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From Montgomery to Vietnam
The radical life of Martin Luther King Jnr
THIS YEAR marks the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King, Jnr, who was assassinated on 4 April 1968 while supporting striking Memphis sanitation workers.
Will Soto, Socialist Alternative, USA
Unfortunately, the official commemorations of King often provide us with a 'safe' version of his life and legacy and the history of the civil rights movement. It is now commonplace to hear right-wing politicians quote King to justify attacks on affirmative action or welfare, or to see his image in marketing campaigns by huge corporations like Apple.
Like so many fighters for the oppressed, the ruling class fears and opposes them while they are alive, but following their death an attempt is made to render their legacy harmless through distorting their actual ideas. During his lifetime King inspired millions with his vision that fundamental change in US society was possible.
To J Edgar Hoover's FBI, which viciously harassed King and kept him under constant surveillance, he was the "most dangerous Negro in America." The US establishment especially feared his growing radicalisation in the last years of his life, when he spoke out sharply against the Vietnam war and began to question the capitalist system and even talk about "democratic socialism".
Mass struggle strategy
King's rise to prominence began with the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-1956. The strategy of mass, nonviolent struggle against Jim Crow [post civil war racist laws], first pursued by King in Montgomery, was in contrast to the traditional strategy pushed by the more moderate leadership of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP).
The NAACP focused on a legalistic strategy of court cases, fearing mass direct action would alienate their political allies in the Democratic and Republican parties.
Beginning especially in 1960, with the wave of sit-ins challenging segregation at lunch counters across the South, civil rights activists waged a series of heroic struggles aimed at winning desegregation and voting rights for blacks.
Their tactics were often criticised by liberal leaders, who urged them to rely on the government to enact change. King took up these attacks in his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail. He wrote: "We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed."
King played a major role in organising the mass struggle that shook Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963. Here, thousands marched to demand an end to segregation in defiance of court injunctions forbidding any protests. They faced down police dogs and fire hoses, enduring brutal beatings and numerous bombings and death threats. 2,500 ended up in jail at one point, including elementary school children as young as six, but their tremendous courage brought widespread sympathy.
Only the fear of the example of Birmingham spreading to other cities, as well as the growing mood of impatience swelling among black people in the North, convinced the Democratic administration of John F Kennedy that some federal civil rights legislation would have to be enacted.
This is in stark contrast to the widespread mythology crediting the Democratic Party for civil rights. Far from leading the struggle for civil rights, the Democratic Party under President Kennedy repeatedly ignored calls for federal intervention to protect civil rights activists.
While King retained hopes in Kennedy and sought to cultivate a working relationship with his administration, he also grew frustrated with its inaction.
The experience of the civil rights movement shows that the key to change is not relying on the capitalist political establishment but rather building mass movements from below.
King also came into serious conflict with the establishment over the Vietnam war. By 1965 King had turned against the war. He increasingly saw the issues faced by black people as linked to US foreign policy.
The Democratic Party, who started the war and prosecuted it under the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, exerted enormous pressure on him to remain a single-issue reformer and not to speak out against the war. Under this pressure, King hesitated to come out publicly.
The Democratic Party was (and is) a cynical party of big business, incapable of taking serious measures to eradicate racism since that would clash with the interests of US capitalism. The Vietnam war was completely against the interests of ordinary black people, who were doing a disproportionate amount of the fighting and dying in a war to maintain colonial oppression.
Black people were increasingly rebelling against the war. King and other civil rights leaders' silence was discrediting them in the black community.
King's genuine commitment to the plight of poor and working class black people eventually forced him to break with the logic of his previous position and come out sharply and publicly against the war in February 1967. Calling the US government "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today", King became the most prominent American to demand withdrawal from Vietnam.
As soon as King stepped outside of "his issue" to draw the links between US imperialism overseas and the treatment of black people within the US, the corporate media got in line to trash him.
The Washington Post warned him that he had "diminished his usefulness to his cause, to his country, and to his people." Johnson referred to him as "that goddamned nigger preacher" and told King that his statements on the war "had the same effect on [him] as if he had discovered that King had raped his daughter".
In his last years, King increasingly turned his attention to problems of economic injustice and inequality. He saw that the victories won through the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 had done little to "penetrate the lower depths of Negro deprivation" and that the gains of the movement were "limited mainly to the Negro middle class."
Especially important in this process were his experiences in Northern ghettoes where the problems of working class and poor black people could not be laid at the feet of official legal discrimination. These conditions had fuelled the riots in major cities during the mid-1960s and the growing militancy among a section of the black community.
In his search for a way to win real equality for African Americans, King began to draw the conclusion that a serious battle against poverty and oppression was necessary. Against separatist trends who wrote off all whites, King correctly argued for building a multiracial movement with poor and working class whites.
In 1968 King launched the Poor People's Campaign - a campaign of mass civil disobedience, including blocking traffic and staging sit-ins in Congress, to shut down Washington, DC.
King hoped that the strike by 1,300 Memphis sanitation workers would be the kickoff for the Poor People's Campaign. Tragically, he was gunned down before he could see the campaign through.
The state of the dream
Official Census figures state that in 2006 24.3% of US black people lived in poverty vis-à-vis 8.2% of whites.
The struggles of the Civil Rights era did lead to important reforms but they did not culminate in fundamental economic change. The continuation of capitalism means that black people will continue to face nightmarish conditions.
As King said in a speech exactly one year before his death, "Our only hope today 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. With this powerful commitment we shall boldly challenge the status quo..." (When Silence Is Betrayal, April 4, 1967).
The real way to honour King's legacy is to devote ourselves to an all-out struggle to eradicate racism, poverty, war, and all forms of oppression. As King was beginning to see towards the end of his life, this means building a movement to abolish capitalism.
King also began to talk about the need for socialism.
In a speech delivered to his staff in 1966, he said: "You can't talk about solving the economic problem of the Negro without talking about billions of dollars. You can't talk about ending the slums without first saying profit must be taken out of slums. You're really tampering and getting on dangerous ground because you are messing with folk then. You are messing with captains of industry... Now this means that we are treading in difficult water, because it really means that we are saying that something is wrong... with capitalism... There must be a better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism."