A dream not yet realised: the politics of Martin Luther King

Martin Luther King was a fighter for real economic equality, and if he was alive today he’d oppose the policies of Barack Obama, argues Adrian Skerritt

US President Barack Obama’s election in 2008 was seen as a ground-breaking event—the first African American to win the presidency. Ninety-six per cent of African American votes went to Obama. One election T-shirt slogan read: “We had a dream. Now it’s reality.”

But Obama’s first term has been a disappointment. The unemployment rate among black Californians is over 20 percent, compared to 10 percent for whites; more than one-third of African Americans are living below the poverty line and there are record number of black men in prison.

At different moments of his presidency, Barack Obama has sought to cast himself as the inheritor of Martin Luther King’s legacy. He has spoken eloquently on the national holiday commemorating King and plenty of campaign material features images of the civil rights leader. But a critical look at the life of Martin Luther King reveals he had very different political ideas to Obama’s.

“I have a dream”

The last years of Martin Luther King’s life indicate that, were he alive today, he would be a fierce opponent of Obama’s economic and foreign policies.

The achievements of King in the 1950s and the early 1960s are broadly celebrated in the US. As a 26-year- old local pastor, Martin Luther King became the key leader of the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott campaign that launched the Civil Rights movement.

By August 1963, King was as at the head of a movement that could bring 250,000 people on to the streets of Washington in a march for jobs and racial equality.

Much of the US political establishment is willing to embrace King’s politics up to this point. But when the campaign for civil rights moved north it became clear that winning an end to legal and institutional exclusion based on race did not put an end to racism. In legal terms, racial equality existed in the North, yet Black Americans encountered severe forms of racism at the hands of the police and when looking for work and accommodation. From 1965, this situation compelled King to re-evaluate his politics and strategies for change.

At the time of his murder the US establishment regarded King as a threat. J Edgar Hoover, the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, labelled him as “the most dangerous Negro in America”. It was not until 1986 that Americans were allowed to celebrated King’s achievements with a national holiday. The establishment took a long time to get over what King described as “phase two” of the movement.

The rioting that erupted in Watts, Los Angeles in 1965 was a transformative moment for King. He went to Watts to try to calm things down and spoke at the community centre, where he was heckled for his moderate approach. A colleague recalled that King was quite shaken after the meeting. King told his colleague, “You know—I worked to get these people the right to eat hamburgers and now I’ve got to do something to help them get the money to buy it”.

He told his Atlanta congregation, shortly afterwards, that if our “economic system is to survive there has to be a better distribution of wealth…we can’t have a system where some people live in superfluous, inordinate wealth while others live in abject dead ening poverty.”

He became determined to get the Johnson administration to immediately roll out its anti-poverty program. In 1965 King went to the Northern city of Chicago and found a similar constellation of violence and exclusion to the one that activists had been fighting in the South—the police, City Hall and landlords.

In early 1966, when King heard that Chicago’s Mayor Daly had a plan to clean up the city’s slums by the end of 1967, he worked tirelessly to keep Daley to his word. He rented an apartment in a poor part of Chicago. In one slum building, Dr King found an infestation of rats, no heating or running water.

A week later King returned to the building and still there was no heat in the middle of a Chicago winter. The residents were in great distress. His response shocked city hall. He declared that the Southern Christian Leadership Committee would collect the rent and use the money to repair the building. Asked by reporters how he could legally bypass the landlord he replied “the moral question is far more important than the legal one.”

He told a massive crowd at a civil rights music festival that the “the purpose of the slum is to confine those who have no power and perpetuate their powerlessness”.

“The triple evils of poverty, militarism and war”

His new political direction, “phase two” of the civil rights movement, was outlined in his 1967 book Where do we go to from here?

By the time King wrote this book, the civil rights movement had won important victories. King recognised that those victories hardly changed the enduring structural racism in the US but they did transform the way African Americans thought of themselves and how they responded to oppression.

He wrote, “To sit at a lunch counter or occupy the front seat of a bus had no effect on our material standard of living, but in removing a caste stigma, it revolutionised our psychology and elevated the spiritual content of our being.”

But “phase two” of the movement would have to challenge economic inequality: “[D]ignity is also corroded by poverty…No worker can maintain his morale or sustain his spirit if in the market place his capacities are declared to be worthless to society.”

Compared to the task of achieving genuine equality he wrote, the civil rights victories were easily won: “Jobs are harder and costlier to create than voting rolls. The eradication of slums housing millions is complex far beyond integrating buses and lunch counters.”

Although King still believed that rioting made no useful contribution to the struggle, he did not blame those living in poverty for taking their rage to the streets. Instead, he targeted the racism that dominated black American lives. He wrote: “Negro demands that yesterday evoked admiration and support, today—to many—have become tiresome, unwarranted and a disturbance to the enjoyment of life. Cries of Black Power and riots are not the causes of white resistance, they are consequences of it.”

At the same time that he was developing an analysis of economic inequality in the US, he began to speak against the war in Vietnam. He told a New York audience that, “I cannot stand by and see war continually escalated without speaking out against it”.

By 1967 King’s criticism of the war became sharper, and he began connecting injustices at home with those being committed abroad. He said, “it is estimated that we spend $322,000 for each Viet Cong we kill, while we spend only about $53 for each person classified as poor”.

At the Riverside Church in Harlem in April 1967 he delivered a blistering antiwar speech criticising “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government.”

He said, “We are taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them 8,000 miles away to guarantee liberties in South East Asia which they had not found in south west Georgia and East Harlem.”

He called on Johnson to stop the bombing, end military action in Thailand and Laos and accept the Viet Cong at the negotiating table. He also called on those men conscripted to declare themselves conscientious objectors.

The press were now taking notice and there were a wave of attacks against him. Life magazine described the speech as “demagogic slander that sounded like a speech for Radio Hanoi”. Time magazine, which three years before had named him “Man of the Year” published an article entitled “Confusing the Cause”. The article chastised King for extending his energies beyond campaigning for civil rights. Time called King a: “drawling bumkin, so ignorant that he had not read a newspaper in years, who had wandered out of his native haunts and away from his natural calling.”

An alarmed J Edgar Hoover wrote privately to President Johnson: “Based on King’s recent activities and public utterance, it is clear that he is an instrument in the hands of subversive forces seeking to undermine our nation”.

In the months before he died, King started work on a new march on Washington, to take place in the spring of 1968. This time it would be a march of the poor, both black and white, and would draw together all the key elements of his recent radicalisation.

He believed that the movement had to go beyond the symbolic protests and achieve tangible results. He proposed mass, non-violent civil disobedience—blocking streets and government buildings—until their demands were met.

He called this action “dislocation”. He described the tactic in this way: “To raise protest to an appropriate level for cities, to invest it with aggressive but non-violent qualities, it is necessary to adopt civil disobedience. To dislocate the functioning of a city without destroying it can be more effective than a riot because it is long lasting, costly to the society but not wantonly destructive. Moreover it is difficult for government to quell by superior force.”

The FBI believed that The Poor People’s Campaign was a threat to the political order. Hoover’s infamous COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program) created a special subunit to infiltrate and disrupt the Poor People’s Campaign.

Apart from the FBI’s surveillance program, the campaign faced considerable strategic problems. But King noted that mainstream voices such as Newsweek and the Ford Foundation all endorsed some kind of unemployment benefits. The important thing now, he said, was to simply to get to Washington “and after we can get there and stay there a few days, call the peace movement in and let them go on the other side of the Potomac and try to close down the Pentagon, if that can be done.”

Closing down the Pentagon is not the kind of tactic commonly associated with the moderate Martin Luther King celebrated by Obama and the establishment. But it was entirely consistent with the more radical understanding of civil disobedience of his last years.

“The promised land”

In March 1968, Dr King was in Memphis supporting striking sanitation workers. The strike began over the mistreatment of 22 sewer workers who reported for work on January 31, 1968 and were sent home when it began raining. White employees were not sent home, and were paid for the full day. The next day, two black sanitation workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were crushed to death by a malfunctioning garbage truck as they tried to escape the rain.

King addressed a Memphis rally of 15,000 people: “If America does not use her vast resource of wealth to end poverty and make it possible for all God’s children to have the basic necessities of life, she too is going to hell.” On 4 April 1968, King was assassinated.

Today, formal segregation has ended across the US. African Americans can vote. In 1964 there were just 100 black elected officials in the US. By 1990 this number had risen to 7,000 and today there are close to 9,000. There are now African American mayors, generals, and senior government officials.

Veterans of the Memphis sanitation strike were recently invited to the White House to receive an award from President Obama. But the issues that drove King in “phase two” of the movement—poverty, unemployment, war—remain stark features of American society.

Contemporary America is still racist. There are more African American adults in prison than were enslaved in 1850. Racial profiling in policing and in the justice system has meant that in some states black Americans make up 80-90 per cent of those sent to prison for drug offences.

And inequality is growing. Between 1979 and 2007 the share of income of the bottom 80 per cent of the population fell by between 10 and 30 per cent, while the top 1 per cent increased their wealth by 130 per cent.

The Global Financial Crisis has had little impact on the wealthiest Americans. Towards the end of 2010, company profits were up 29 per cent, the fastest growth since the 1950s. This wealth has not trickled down. Forty six million Americans are living below the poverty line and African American child poverty is higher than it was when King was alive.

Even with a huge mandate for “change”, President Obama has done nothing to combat spiralling inequality. It was his policies of bailing out Wall Street, defending of CEO salary increases and offering concessions to health insurers in his much watered down health care plan that spawned the Occupy movement last year.

Public money that could be used to lift millions out of economic hardship is being spent bombing Afghanistan. Obama’s drone attacks in Pakistan have killed 2000 civilians. In total, Bush and Obama’s “war on terror” has cost $1 trillion, a figure that could strike a serious blow against local, and global, poverty. Guantanamo Bay is still open and Obama has kept army whistleblower Bradley Manning in solitary confinement.

People in the US and around the world are horrified at the right wing politics of multi-millionaire Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his running mate, Tea Party darling, Paul Ryan.

But the disappointment with Obama is likely to see many black Americans who enthusiastically voted for Obama in 2008 sitting on the sidelines this November. That’s because again and again, over the past four years, Obama has surrendered to the conservative agenda being pushed by Romney and his ilk.

The legacy of Martin Luther King is a legacy of struggle—struggle against the system; the exact opposite of the Democratic Party establishment politics of Barack Obama.

As US socialist historian Howard Zinn wrote, “What matters most is not who is sitting in the White House, but who’s sitting in—and who is marching outside the White House, pushing for change.”


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