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On August 24, 2013 tens of thousands of people gathered to celebrate a protest fifty years ago when hundreds of thousands of other people marched and rallied in Washington DC demanding equal rights for African-American residents of the United States. It was on that day the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. made one of his best-known speeches; a speech from which just a few phrases are usually quoted. “I have a dream…” said King that day. “that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
While King spoke that day, a fellow freedom fighter was imprisoned an ocean and a half away. That man, Nelson Mandela, had foregone the nonviolent approach so closely identified with Dr. King, but only after the slaughter of hundreds of his fellow Africans by the security forces of the South African white apartheid state. Dr. King would be murdered less than five years after his 1963 speech in Washington DC. Nelson Mandela would spend a total of twenty seven years in prison, eventually being freed because of the tenacity of generations of South African freedom fighters.
While both men would see the end of legalized discrimination and apartheid in their respective nations in their lives, both understood that changing the law is perhaps the easiest aspect of the struggle for justice they devoted their lives to. The much more pervasive injustice of the economic system of capitalism has not only maintained and reinforced the racial and class discrimination faced by the majority of those engaged in the freedom struggle these men are so closely identified with, it has also served to obfuscate the struggle. On the anniversary of that day fifty years ago in the United States, it has become common for men and women whose views are no less racist than those so intent on maintaining the US South’s legal apartheid to quote Dr. King as they argue against keeping voters’ protections in US laws designed to ensure the voting rights of non-white voters.
Furthermore, this same racist system uses its laws and legal system to imprison its black and brown skinned residents at a higher rate than any other nation on earth imprisons their residents. Once in prison, thousands of these detainees are isolated in solitary for months at a time, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that this practice has been found to be cruel and unusual by organizations and governmental institutions focused on the treatment of prisoners. In the United States, South Africa and many other countries around the world, the only individuals with fewer rights than prisoners are undocumented immigrants.
These human beings, often traveling as families, are subject to the predations of human traffickers, drug traffickers, ordinary criminals, and other elements of capitalism’s darker side. In addition, police and other authorities in the immigration sectors of their nation’s security forces all too often see the undocumented not as humans but as something lesser. Because of this perception, often encouraged by their governments and national media, these security forces mistreat immigrants with impunity, fully aware that they are unlikely to face much punishment for their abuses. If the immigrants are able to establish themselves in their new land, they must live in fear of being caught, imprisoned and deported. If that isn’t enough, they face ongoing prejudice and discrimination in their communities, at work and in schools and social agencies. Unfortunately, in some countries this prejudice comes from descendants of the very same freedom fighters mentioned earlier. Knowing that such divisions are encouraged by the power elites does not make them much easier to understand.
Back to that speech in Washington, DC fifty years ago. It continues to be celebrated. The rulers of the US are doing whatever they can to portray a nation much better than the one Dr. King addressed. In some ways they are correct. Yet, it is difficult to see much difference between the murder of the teenage Trayvon Martin by a scared white (in the hierarchy of race in the US) self-appointed vigilante and the murders of adolescent black-skinned males by other vigilantes fifty and more years ago. Even less different than the murders, was the defense put forth by Martin’s murderer; it was a defense based on racial fear and a reminder to the white women on the jury that sometimes murder was necessary to defend their honor.
Since the capitalist crash of 2007-2008, the living conditions of the world’s poor has only worsened. An inordinate number of these humans are brown or black-skinned. In the United States, South Africa, Egypt, India and a multitude of other nations, the poverty rates climb monthly while the bankers and the governments they control speak of a recovery. There were many in Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress who knew the real struggle they would face would come after the white apartheid government was no longer in power. In the United States, there were many freedom fighters who knew that the real struggle for justice in that country would begin after it was no longer legal to discriminate against people because of their skin tone. In the years since the end of legal apartheid in both countries, the hegemon known as capitalism has invaded our lives at a level so intimate there is very little one can do without paying into it. This has happened not only because of capital’s need to profit from everything, but also from the willingness of the world’s leaders to allow this invasion to occur, usually for a pitiful pittance of power and cash for themselves.
There are no easy solutions to this dilemma. When those identified with the struggle for justice join in the imperial campaign to dominate the world through war and economic intervention that demands the impoverishment of their own peoples, the struggle must be redesigned and redefined. When Barack Obama can claim to carry the mantle of Dr. King while he kills people around the world weekly with armed drones, detains and deports millions of immigrants, and does little to challenge the overt racism of his political opponents, the struggle needs to become different. When ANC members in South Africa are intimately involved in stealing money from their nation’s treasury at the expense of its people and kill miners on strike for a fair wage and decent working conditions, it is time for the struggle to become different.
Achieving economic justice is one of the last battles in the struggle for justice. It is also the most difficult. Once people demanded an end to legal apartheid in the two nations discussed here, corporate capitalism had no problem subscribing to the new situation. After all, the end of apartheid added to the consumer base, which is always a good thing for the capitalists. However, convincing those same corporations that paying a fair wage and supporting workplace democracy is a good thing is a completely different story. Such actions would most certainly cut into the corporate rate of profit. This alone explains the opposition by most corporations to the struggle for economic justice. It also explains why the battle is so difficult.
Ron Jacobs is the author of the just released novel All the Sinners, Saints. He is also the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His third novel All the Sinners Saints is a companion to the previous two and is due out in April 2013. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.