The Three Types of People Powering Change: Dr. King’s Lost Massey Lectures on Youth and Social Action

“There has always been a force struggling to respect higher values. None of the current evils rose without resistance, nor have they persisted without opposition.”

The Three Types of People Powering Change: Dr. King’s Lost Massey Lectures on Youth and Social Action

“There is nothing quite so tragic as a young cynic,” Maya Angelou observed in her finest interview, “because it means the person has gone from knowing nothing to believing nothing.”

Ten years earlier, in 1967’s Massey Lectures Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (January 15, 1929–April 4, 1968) examined the forces that dispirit the young into cynicism — that most puerile form of impatience — by mapping the three primary regions of reaction and resistance in the landscape of social change.

Launched in 1961 by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and named after Vincent Massey — the first Canadian-born person to serve as governor general of Canada, who had spearheaded a royal commission for Canadian arts, letters, and sciences, producing the landmark Massey Report that led to the establishment of the National Library of Canada — the annual Massey Lectures invited a prominent scholar to deliver five half-hour talks along the vector of their passion and purpose, which were then broadcast on public radio each Thursday evening. The lectures began to be published by the CBC in book format. Some of the lectures, such as the ones Dr. King gave in his final months, were not printed for many decades. Finally, they were published in 2007 in The Lost Massey Lectures, Recovered Classics From Five Great Thinkers.

Martin Luther King, Jr., 1964. Photograph by Dick DeMarsico. Library of Congress.

In his third lecture, titled “Youth and Social Action,” Dr. King presents a taxonomy of the three types of people into which the era’s youth had been “splintered” — his own superb word-choice — by the era’s social forces.

This exercise is useful, culturally calibrating and time-sobering, over half a century later. It allows us to think about what archetypes we might have in the present, with our current language. Our language might have changed dramatically — Dr. King was writing in the epoch before the invention of women, when “man” denoted all of humanity; an epoch when the acronym BIPOC would have drawn a blank stare at best and “Negro” was his term of choice — but we are still living with the underlying complexities which language always seeks to clarify and contain. The social forces splintering the present generation of youth have changed, and they have not changed — an eternal echo of Zadie Smith’s observation that “progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive.”

Dr. King explains the first, albeit with the caveat of overlaps between the principal groups.

This is the largest segment of youth who are struggling to adjust to society’s prevailing values. The system of government and economic relations as well as the social stratifications that they engender are accepted by them without enthusiasm. However, even with their acceptance of the system, they remain a troubled group and criticize it harshly. status quo

The young people of today are easy to imagine, with their same restless ambivalence and resentful submission, standing on the glassy campus of Google and Facebook. They drink corporate kombucha while writing passionate tweets about homophobia and police brutality. It’s not hard to see them, tenderly afraid of being human in this world. This ambivalence is captured by Dr. King’s compassionate curiosity.

This largest group has social attitudes that aren’t congealed and fixed. They are fluid, searching, and open to new ideas.

Illustration from How to Be a Nonconformist — a high school girl’s 1968 satire of conformity-culture.

He contrasts the first group with the second — those in outright and outspoken rejection of the status quo:

The radicals… range from moderate to extreme in the degree to which they want to alter the social system. Everyone agrees that the only way to change society is by StructuralOnly by changing the root causes of current problems can they be eradicated. They are the new generation of radicals.

This claim of novelty is somewhat ahistorical, or perhaps too narrowly American, for Dr. King’s perceptive description of that generation’s spirit is an equally apt description of the spirit of the generation that fueled the French Revolution two centuries earlier, an ocean apart. He makes a sketch of the 1960s’ radicals.

Many people don’t adhere to established ideologies. Some borrow from the old doctrines. But almost all are open-minded about what the new society should look like. The majority of them are in revolt against the old values they hold dear and haven’t yet formulated new ideas. They don’t repeat previous revolutionary doctrines. Most of them have never even read the revolutionaries. Ironically, they rebel because of having failed to seek change within the current society. Their efforts to create racial equality met with fervent and persistent opposition. They attempted to end Vietnam War and were met with failure. They seek to make a fresh start, with new rules and a new order.

In a sentiment that fully captures today’s social media — that ever-protruding, ever-teetering platform for standing against rather than for things, a place increasingly unsatisfying and increasingly evocative of Bertrand Russell’s century-old observation that “construction and destruction alike satisfy the will to power, but construction is more difficult as a rule, and therefore gives more satisfaction to the person who can achieve it” — Dr. King adds of these so-called radicals:

It is fair to say, though, that at present they know what they don’t want rather than what they do want.

Ben Shahn’s art from On Nonconformity in 1956.

Identifying the third group as the era’s “hippies” — a group the contemporary equivalent of which is especially interesting to identify and locate in our present generational landscape — he writes:

The hippies are not only colorful but complex; and in many respects their extreme conduct illuminates the negative effect of society’s evils on sensitive young people. Although there may be many differences, the common thread that unites these people is their shared philosophy.

Their disengagement from society is their way of expressing their disgust at it. They are not responsible for the organization of society. They aren’t looking for change like radicals. Sometimes they join forces with peace demonstrators to express their world. It is an amazing contradiction to be a hard-core hippy. The hard-core hippy uses drugs to escape reality and find inner peace and security. Yet he advocates love as the highest human value — love, which can exist only in communication between people, and not in the total isolation of the individual.

Corinna Luyken, Art from The Tree in Me

His insightful comments are especially relevant to the many vital and vitalizing events that have occurred throughout history.

It isn’t their unusual behavior that makes the hippies important, it is the fact of how hundreds of thousands young people are turning away from reality to express a deeply discrediting judgement on the society.

He proffers a prediction substantiated by history, contouring the possible future of some of our own social movements when they have become another era’s past:

I believe that the hippies won’t last as a whole group. Because there’s no escape, they cannot survive. Some may continue to exist by becoming a sect of sane religious belief; their movement already has such traits. They might set up utopian colonies like those established in 17th- and 18th century by sects who were deeply opposed to existing order and its value system. Those communities did not survive. These communities were still important to their peers because they embodied the ideal of social justice for all people.

Nahid Kazemi, Art from Over the Rooftops – Under the Moon by JonArno Lawson

The most interesting challenge of applying Dr. King’s taxonomy to our own time is that of seeing beyond the surface expressions that shimmer with the illusion of contrast, peering into the deeper similitudes between the attitudes of the past and those of the present. Escapism doesn’t always look like escapism — escapism can masquerade as pseudo-engagement. A generation’s drug of choice might be a psychoactive molecule, or it might be an intoxicating self-righteousness masquerading as wakefulness to difference. Technology might give the illusion of participatory action in democracy while effecting alienation at the deepest stratum of the soul — something especially true of the vast majority of pseudo-political uses of our so-called social media. Dr. King says:

Because material is made into an end-all, no matter how shiny the technology, nothing can lift man to greater heights. In other words, the work of man becomes smaller with every new piece of technology.

Another distortion of the technological revolution is that instead of strengthening democracy… it has helped to eviscerate it. Gargantuan industry and government, woven into an intricate computerized mechanism, leaves the person outside… When an individual is no longer a true participant, when he no longer feels a sense of responsibility to his society, the content of democracy is emptied. Inexorably, individuals will seek to escape from an unholy society if culture and vulgarity are degraded. This process produces alienation — perhaps the most pervasive and insidious development in contemporary society… Alienation should be foreign to the young. Growing requires trust and connection. Alienation can be described as a living form of death. It’s the acid of despair which dissolves societies.

In consonance with the animating spirit of this here labor of love, he insists upon the importance of mining the collective record of experience we call history “for positive ingredients which have been there, but in relative obscurity.” Echoing Whitman’s gentle long-ago exhortation that “the past, the future, majesty, love — if they are vacant of you, you are vacant of them,” Dr. King adds:

Technology has been exalted, but there’s always been resistance from those who are trying to uphold higher values. They have not been able to overcome the evils of today without any resistance.

Complement with Seamus Heaney’s vivifying advice to the young, Kierkegaard on nonconformity and the power of the minority, and Richard Powers’s antidote to cynicisms, then revisit Dr. King on the six pillars of resistance to the status quo.

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