To his credit, Dr Martin Luther King Jnr. admitted in a 1967 speech, a few months before he was assassinated, that integration and the Civil Rights Act had not delivered all he had hoped for.
Speaking in Chicago on 31 August 1967 at a meeting of the left-wing National Conference for New Politics, King stunned the audience when he did an about-turn and stated that integration had failed African-Americans and they ought to consider embracing segregation instead. “… There are times when we must see segregation as a temporary way-station to a truly integrated society,” Dr King said, abandoning his liberal, integrationist, “We Shall Overcome” politics.
“There are points at which I see the necessity for temporary segregation in order to get to the integrated society … We don’t want to be integrated out of power – we want to be integrated into power,” King argued. And he went further. He praised the ghetto, which he described as a “domestic colony”, and he praised, too, the black people who had stayed in ghetto communities when others had escaped to former white suburbs.
“Black people must develop programmes that will aid in the transfer of power and wealth into the hands of ghetto residents, so that they may in reality control their own destinies,” King stated, sounding more radical than he had ever been before. King was right to question whether it was not dangerous for black people to put all their faith in integration. After all, recent studies show many US suburbs and towns have begun re-segregating, with the support and connivance of conservative judges on the US Supreme Court.
By and large, America’s big metropolitan areas have resisted re-segregation. Cities like New York and Washington DC are actually multi-racial oases of integration, where difference and diversity is welcomed.
In a cruel irony for the black middle classes who left the inner cities in the 1960s and 70s, many of the ghetto neighbourhoods they abandoned are among the most sought-after areas in cities like Washington DC and Chicago. Eager to experience city life, and fed up with the conservative suburbs they grew up in, young black, and white, professionals have begun moving to inner cities in large numbers. Homes there once available for a few thousand dollars now command prices upwards of a million dollars and more.
Unfortunately for the black professionals who set out 50 years ago to integrate white suburbs, they will not be able to benefit from the real estate boom taking place in their old neighbourhoods. They are stuck, thanks to the 1964 Civil Rights Act and integration, in distant, soulless and deadly dull suburbia.