Abstract

Across his adult life, Martin Luther King Jr. underlined the national character of racism and challenged northern liberals to press for change at home, not just the South. Yet this aspect of his thinking has been sidelined in most treatments of the civil rights leader, which frame King turning to the North only after the 1965 Watts rebellion. A closer examination reveals that, from the beginnings of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, King highlighted school and housing segregation, job discrimination, and police brutality in the North, stood with northern struggles, and called out the hypocrisies of northern liberalism for ignoring local injustice. King underlined the necessity for disruptive tactics, criticized liberal allies who decried them, and repeatedly faced reproach for it. Underscoring the crucial role law enforcement played in maintaining northern injustice, he stood with anti-police brutality movements, demanded civilian complaint review boards to provide essential oversight, challenged the tendency to cast Black behavior as the problem, and pointed to the criminality of the state. And over and over, he insisted that the story did not begin with the uprisings of the mid-1960s but with the long history of injustice and frustrated Black struggle in the North that preceded them.

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