Martin Luther King’s Jr. Advice to Social and Behavioral Scientists

[Ed. note. – January 15, 1929, was the birthdate of Martin Luther King Jr. We take the opportunity of what would have been the civil rights leader’s birthday to recall his address before many of the leading American social and behavioral scientists of his day.]

“Negroes want the social scientist to address the white community and ‘tell it like it is.'”

“Social scientists, in the main, are fortunate to be able to extirpate evil, not to invent it.” This message, with its implied mandate that social and behavioral scientists must not shirk before this ability, formed the backbone of an address by Martin Luther King Jr. at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association on September 1, 1967.

But King’s speech didn’t end with the call to action, but a reflection that was in fact a role social science had already – and in 1967 often continued – to shirk.

Science should have been employed more fully to warn us that the Negro, after 350 years of handicaps, mired in an intricate network of contemporary barriers, could not be ushered into equality by tentative and superficial changes.

While the tile of King’s invited distinguished address was “The Role of the Behavioral Scientist in the Civil Rights Movement,” the first section of the speech, as printed after King’s death seven months later, was “The Civil Rights Movement Needs the help of Social Scientists.” King immediately makes this mandate of allyship explicit. “”It is the historic mission of the social sciences to enable mankind to take possession of society,” he wrote, quoting from a then current textbook, Applied Sociology, by S. M. Miller and Alvin Gouldner. “It follows,” he continued, in his own words, “that for Negroes who substantially are excluded from society this science is needed even more desperately than for any other group in the population.”

But they aren’t the only ones, King said to a hall which in 1967 would have been filled overwhelmingly with white men.

If the Negro needs social sciences for direction and for self-understanding, the white society is in even more urgent need. White America needs to understand that it is poisoned to its soul by racism and the understanding needs to be carefully documented and consequently more difficult to reject. The present crisis arises because although it is historically imperative that our society take the next step to equality, we find ourselves psychologically and socially imprisoned. All too many white Americans are horrified not with conditions of Negro life but with the product of these conditions – the Negro himself.

White America is seeking to keep the walls of segregation substantially intact while the evolution of society and the Negro’s desperation is causing them to crumble. The white majority, unprepared and unwilling to accept radical structural change, is resisting and producing chaos while complaining that if there were no chaos orderly change would come.

Negroes want the social scientist to address the white community and ‘tell it like it is.’ White America has an appalling lack of knowledge concerning the reality of Negro life. One reason some advances were made in the South during the past decade was the discovery by northern whites of the brutal facts of southern segregated life. It was the Negro who educated the nation by dramatizing the evils through nonviolent protest. The social scientist played little or no role in disclosing truth. The Negro action movement with raw courage did it virtually alone. When the majority of the country could not live with the extremes of brutality they witnessed, political remedies were enacted and customs were altered.

King’s speech recognized how the civil rights movement and its emphasis on civil disobedience (“mass nonviolent protests [is] a social invention of Negroes”) nonetheless was woven into other pressing concerns – urban violence, the Vietnam War, Black unemployment. And, he added, “there are many roles for social scientists in meeting these problems.”

He offered three specific recommendations for social scientists on what King considered “urgent” issues in the American Black community:

  • The lack of leadership within the Black community. “Social science should be able to suggest mechanisms to create a wholesome black unity and a sense of peoplehood while the process of integration proceeds.”
  •  Harnessing the latent power of Black political participation and determining if the massive investment in obtaining and exercising the vote – the focus of people like Stokely Carmichael, Roy Wilkins and King himself — has been worth it. “The time is short for social science to illu­minate this critically important area,” King said, although the question remains alive today. “If the main thrust of Negro effort has been, and remains, substantially irrelevant, we may be facing an agonizing crisis of tactical theory.”
  • Identifying the place of African Americans in modern America based on their own ideology, and not a reflection of the ideology of the White majority. “What has penetrated substantially all strata of Negro life is the revolutionary idea that the philosophy and morals of the dominant white society are not holy or sacred but in all too many respects are degenerate and profane. … Social science is needed to explain where this development is going to take us. Are we moving away, not from integration, but from the society which made it a problem in the first place? How deep and at what rate of speed is this process occurring? These are some vital questions to be answered if we are to have a clear sense of our direction.”

While King’s message of investigation seems, in 2021, like a majority view, and his calls for activism well within the scope of scholarly consideration, in 1967, even within the ‘liberal’ academy, there were powerful voices of complacent inaction, or even active reaction. In his speech, King called out Charles P. Loomis, who as the president of the American Sociological Association had delivered an address at the ASA convention two days before calling for relocating Black malcontents to South America. “The valleys of the Andes Mountains would be an ideal place for American Negroes to build a second Israel.” This “ideal settlement,” Loomis stressed, “is only for those who cannot come to terms with the United States after that Point is reached where all that can be done has been done to bring about social justice.”

Answering MLK Jr.’s wake-up call | Prominent psychologists reflecting on King’s message on its 50th anniversary in 2017

“I feel,” King said, “that it is rather absurd and appalling that a leading social scientist today would suggest to black people, that after all these years of suffering an exploitation as well as investment in the American dream, that we should turn around and run at this point in history. I say that we will not run!”

King closed with an upbeat message, aimed not at his audience but as his compatriots – whoever that self-selected band might be: “I have not lost hope. I must confess that these have been very difficult days for me personally. And these have been difficult days for every civil rights leader, for every lover of justice and peace.”

A little over seven months after this speech, on April 4, 1968, King would be assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.

Online King Records Access is a searchable database offering access to thousands of King documents through the year 1968. It is a joint project of the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University, the Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute at Stanford University, and the Robert W. Woodruff Library at Atlanta University Center. Funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
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