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““There is a pressing need for a liberalism in the North which is truly liberal,” the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. told an interracial audience in New York City in 1960. He called for a liberalism that “rises up with righteous indignation when a Negro is lynched in Mississippi, but will be equally incensed when a Negro is denied the right to live in his neighborhood.”
On this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, it’s tempting to focus on the glaring human rights abuses, racist fear-mongering and malfeasance happening at the federal level. But taking seriously Dr. King’s critique of Northern liberalism means also calling out liberal public officials and residents who profess commitments to equality yet maintain a corrupt criminal justice system and a segregated school system. It means calling out Northern newspapers, along with Southern ones, to atone for their skewed civil rights coverage. And it means reckoning with the dangers of “polite” racism, as Dr. King warned, which still rings true today.
Dr. King visited New York City throughout the 1960s and called attention to its racial problems. In Harlem in 1963, he spoke to an audience of some 15,000 white people as City College’s commencement speaker. Fewer than 2 percent of the graduates that day were black, giving visual proof to his admonition that the “de facto segregation of the North was as injurious as the legal segregation of the South.”
The next year, in a TV interview after the Harlem uprising, Dr. King called for “an honest, soul-searching analysis and evaluation of the environmental causes which have spawned the riots,” which started after the police killed 15-year-old Jimmy Powell. Dr. King was nearly run out of town when he dared to suggest that New York would benefit from a Civilian Complaint Review Board to oversee the Police Department.”
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