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TV review - MLK: The Assassination Tapes
There's been no shortage of material in the mass media commemorating US black civil rights leader Martin Luther King's (MLK) landmark 1963 'I have a dream' speech in Washington. Few of these articles touch on the more dramatic events surrounding MLK's assassination in Memphis in April 1968, a period of heightened class struggle and social upheaval in racially divided America.
BBC4's MLK: The Assassination Tapes illuminates these themes using rare archive newsreel footage and radio reports. The documentary, in a simple chronological narrative-less style, is a powerful historical account of the period.
The backdrop was the bloody Vietnam War and the hated draft, the dying days of the failed Johnson presidency, and the tinderbox social conditions in US cities especially affecting the oppressed black population.
MLK had gone to Memphis heading the moderate, reformist black civil rights movement to give political and financial support to 1,000, mostly black, striking refuse workers who demanded recognition of their AFSCME union branch and better pay from the municipal authority. Baton-wielding cops sent by the city's reactionary mayor brutally attacked a march by strikers and their supporters
A further support demonstration, led by MLK's non-violent Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, began peacefully but more radicalised groups of black youth clashed with police.
The mayor then drafted in over 4,000 armed national guardsmen, who acted like an occupying army. But this only tightened the lid further on the pressure cooker situation developing in the city's black community.
In a powerful, prophetic last speech MLK, anticipated his own demise but refused to retreat from his campaign for racial equality and an end to poverty.
His gunning down at the Lorraine motel by white supremacist James Earl Ray was an incendiary act that provoked widespread rioting and an uprising of black people in cities across the USA.
The assassination terrified the Democrat leadership who feared that radical black forces would fill the political vacuum.
13,000 troops surrounded the White House as president Johnson dithered, bereft of political solutions. The civil rights leaders and the trade union leaders, while urging political reform, lacked a clear strategy and programme to bring about lasting and fundamental change. Only a mass revolutionary socialist party overthrowing capitalism could have achieved that.
However Johnson, under pressure from the uprising and widespread social discontent, signed into law anti-racist and positive discrimination legislation that year. In Memphis, the mayor conceded union recognition and better pay to end the sanitation workers' strike.
When the rioting subsided, the Democrats could regain political control of the civil rights struggle and shunt it into a safe siding. But the documentary graphically shows how the workers' class struggle merged with the struggle for black liberation.
MLK, despite the limitations of his reformism, recognised through his anti-poverty campaign, the importance of championing class issues to achieve racial equality.
In The Socialist 4 September 2013:
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