Where Do We Go From Here?

"America owes a debt of justice which it has only begun to pay. If it loses the will to finish or slackens in its determination, history will recall its crimes and the country that would be great will lack the most indispensable element of greatness — justice.

– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s Where Do We Go From Here? landed on my bookshelf a year or two ago when I picked it up at a Halfprice in Berkeley, and stayed there until the weekend after election day.

I was in bad need of hope, encouragement, direction, (anything!) when Dr. King and his provocative question boomed at me from the study.

I had a general idea that the book was written later in Dr. King’s life as he became more “radical,” but I had no clue just how relevant to our moment in history his words would be.

Dr. King wrote into a time when the progress of a decade was falling apart. Racists were regaining power, and black and white alliances of the civil rights movement were falling apart. African-American’s — pleased but righteously unsatisfied with advances against voter discrimination and Jim Crow segregation — called for genuine equality. They turned their attention to the residential segregation of Northern cities and, above all, to economic equality. Black Power became the refrain of the day.

As a once-upon-a-time history major, I still believe in the value of looking to the past to inform life in the present. It’s MLK Day, and from our perch on this Monday, many are peering toward Friday with a sense of dread. Once again, racism, greed, and so many forms of bigotry seem to bend that long arch of history away from justice.

I believe Dr. King has something to say to us today. His message is as it has always been: a prophetic critique that peels back the inequities and moral vacuity of the current order, an energizing vision that tears us from complacency, and an empowering charge that launches us into the work ahead.

These are hard words, but we need to hear them again for our time. My selections barely skim the surface of insight provided in the civil rights leader’s final book, so I encourage you to read it for yourself.

Take courage, my friends. We’ve been here before. The love of God wins in the end.


“The step backward has a new name today. It is called the ‘white backlash.’ But the white backlash is nothing new. It is the surfacing of old prejudices, hostilities and ambivalences that have always been there. It was caused neither by the cry of Black Power nor by the unfortunate recent wave of riots in our cities. 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….It lies in the ‘congenital deformity’ of racism that has crippled the nation from its inception.”

“Loose and easy language about equality, resonant resolutions about brotherhood fall pleasantly on the ear, but for the Negro there is a credibility gap he cannot overlook. He remembers that with each modest advance the white population promptly raises the argument that the Negro has come far enough. Each step forward accents an ever-present tendency to backlash.”

“The line of progress is never straight. For a period a movement may follow a straight line and then it encounters obstacles and the path bends….The inevitable counterrevolution that succeeds ever period of progress is taking place. Failing to understand this as a normal process of development, some Negroes are falling into unjustified pessimism and despair. Focusing on the ultimate goal, and discovering it still distant, they declare no progress at all has been made….A final victory is an accumulation of many short-term encounters. To lightly dismiss a success because it does not usher in a complete order of justice is to fail to comprehend the process of achieving full victory.”


“The Negro on a mass scale is working vigorously to overcome his deficiencies and his maladjustments. Wherever there are job-training programs Negroes are crowding them…Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to re-educate themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn.”

“It is time for all of us to tell each other the truth about who and what have brought the Negro to the condition of deprivation against which he struggles today….Rationalization and the incessant search for scapegoats are the psychological cataracts that blind us to our individual and collective sins….In short, white America must assume the guilt for the black man’s inferior status.”

“Racism is a faith. It is a form of idolatry.”

“Racism is total estrangement.”

“It is important to understand that the basis for the birth, growth and development of slavery in America was primarily economic….Men had to convince themselves that a system which was so economically profitable was morally justifiable. The attempt to give moral sanction to a profitable system gave birth to the doctrine of white supremacy.”

[quoting Thomas Jefferson reflecting on slavery] “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever.”

“A people who began a national life inspired by a vision of a society of brotherhood can redeem itself. But redemption can come only through a humble acknowledgement of guilt and an honest knowledge of self.”

“Over the last few years many Negroes have felt that their most troublesome adversary was not the obvious bigot of the Ku Klux Klan or the John Birch Society, but the white liberal who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice, who prefers tranquility to equality.”


“The Negro has been confined to a life of voicelessness and powerlessness….The plantation and the ghetto were created by those who had power both to confine those who had no power and to perpetuate their powerlessness. The problem of transforming the ghetto is, therefore, a problem of power — a confrontation between the forces of power demanding change and the forces of power dedicated to preserving the status quo.”

“Power, properly understood, is the ability to achieve purpose. It is the strength required to bring about social, political or economic changes. In this sense power is not only desirable but necessary in order to implement the demands of love and justice….What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.”

“Are we seeking power for power’s sake? Or are we seeking to make the world and our nation better places to live. If we seek the latter, violence can never provide the answer. The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do no murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. Returning violence for violence multiples violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannote drive out hate: only love can do that. The beauty of nonviolence is that in its own way and in its own time it seeks to break the chain reaction of evil. With a majestic sense of spiritual power, it seeks to elevate truth, beauty and goodness to the throne.”

“It will be power infused with love and justice, that will change dark yesterday into bright tomorrows, and lift us from the fatigue of despair to the buoyancy of hope. A dark, desperate, confused and sin-sick world waits for this new kind of man and this new kind of power.”


“As the nation passes from opposing extremist behavior to the deeper and more pervasive elements of equality, white America reaffirms its bonds to the status quo…The practical cost of change for the nation up to this point has been cheap…The real cost lies ahead. The stiffening of white resistance is a recognition of that facet. The discount education given Negroes will in the future have to be purchased at full price of quality education is to be realized. Jobs are harder and costlier to create than voting rolls. The eradication of slums housing millions is complex far beyond integrating buses and lunch counters.”

“Loose and easy language about equality, resonant resolutions about brotherhood fall pleasantly on the ear, but for the Negro there is a credibility gap he cannot overlook. He remembers that with each modest advance the white population promptly raises the argument that the Negro has come far enough. Each step forward accents an ever-present tendency to backlash.”

“The a great majority of Americans are…uneasy with injustice but unwilling yet to pay a significant price to eradicate it.”

“From issues of personal dignity they are now advancing to programs that impinge upon the basic system of social and economic control. At this level Negro programs go beyond race and deal with economic inequality, where it exists. In the pursuit of these goals, the white poor become involved, and the potentiality emerges for a powerful new alliance.”

“As a first step on the journey home, the journey to full equality, we will have to engage in a radical reordering of national priorities….Are we more concerned with the size, power and wealth of our society or with creating a more just society?”

“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.”

“The new task of the liberation movement, therefore, is not merely to increase the Negro registration and vote; equally imperative is the development of a strong voice that is heard in the smoke-filled rooms where party debating and bargaining proceed.

In the book’s final section “Appendix: Programs and Prospects,” Dr. King charts a path toward equity across four areas: 1) Education, 2) Employment, 3) Rights, and 4) Housing. A worthy agenda for any time.


“Love at its best is justice concretized. Love is unconditional. It is not conditional upon one’s staying in his place or watering down his demands in order to be considered respectable.”

“Society needs nonviolent gadflies to bring its tensions into the open and force its citizens to confront the ugliness of the prejudices and the tragedy of their racism.”

“When evil men plot, good men must plan. When evil men burn and bomb, good men must build and bind. When evil men conspire to preserve an unjust status quo, good men must unite to bring about the birth of a society undergirded by justice.”

“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. The ‘tide in the affairs of men’ does not remain at the the flood; it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is deaf to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: ‘Too Late.’ There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect. ‘The moving finger write, and having writ moves on….’ We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation. This may well be mankind’s last chance to choose between chaos and community.”

Nathan Davis Hunt