The writing that follows comes from the King Institute files and can be accessed online at the address below. It was delivered by the civil rights leader on April 10, 1957 to 8,000 persons at an interracial audience in St. Louis’ Kiel Auditorium.
Title: A Realistic Look at the Question of Progress in the Area of Race Relations
It is good to be in St. Louis.
I want to try to grapple with a question that continually comes to me. And it is a question on the lips of men and women all over this nation. People all over are wondering about the question of progress in race relations. And they are asking, ‘Are we really making any progress?’
There are three basic attitudes that one can take. And the first attitude is that of extreme optimism. Now the extreme optimist would argue that we have come a long, long way in the area of race relations. He would point proudly to the marvelous strides that have been made in the area of civil rights over the last few decades. From this he would conclude that the problem is just about solved, and that we can sit comfortably by the wayside and wait on the coming of the inevitable.
The second attitude that one can take toward the question of progress in the area of race relations is that of extreme pessimism. The extreme pessimist would argue that we have made only minor strides in the area of race relations. He would argue that the rhythmic beat of the deep rumblings of discontent that we hear from the Southland today is indicative of the fact that we have created more problems than we have solved. He would say that we are retrogressing instead of progressing.
Now you will notice that the extreme optimist and the extreme pessimist have at least one thing in common: they both agree that we must sit down and do nothing in the area of race relations. (Yes) The extreme optimist says do nothing because integration is inevitable. The extreme pessimist says do nothing because integration is impossible. But there is a third position, there is another attitude that can be taken, and it is what I would like to call the realistic position. The realist
The realist in the area of race relations seeks to reconcile the truth of two opposites while avoiding the extreme of both. (Yeah) So the realist would agree with the optimist that we have come a long, long way. But, he would go on to balance that by agreeing with the pessimist that we have a long, long way to go. (Amen) (Applause) And it is this basic theme that I would like to set forth this evening. We have come a long, long way but we have a long way to go.
Now let us notice first that we’ve come a long, long way. You will remember that it was in the year of 1619 that the Negro slaves first landed on the shores of this nation. Throughout slavery the Negro was treated in a very inhuman fashion. He was a thing to be used, not a person to be respected. (Yeah, That’s right) He was merely (applause), he was merely a depersonalized cog in a vast plantation machine.
(Yeah) The famous Dred Scott decision of 1857 well illustrates the status of the Negro during slavery. For it was in this decision that the Supreme Court of the nation said in substance that the Negro is not a citizen of this nation. He is merely property subject to the dictates of his owner.
Living in these conditions many Negroes lost faith in themselves. Many came to feel that perhaps they were less than human. So long as the Negro accepted this place assigned to him, so long as the Negro patiently accepted injustice and exploitation, a sort of racial peace was maintained.
But it was an uneasy peace. (Yeah) It was a negative peace in which the Negro was forced patiently to accept injustice and exploitation. For you see, true peace is not merely the absence of negative force, but is a presence of some positive force. (Amen)
This a time for sound and sane leadership, no period for rabble-rousers, whether the rabble-rouser be white or Negro. We are grappling and dealing with the most complex, one of the most weighty and complex social issues of the centuries. The problem is deeply rooted in the emotions, customs and traditions of the South. And we can’t solve the problem with misguided emotionalism. This is a period for sane, sound, rational leadership. We must be calm and positive at the same time. We must avoid the extremes of hot-headedness and Uncle-Tomism. Oh, this is a period for leaders.
Leaders not in love with publicity, but in love with humanity. Leaders not in love with money, but in love with justice. Leaders who can subject their particular egos to the greatness of the cause. Oh God give us leaders.