In Conversation

Yale’s Gerald Jaynes on MLK and the enduring quest for racial justice

Gerald Jaynes
Gerald Jaynes

Growing up in a predominantly white community in Illinois in the 1950s, Gerald Jaynes dreamed of racial equality in the United States long before he even knew who Martin Luther King Jr. was.

But it wasn’t until the future Yale professor was a young Army soldier stationed in the U.S. South that he experienced blatant racial discrimination, he said. The experience gave him a deep appreciation of the struggles King faced in his quest for racial equality and a new reverence for the civil rights icon’s efforts to create a more just America.

After his military service, Jaynes studied philosophy at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. One day he picked up a copy of the American Economic Review and saw a picture of Sir Arthur William Lewis, a Black economist who later won a Nobel Prize, and decided that a career in economics was really his destiny — and that it was entirely compatible with advancing the cause of racial justice.

Today, Jaynes, a professor of economics and professor of African American studies with Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, is one of the nation’s leading experts on U.S. race relations and the economic conditions of African Americans. And he has brought the issues of racial inequality to the fore in his Yale teaching and research, which address such topics as urban and educational inequality, and discrimination in law, theory and practice.

Jaynes recently spoke with YaleNews about growing up during the civil rights era, the exposure to Jim Crow that deepened his appreciation of Dr. King, the progress toward racial justice since King’s death — and the work that remains. Interview condensed and edited.

You came of age during the early years of the civil rights movement, and the rise of Martin Luther King Jr. as a transformative leader of the movement. What kind of impression did that make on you as a young boy?

Now, of course, almost everybody reveres King, as I do, too. But I didn’t then. I was in primary school at the time of the Montgomery bus boycott, and I was quite interested in watching it on the news every evening. But my heroes at the time were Mahatma Gandhi and Abraham Lincoln, and, in my teens, Muhammad Ali and [Gold Coast independence leader and former Ghanian president] Kwame Nkrumah. King was never a big hero of mine as a boy or teenager.

It wasn’t until early adulthood that I started to gain an appreciation of him. Until then, I belonged to two groups not likely to be all that enamored with him — younger cohorts of Black males, in particular, and Northern-born ones. We were much more likely to be fans of the more radical Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) and his Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and of the Congress of Racial Equality. These groups were much more insistent on “we want it now” than the Southern Leadership Conference led by King was.

What changed your perceptions of him?

A greater understanding of the obstacles he was facing, being in Alabama, and, more generally, the obstacles Blacks were facing in the more in-your-face Jim Crow areas. My first eleven months in the Army, in my 19th year, were all in the South — Louisiana and Georgia. I was run out of Mississippi. I had refused to go to the “Colored People’s” window at an ice cream shop. The sheriff’s department was called and the deputy said he was giving me a break: I wasn’t going to be arrested but I needed to get on the next bus out of town.

In my early 20s, when I started paying more attention to King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, my opinion of him began to grow. As we look back now at his prescriptions for society, he was very prescient. Sometime in the 1960s, he predicted there might be a Black president within 50 years.

What was it like being a Black man in the U.S. South during those years?

In Columbus, Georgia, in the summer of 1966, they desegregated institutions and venues, like the movie theater. I found out inadvertently that African Americans weren’t going to those places anyway, at least the native Georgians weren’t. I was going to take a date to the movies, and she told me “We don’t go to that theater.” And I told her, “Well, we are going tonight.” We were the only Black people there, and we got some hard looks. Then her parents wouldn’t let her go out with me anymore. I was a dangerous person!

Unusual for Black people born back when I was, I had no Southern connections. Both my parents were born in northern Illinois. For someone like me, going South was basically daily combat, worrying what I was going to run into and knowing I was not going to accept certain types of treatment that other people who were born there might accept. Worrying that I might end up in jail or dead. But knowing that I wasn’t going to accept Jim Crow. I wasn’t brought up to do it. 

King argued that racial equality could not be achieved without lifting African Americans — and all Americans — out of poverty. Have we neglected to tackle poverty as root cause of racial injustice in this country?

Yes, absolutely. Over the last 25 years or so, you never see anyone talking about poverty. Now people talk about inequality. Inequality is obviously connected to poverty, but when you are emphasizing inequality what you are really doing is talking about white working-class issues as the broader concern. I think for political reasons and so not to offend anyone, you talk about inequality.

There is not really a political will to do anything much about poverty because it’s a very difficult problem. But if we have poverty, we can’t really have a society where people are viewed as equal participants in the polity and governments of the nation, primarily because the very poor are looked down upon by a broad swath of the public. People think, “they are not like us.” This is a viewpoint that is historically widespread in the United States, where we think people are poor because there is something wrong with them. As long as we believe that, we are going to have difficulties with equal representation of people, voting, and group conflict. The group conflict is often going to take the form of racial and ethnic conflict.

In recent years, we’ve witnessed sanctioned voter suppression in communities of color, white supremacy movements, and numerous killings of unarmed Black civilians by police. The COVID-19 pandemic put a spotlight on the educational and health disparities among communities of color. Are we regressing as a nation in terms reaching Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream for racial equality?

Backsliding is maybe a better term. Regression, I think, implies a kind of permanence. I hope this is not a permanent situation. I don’t want to mince any words: We’ve had a racist in the White House for four years, so it’s not any kind of coincidence that the state of race relations is about as bad as it could possibly be over the last three or four years. But the elements for this existed before Donald Trump. He just took advantage of it, stoked those feelings and attitudes of resentment, which have partly led to this great division among our peoples throughout the country and led to the events at the Capitol we saw last week.

The causes are the usual suspects: great alienation among the lower white working-class, which has been pummeled income-wise over the last 35 to 40 years, and a tremendous loss of hope and resentment. When you couple that with the fact that there already were significant percentages of that group who had negative racial attitudes to begin with, that leads to the kind of situation we are now living in.

Much like the teachings of King, the Black Lives Matter movement is committed to nonviolent protest. Does the movement give you hope that his dream will one day be realized?

I had King’s dream way back when I was a little kid and didn’t know anything about him. That was just the way I thought about the future of the world. If you were living in the United States sometime in the 1950s and had any cognizance of what was going on, no matter how young you were, you had to be an optimist to stay sane. I’ve been one all my life. I like to take the long view.

What went on last summer with the Black Lives Matter protests was a very encouraging sign. On the other hand, we have to keep in mind that the election of Barack Obama was almost certainly to have a backlash from the components of American society for whom that was just total anathema.

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Bess Connolly: elizabeth.connolly@yale.edu, 203-432-1324