeting but once seemingly sincere commitments to addressing the injustices of police brutality and mass incarceration, and a growing backlash against voting rights, affirmative action, and other gains of the civil rights movement. How should we relate to history in a time like ours? Journalists Ta-Nehisi Coates and Nikole Hannah-Jones, and Afropessimists Frank Wilderson and Jared Sexton, have exhorted us to face the facts that the United States was founded by slaveholders who defined democracy in opposition to Black people, and that hoping to change that reality is at best naïve and at worst a distraction from the more urgent project of learning to live and thrive in a white supremacist nation. Meanwhile, many conservatives and progressives remind us that, from the founding, Black and white Americans have challenged the racial limits of democracy. For liberals, this means we should retain hope, as Martin Luther King Jr. declared, “that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” For the right, that day has already come.

Two important new books suggest that a more effective approach lies somewhere between these opposing views. In The Darkened Light of Faith, political theorist Melvin L. Rogers finds a middle path in what he calls the “perfectionist” tradition of African-American politics. This tradition links nineteenth-century abolitionists David Walker, Maria Stewart, and Frederick Douglass with twentieth-century writers, artists, and activists including Ida B. Wells, Billie Holiday, and James Baldwin, all of whom viewed an honest confrontation with the history of American racism as necessary for any progress toward racial equality. In his biography King: A Life, journalist Jonathan Eig complicates the optimistic approach by reminding us that King himself placed little faith in national traditions and, instead, pushed for radical changes that won him the ire of liberals and conservatives who would later claim his legacy.

 
Rogers, who criticized Coates’s “despair” at length in this magazine in 2015, expresses sympathy for the pessimistic view of American democracy. Indeed, he is far more critical of conservatives and liberals who view American democracy as essentially egalitarian. Referring to Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal’s 1944 study An American Dilemma, Rogers writes that this approach “treats the history of racial domination as an aberration within American life and thus sets about the task of recovering and educating the citizenry about their true commitments.”

Yet even as he agrees that nothing in American history guarantees a racially just future, Rogers insists that the history of racist violence does not preclude that possibility. Otherwise, he writes, “Human agency dissolves altogether, and we fail to acknowledge that our institutions are what they are and our culture is what it is because we have made them so.”

In contrast, Rogers highlights the ideas of the “African American perfectionists,” who “asked their audience to see something as profoundly wrong with who white Americans take themselves to be in their relationship to and treatment of black people.” They offer “faith” instead of “hope”—emphasizing the struggle to realize a vision of justice rather than a passive assurance that it will prevail. It is the conviction, as Baldwin put it in 1963, “that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they really are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.” Key to that faith is the belief that white Americans can be convinced to hold their Black fellow citizens in “equal regard.” This outcome is far from guaranteed.

Abolitionists like Walker, Stewart, and Douglass argued that the brutality of slavery was dissonant with the founding principles of the United States. But rather than expecting white Americans to rediscover the American creed, they sought to highlight the contradictions and assert a new definition of American democracy that was incompatible with racism. A striking example is Douglass’s 1852 speech “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” Douglass began with disavowal. “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn,” he told a mostly white audience. Yet he closed with optimism drawn from the ideals and institutions of American democracy and the rising power of abolitionist and democratic movements around the globe.

Oddly, Rogers largely skips over Reconstruction, the period in American history where that faith may have been most closely realized. Both Stewart and Douglass outlived slavery, and it would be useful to know how they assessed what historian Eric Foner calls the “constitutional revolution” contained in the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments. Yet, as Foner acknowledges, that moment was short-lived, and Rogers rightly focuses on the backlash that followed. It was in the face of racist retrenchment that the perfectionist faith was most remarkable, and most needed.

Reconstruction established a legal framework that would be critical to challenging racial discrimination over the long term, but the more immediate problems were “unwritten laws,” as journalist Ida B. Wells explained, that allowed white Americans to justify racist terror against their fellow citizens. Her point was not to remind Americans of their true creed, but to force them to confront the brutality of their actions and aspire to a more just future. “Wells and others harnessed horror to remind people of their agency rather than treating it as something over which Americans exercise no control,” Rogers writes.

In the early twentieth century, these figures focused their efforts on stopping lynching. And they insisted that lynching was not an undercurrent or an aberration in American culture but, as NAACP leader Walter White wrote in 1929, “an almost integral part of our national folkways.” In a context where racist violence was carried out openly and celebrated in the press, it was not enough to simply document and expose it; ending lynching required a shift in white people’s perceptions of themselves and their relationships to their Black neighbors.

That distinction was illustrated in Billie Holiday’s performance of the anti-lynching ballad “Strange Fruit,” which teacher and songwriter Abel Meeropol penned after viewing Lawrence Beitler’s photograph of the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, Indiana, on August 7, 1930. The image showed white people smirking or staring menacingly as Shipp and Smith’s brutalized bodies hung in the background. Like many images of lynchings, the photo was printed on postcards and in newspapers and sold by the thousands.

While Meeropol described his poem as a “cathartic release” from lynching “and the people who perpetuate it,” Rogers characterizes Holiday’s performance as a “personal protest” designed “to convey—to call into existence—a new ethical sensibility” in which racist violence was understood to violate the moral and political ideals of American democracy. When she performed the song at Café Society in New York City, management suspended table service and cut the houselights, leaving a spotlight trained to reveal an expression of disgust on her face. “Southern trees bear a strange fruit,” Holiday wailed, while lifting her face to confront the audience. With a grimace, she sang, “Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,” and then contorted her face into a look of contempt to describe “the bulging eyes and the twisted mouth . . . and the sudden smell of burning flesh!” Rather than distancing herself or her audience from the act of lynching, Rogers explains, “Holiday hopes to retell the story of bearing witness to lynching and the reactions it ought to stimulate. It attempts to make present what one would think appropriate—a gasp, a cringe, a look of outrage.”

 
Rogers’s conclusion on James Baldwin’s writing in the late 1950s and early 1960s centers on how Baldwin’s view of the past differed from those of Myrdal, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and other postwar liberals who saw racism as a perversion of American ideals. Baldwin sought a confrontation with history. Responding to anthropologist Margaret Mead’s complaint that focusing on the past unfairly blamed contemporary Americans for a crime they did not personally commit, Baldwin exclaimed, “But I am responsible for it because I am a man and a citizen of this country and you are responsible for it too.”

It would be equally useful to know how Baldwin and other perfectionists made sense of the opportunities for change—and their limits—in the later 1960s. Rogers overlooks Baldwin’s 1972 book No Name in the Street, which responded to the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. and the rising backlash against the civil rights movement. Journalist Mel Watkins noted at the time that Baldwin’s later essays contained the same mixture of harsh judgment and possibility for “redemption” as his early work. But given the events of the interceding decade, Watkins argued, Baldwin’s ideas now seemed untimely, sustained by the “fleeting illusion that nonblack Americans could actually empathize with blacks and seriously confront the racial problem.” If Baldwin was “anachronistic,” Watkins wrote, that “may very well be a more serious indictment against ourselves, a palpable indication of our own moral degeneration.”

For Rogers, indicting the United States for not achieving Baldwin and King’s vision does not mean that racial equality is impossible. Rather, it remains a future to be fought for, albeit by drawing on elements of the past.

 
Given the excessive focus on King in studies of Black politics, it is refreshing that Rogers mentions the civil rights leader only occasionally and instead turns to less studied, and often more surprising, thinkers. Yet because King looms so large, his legacy is most in need of revision. If Americans know nothing else about the long tradition of Black political thought, they know at least a few lines of his address to the 1963 March on Washington. While King’s “dream” of racial justice, or the promise of equality contained in the nation’s founding documents, are now part of popular memory, less remembered is his harsh indictment that “America has defaulted on this promissory note” and “given the Negro people a bad check.” Like the other figures that Rogers covers in The Darkened Light of Faith, King had no illusion that white Americans were going to wake up one day and realize the contradictions between their founding documents and the reality of racial injustice. His speech was instead a warning not to waste the sense of urgency created by the protests that roiled the United States in the summer of 1963: “Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual.”

This is the King that journalist Jonathan Eig seeks to recover with his majestic new biography, King: A Life. Drawing on extensive newly available archival records and over 200 interviews conducted by Eig and hours of interviews recorded by others, the book provides a tremendously detailed portrait of the civil rights leader. Eig shows us a more aggressive King, who was seen as a threat not only by conservatives but also many liberals, including presidents Kennedy and Johnson.

Eig’s source base allows him to explore the most intimate details of King’s life. Unpublished biographies of King’s father and several close associates provide rich details on his upbringing and development as a minister and civil rights leader, as well as his insecurities and fears. Audiotapes recorded by Coretta Scott King soon after her husband’s assassination shed light on their relationship, her influence on the movement, and the toll that leadership inflicted on their family. Newly released FBI records detail the government’s efforts to monitor and disrupt King’s work, destroy his marriage, and end his life. And a recently discovered transcript of an interview conducted by journalist Alex Haley reveals how King’s comments about Malcom X were dramatically altered when the interview was printed in Playboy.

Given this wealth of information, it is notable when Eig overlooks details, or even gets them wrong. He reinforces the King-centric popular understanding of the March on Washington by telling us little about the actual demands of the demonstration and referencing only one of the other speeches made that day. And he tells us that left-wing journalist Murray Kempton was describing King’s “I Have a Dream” speech when writing that “No expression one-tenth so radical has ever been heard by so many Americans.” In fact, Kempton was referring to Bayard Rustin reciting the official demands of the protest and leading the crowd in a “mass pledge” to keep pushing until they had all been won.

In discussing the backlash to King’s criticism of the Vietnam War, Eig tells us that “Black syndicated columnist Carl Rowan” obliged President Johnson’s request for an article denouncing the civil rights leader. He does not mention that Johnson had appointed Rowan, the highest-ranked African American in the State Department, to direct the U.S. Information Agency. This is certainly relevant to our understanding of Johnson’s role in the backlash and the government’s power to undermine King and the movement he led.

More disturbing is Eig’s reliance on FBI records that were created unethically and were often obviously inaccurate. The FBI records are valuable in illustrating how vehement federal authorities were in their efforts to discredit King and other Black leaders, and how quickly they dismissed requests for protection from racist violence. Eig states repeatedly that agents created reports to malign King’s character, and that they deliberately leaked information to undermine his public image. When historian David Garrow first discovered a cache of FBI memos in 2019, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution declined to print his account because it could not verify their accuracy. Yet Eig relies on those same memos to detail King’s private life, even when they contradict the views of his spouse and other more reliable sources.

This problem is most glaring in a recently released summary of audio recordings from microphones hidden in hotel rooms occupied by King and other civil rights leaders in 1964. A court order has blocked the release of transcripts of the recordings until 2027, but Eig recites the summary in lurid detail. In one case, he quotes a hand-written addition to an official report that claims King “looked on, laughed and offered advice” while another minister raped a parishioner. Even if we believe everything else in the account, which Eig admits we should not, it seems obvious that an audio recording could not have revealed that King “looked on.”

In contrast to his extensive reliance on FBI agents who were known to be dishonest, Eig dismisses Coretta Scott King’s skepticism about the tapes as a choice “to remain loyal” to her husband. It’s true, as Eig states, that Coretta knew of his infidelities before they were married. But she had many reasons to question the reliability of an FBI report other than covering for Martin.

Ultimately, Eig’s focus on King’s personal life distracts him from the effort to rediscover the complexity and radicalism of the civil rights leader’s message. The biography opens with a powerful rejection of the popular memory that has “defanged” King and replaced “his complicated politics and philosophy with catchphrases that suit one ideology or another.” Yet while Eig paints a detailed portrait of King’s private life, we get only fragmented and often contradictory tidbits about what he actually believed. He closes the introduction by stating that King “saw a moral rot at the core of American life and worried that racism had blinded many of us to it,” but soon afterward Eig casts King as a Myrdalian originalist who “built his movement around the idea that racism was both un-American and ungodly.” Eig cites philosopher Tommie Shelby to claim that King “was not a socialist” but reports later that he believed “a system of democratic socialism” may be necessary to fully address the nation’s inequalities.

These inconsistencies are not necessarily inaccurate; in fact, they support Eig’s claim that King was far more complex than often remembered. Yet Eig draws little from the vast scholarly literature, by Shelby and many others, that examines the sources, evolution, and dominant themes of King’s political thought. Given the challenges we face today, it is unfortunate that Eig devoted more attention to the speculations of FBI agents than the words and thoughts of the civil rights leader himself.


William P. Jones is Professor of History at the University of Minnesota and author of The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom, and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights.