50th anniversary of the assassination of MLK jnr in Memphis

The life and legacy of Martin Luther King

Martin Luther King, Junior (right) in BBC4's 'MLK: The Assassination Tapes'

Martin Luther King, Junior (right) in BBC4’s ‘MLK: The Assassination Tapes’   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

April Ashley, Unison national executive council, black members rep (female) (personal capacity)

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King junior, who was shot and killed on 4 April 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee, while supporting striking sanitation workers.

He is now portrayed as a safe, noble and worthy figure in order to blunt his quite radical message but at the time of the civil rights movement he was hated and feared by the Democratic Party in government.

The Democratic Party attempts to perpetuate the myth that they are the party of civil rights and there is a straight historical line from Martin Luther King to Barack Obama. But King’s radical vision and legacy is a world away from the capitalist establishment of the Democratic Party.

King, a Baptist minister, was the most important leader of the civil rights movement.

One-third of the southern protest leaders were preachers. The churches were the only places where the Black community could freely congregate and where all the issues facing black workers and youth were discussed. That is why non-violence was the main strategy adopted in the early period of the civil rights movement.

But King’s advocacy of mass non-violent civil disobedience was radical and courageous at that time in contrast to the more moderate leadership of the traditional black organisation NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) which focused on legal action.

King and his organisation – the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) – organised mass demonstrations and boycotts against racial segregation, for voting rights and equality of employment. Black people faced down police attack dogs, fire hoses, police beatings, mass jailing of students, death threats and bombings.

The mass movement caught fire across the whole of the southern states. The struggle in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963 was a key battle with up to 3,000 students jailed as they continued the battle on the streets, as well as the march across the bridge from Montgomery in 1965 as portrayed in the film, Selma.

Peaceful protesters being savagely attacked was seen live by millions of viewers on the TV. It shocked the nation and inspired the black freedom struggle in the northern cities.

It was pressure from the mass movement below that prompted the Democratic governments under John F Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson to pass civil rights legislation banning racial discrimination in voting and public facilities.

This was a triumph for King and the whole civil rights movement after years of struggle. As King said in his letter from Birmingham jail: “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”

King had many discussions with John F Kennedy on civil rights for black workers and tried working within the confines of the Democratic Party to affect change. But this was ineffectual. It was the mass demonstrations like the march on Washington for jobs and freedom where King delivered his iconic ‘I have a dream’ speech at the Lincoln memorial in 1963, which forced change.

But the civil rights movement didn’t just stop in the Southern states and King’s ideas were evolving.

King travelled to northern cities where the generation of black workers who migrated to the north in the 1920s and 1940s, especially after World War Two, to escape the rural poverty, white supremacy violence and Jim Crow (discriminatory laws), still faced segregation, police violence, poor housing, mass unemployment and poverty.

There were huge uprisings in Watts (Los Angeles), New York, Detroit and every major city with black workers struggling for freedom against racial discrimination and poverty. The movement raged across cities from the mid 1960s to early 1970s and evolved into the ‘Black Power’ movement.

King’s tactic of non-violent civil disobedience was questioned by the many black workers and particularly black youth facing horrific police brutality. The Black Power movement was also inspired by the movements against colonial oppression and imperialism in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean.

The slogan, ‘Black Power’, fulfilled an important psychological need to black people at that time whose history had been denied them and who had suffered hundreds of years of humiliation and indignity. It was a time to raise confidence, time to be Black and proud.

The Black Power movement with people like Malcolm X, the Black Panther Party and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) provoked intense debate in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) on the questions of integration, consumerism, capitalism, imperialism, militarism and war.

Demonstrating after King's assassination in BBC4's 'MLK: The Assassination Tapes'

Demonstrating after King’s assassination in BBC4’s ‘MLK: The Assassination Tapes’   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Vietnam War

The time spent in northern cities among radicalised workers and young people and their anti-war mood had a profound effect on King.

King eventually came out against the Vietnam War, which put him in conflict with the Democratic Party which had started the war and continued it under the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.

King was deeply disturbed by the increasing death toll of US soldiers and recognised that black soldiers were disproportionately placed in combat units. Between January and November 1966 almost 25% of army casualties were black. In addition, half a billion dollars was diverted from community action programmes to war spending in Vietnam.

“Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart, as I have called for radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam” (Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence Speech delivered by King, on 4 April at Riverside Church in New York City).

This was a huge break with the Democratic Party. The mass media, which now lauds him, denigrated and hounded him for demanding the withdrawal of American troops. President Johnson referred to him as “that goddam nigger preacher,” and told him that his statements against the war had the same effect on him as if he had discovered that King had raped his daughter.

It is no surprise that King was also under constant surveillance and harassed by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI Cointelpro (Counter Intelligence Programme) including numerous death threats. He was called “the most dangerous and effective Negro leader in the country.”

Questioning capitalism

King’s anti-war activism deepened his radicalism and he began to question capitalism.

He said in August 1967: “And I say to you today, that if our nation can spend $35 billion a year to fight an unjust, evil war in Vietnam, and $20 billion to put a man on the moon, it can spend billions of dollars to put God’s children on their own two feet right here on earth…

“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 a question about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy.”

He increasingly began to turn his attention to problems of economic justice and inequality – as although there was no longer formal segregation the condition of black workers was still abject poverty. He believed a serious battle against poverty and oppression was necessary.

In 1968 King launched the Poor People’s Campaign. He hoped to go around the country assembling a “multiracial army of the poor” to march on Washington to abolish poverty in the US and internationally and demand that the money being spent on the Vietnam War be redirected to provide jobs and income for the poor.

He aimed for more than just a symbolic march, planning a campaign of mass civil disobedience, including blocking traffic and staging sit-ins in Congress, to shut down Washington, DC.

The aim was to have a permanent tent encampment in Washington called “Ressurection City” until their demands were met. The demands included:

  • $30 billion annual appropriation to fight poverty ($213 billion today)
  • Congressional passage of full employment
  • Guaranteed annual wage;
  • Construction of 500,000 low-cost housing units to eliminate slums
  • Petition the government to pass an Economic Bill of Rights

King expected violent confrontations with the federal government and its troops in Washington, DC.

King travelled throughout the country organising for the Poor People’s Campaign march.

A black trade unionist demonstrating in BBC4's 'MLK: The Assassination Tapes'

A black trade unionist demonstrating in BBC4’s ‘MLK: The Assassination Tapes’   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Memphis strike

The Memphis sanitation workers’ strike of 1968 epitomised the struggle for economic justice – to end the poverty wages earned by working people. As King said: “What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t have enough money to buy a hamburger?”

King’s participation in the campaign is not an accident; it is rooted in the political, economic, and social aims of the black freedom movement. The strike slogan ‘I am a man’ defined the struggle and the fighting spirit for justice, equality, and freedom.

King politically and organisationally understood the link between the labour and civil rights movements. The “captains of industry” and big business opposed both labour and civil rights, holding down wages and violently attacking strikes for union representation and better working conditions.

The US capitalist class and their political representatives have always used racism and sexism to divide the working class and deny human rights, economic justice, and social mobility to the black masses, immigrants, and women.

It was during the sanitation workers’ strike after a demonstration through the city that King was shot dead on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.

As his death was announced uprisings broke out in major cities throughout the US. The movement had lost one of its finest leaders.

It was a severe blow and the mass movement was not sustained either by the official reformist civil rights organisations nor by the Black Panther party, which as well as being subject to brutal oppression and assassinations by the FBI’s Cointelpro, made strategic mistakes.

Today, black young people in the US have continued the black freedom movement through the Black Lives Matter (BLM) demonstrations.

From the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, after the police killing of Michael Brown in 2014, demonstrations erupted across the US against police killings, unrelenting police brutality, racist oppression, mass incarceration of black youth, and very poor conditions.

Black workers still suffer high levels of unemployment, poverty and low-wage jobs, and poor housing. 50 years after the assassination of Martin Luther King and after a black US president, little has changed for the overwhelming majority of black youth and workers.

The BLM movement has emulated the mass civil disobedience of the civil rights movement of 1950s and 1960s and the movement has been echoed internationally. But its programme is limited.

It needs to go further and draw some of the same conclusions of Martin Luther King that in order to seriously challenge structural racism and racist attitudes we need to build a mass movement of all those exploited and oppressed by capitalism. We need to create a new society that can end poverty and discrimination, a socialist society.

Review – MLK: The Assassination Tapes

King's assassination in BBC4's 'MLK: The Assassination Tapes'

King’s assassination in BBC4’s ‘MLK: The Assassination Tapes’   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Dave Carr

MLK: The Assassination Tapes uses rare archive newsreel footage and radio reports surrounding MLK’s assassination in Memphis in April 1968 – a period of heightened class struggle and social upheaval in racially divided America. The documentary, in a simple chronological narrative-less style, is a powerful 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.

MLK’s 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 would 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.

  • A version of this review first appeared in the Socialist on 4 September 2013