Martin Luther King Jr.’s first speech in Montgomery, Alabama “marked the birth of the African American community,” writes Dr. Eddie Taylor in his book Restoring the Mind of Black America (African American Images, 2011).
At the Holt Street Baptist Church, in a working-class section of town (1955), King delivered a quickly composed address that combined the militant and the moderate. It called for nonviolent action and black civil rights at a time when Blacks were jailed for sitting at the front of the bus or at Woolworths' lunch counter. The weapon King used was "civil disobedience," a form of public protest and one of our country’s remaining democratic traditions.
Taylor says this method of rhetorical integration, social change devoid of violence, distinguished King from other influential African-American leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. Malcolm X pushed for social change “by any means necessary” and penned a speech called “The Ballot or the Bullet”. The Black Panthers (1966-1982), originally called “The Black Panther Party for Self Defense” and formed in response to police brutality, continued the efforts of Malcolm X.
By contrast, King created an energy in his audience that roused consciousness yet had a limit. “I knew that many of the Negro people were victims of bitterness that could easily rise to flood proportions,” King said, recalling the questions in his mind as he wrote his early speech.
Taylor notes that, Montgomery, as a locale, was psychologically symbolic. It was the first capital of the Confederate slave states and thus awoke memories of his peoples' bondage. King’s leadership nurtured the Black community beyond its traumatic past, gave it a sense of safety, hope, and belief in its inherent goodness.
Taylor describes King as a primary internalized loved object. He was family, both mother and father. His portrait held honored places in African American homes. His assassination in 1968, like that of other Black heroes, seared the Black cultural consciousness. This pain, the experience of historical subjugation and the loss of leaders, migrates across generations.
The unacknowledged hurt has not been well mourned, Taylor argues, so it has become split off. Since it cannot be fully owned, it is projected out onto others. Often it is superimposed on other Blacks and their organizations in a way that is self-destructive to the African American community, itself.
Taylor describes how this widespread denial of loss in the Black psyche results in mania, one effect being the rise of gang violence since the 1960s. We see this relapse of consciousness also in increased poverty, drug abuse, and violence in Black America during the post Civil Rights era. Taylor describes emotional defenses that band-aid loss in a superficial way so that it is never fully experienced. What emerges is, in his view, a “schizoid” community.
The author notes that some individuals transcend their oppressive social condition, but lose touch with their community in the process, leaving it behind. In this context, I recall how Obama has been criticized for “tripping over race,” for the lack of youth outreach in his administration and for being out of sync with the pulse of African Americans.
How does a community regain the rhythm of their own heartbeat?
One must first look within, Taylor contends. Yet there is stigma attached to mental health therapy among African Americans communities where there are also high rates of depression and suicide. (Psychiatry compounds this problem by letting prejudiced orientations inform their diagnoses: "it’s not racial profiling -- you’re paranoid, anxious"). The number of mental health providers who are African-American in the U.S. are minimal: between 1-2 percent of psychiatrists, less than 4 per cent of psychologists and social workers.
Taylor also examines how financial reparations can help the healing.
Later in life, King wrote from his Birmingham jail: “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed."
Taylor is a psychologist in the Chicago area. Through extensive research, clinical work, and thoughtful interviews with community activists, he insightfully explores the continuing demand for freedom among African American communities.
Restoring the Mind of Black America, by Dr. Eddie Taylor. (Chicago, African American Images: 2011).