George W. Bush had the gall to use Martin Luther King’s birthday as the occasion for announcing that his administration wanted to gut part of King’s legacy. “[W] e renew our commitment to the principles of justice, equality, opportunity and optimism that Dr. King espoused and exemplified,” Bush declared last month–as his administration sided against affirmative action programs in college admissions.
This latest slap in the face shows how comfortable Washington politicians have become with “celebrating” King’s life, while taking actions that are the opposite of what he stood for. And not only Republicans.
“It’s time for all of us to apply the same sense of consciousness, the same guts, the same determination, and the same impatience to change America for the better,” Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), an early favorite of many liberals for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination, said of King. This from a man who voted for Bush’s war on Iraq–and offered only token opposition to the attack on affirmative action.
The truth is that Martin Luther King’s commitment to justice–and his determination to fight for it–sets him apart from everyone in the Washington establishment today.
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King came to prominence as a leader of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in Alabama in 1955. The boycott was launched after Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a city bus to a white passenger. But years of organizing had laid the basis for this struggle to erupt.
In the years following the Second World War–in which more than 3 million African Americans had registered for military service–the federal courts began overturning Jim Crow laws that upheld the South’s apartheid system of segregation. But for the court decisions to have any real meaning, Southern Blacks had to take action themselves.
Montgomery stood out from earlier civil rights struggles because of its mass character. Some 50,000 African American residents maintained the boycott of the city’s buses for more than a year–which took constant meetings and organizing.
King later spelled out the lesson of the boycott: “Feeling that our demands were moderate, I had assumed that they would be granted with little question…I came to see that no one gives up his privileges without strong resistance.”
King founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) as an alternative to national organizations like the NAACP that insisted on a purely legal strategy for civil rights. The SCLC was committed to mass mobilization. King put forward a new model for organizing, based on nonviolent direct action.
The principles of nonviolence became the watchword for civil rights activists across the South. But as the movement developed–particularly in the early 1960s, with a new wave of civil rights organizing led by Black college students, united in the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)–King’s strategy gradually came into question.
For one thing, King’s principle of nonviolence couldn’t be sustained in the face of the Southern establishment’s savage violence. In practice, activists recognized the need for armed self-defense, while using nonviolent direct action as a tactic to build the struggle.
Moreover, King’s stated goal was to use mass mobilizations–often counting on the violence of Southern authorities to gain media attention–to embarrass the northern wing of the Democratic Party and force it to act for civil rights. But Democrats like John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson were openly hostile to the movement, because they didn’t want to offend Southern Dixiecrats.
King found himself caught in the middle, increasingly acting as a brake on the movement for fear of offending Democrats in Washington. So at the famous 1963 March on Washington–now remembered mainly for his “I Have a Dream” speech–King, at the request of the Kennedy White House, played the central role in toning down the demonstration and censoring a fiery speech planned by SNCC leader John L. Lewis.
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By the mid-1960s, King was considered too moderate and out of touch by an increasingly radical movement. And at this point, he might have become something like the tame image of him promoted in Washington these days–a successful mainstream politician, perhaps, or at least an armchair “elder statesman.”
But as passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965–the two main pieces of legislation that destroyed legal segregation in the South–marked a new phase in the struggle, King, too, moved to the left. He turned his attention to the North, challenging not only legal discrimination, but economic and social inequalities–poverty, chronic unemployment, police brutality–that thrived throughout the U.S.
That brought King into conflict with northern Democrats, who could be pressured into supporting civil rights in the South against the Dixiecrat wing of their party, but didn’t take well to a challenge to their political machines and big business allies in the North.
King was conscious of the shift he was making. “For the last 12 years, we have been in a reform movement,” he told his staff. “But after Selma and the voting rights bill, we moved into a new era, which must be an era of revolution.”
In April 1967, King decided to take a public stand against the war in Vietnam–and put his prestige on the line in making the connection between the injustices that he struggled against at home and those committed abroad by the U.S. military.
“We were taking the Black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them 8,000 miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem,” he said in a speech at the Riverside Church in New York City.
“So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools…I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today–my own government.”
King explicitly recognized the economic roots of Washington’s imperialist war–and gave expression to the growing discontent within the army itself. “We are adding cynicism to the process of death, for [U.S. soldiers] must know after a short period that none of the things we claim to be fighting for are really involved,” he said. “Before long, they must know that their government has sent them into a struggle among Vietnamese, and the more sophisticated surely realize that we are on the side of the wealthy and the secure while we create a hell for the poor.”
The Washington establishment–liberals and conservatives alike–lashed out at King. Time magazine, which three years before had named him their “Person of the Year,” declared that his antiwar speech was “sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi.”
But King resisted the pull. His 1967 speech to the SCLC–given little more than half a year before he was killed–gives a sense of his willingness to ask questions that go far beyond civil rights reforms.
“[T]he movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society,” King said. “There are 40 million poor people here. And one day, we must ask the question, ‘Why are there 40 million poor people in America?’
“And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. And when you ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy…We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. But one day, we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.
“It means that questions must be raised. You see my friends, when you deal with this, you begin to ask the question, ‘Who owns the oil?’ You begin to ask the question, ‘Who owns the iron ore?’ You begin to ask the question, ‘Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that is two-thirds water?'”
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It’s impossible to say how King would have answered these questions had he lived longer. The SCLC’s plans for a Poor People’s Campaign, for example, still reflected King’s strategy of pressuring Democratic Party politicians.
But there’s certainly no comparison with the harmless picture of King that we get 35 years later. “Our only hope today,” King said in 1967, “lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism and militarism.”
To socialists, that sounds a lot like our own call to action–and it’s why we claim Martin Luther King as an inspiration in our struggle for a new society.