is certainly true that Dr. King had believed most Americans were
committed to racial justice. Just five months before King's evolution
on the race issue his optimism and idealism about white people and
the achievements of the civil rights movement reached its peak.
During the Selma to Montgomery march for voting rights in 1965 he
believed that victory over racism was close at hand. Speaking to
25,000 people from Alabama's capital he stated, "segregation is
on its deathbed...and the only thing uncertain about it is how costly
the segregationists...will make the funeral." For King, the
successful Selma campaign, which had incorporated a large number of
whites was a crowning example of the willingness of white people to
work for justice. Still optimistic about the role federal legislation
could play he believed that with the passage of the voting rights
bill of 1965 American democracy would no longer be "turned up
side down" and the freedoms of all would be guaranteed.
Characteristic of his idealism at the time he described Selma as a
fight for America, not a battle against sheriff Jim Clark or
segregationist forces in Alabama. However, King's feelings about
white people would take a drastic turn, "I’m sorry to have to
say to you that the vast majority of white Americans are racist,
either consciously or unconsciously.
From Watts to Black
The Watts riots in Los Angeles during August of 1965 were a rude awakening for King, as he had previously believed the advances of the Southern civil rights struggle would translate to the North. When he visited Watts to try and help, he was booed and told to go home. To his surprise many blacks had never even heard of him. The gains of the civil rights movement had meant little to a population that was forced into ghetto life, barely able to survive and trapped in a cycle of poverty. The issues that characterized the Southern struggle such as separate drinking fountains, segregated restaurants and lack of voting rights weren't the problem in Watts or the North in general. Rather, racism was primarily found in the form of economic and political inequality.
The failure of white people to see the full context of riots such as Watts was one of the reasons King began to lose faith in them. He stated, "The riots are caused by nice, gentle, timid white moderates who are more concerned about order than justice." King began to see that the maintenance of a permanent underclass was no accident. He placed the riots in the context of larger cultural crimes, "The policy-makers of the white society have caused the darkness: they created discrimination; they created slums; they perpetuate unemployment, ignorance, and poverty. It is incontestable and deplorable that Negroes have committed crimes, but they are derivative crimes. They are born of the greater crimes of white society.”