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Martin Luther King Jr in the age of Obama: Why we can't wait

By Billy Wharton

January 17, 2010 -- Albert Boutwell's election as Birmingham, Alabama, mayor in 1963 might have signaled the end of the modern civil rights movement. As a moderate Democrat, Boutwell promised to temper the harsh repression unleashed by the city’s notorious chief of police and his mayoral opponent Eugene “Bull” Connor. Mainstream leaders of the black community were told to wait it out –- let the storm pass and incremental changes could begin. Dr Martin Luther King Jr. refused to wait. Instead, he launched Plan “C” (confrontation), a large-scale protest campaign that broke the back of Southern segregation.

Today, US President Barack Obama is held up as the logical outcome of the movement King led. Such a claim avoids a basic fact of US history. Elections do not deliver much in the way of social change. More often they provide sleeping pills -– skillfully crafted illusions meant to demobilise, to dull the senses and to prevent serious demands for social justice from emerging. King understood this process well. One can assume that if Martin Luther King were faced with two active wars, 48 million people without health care and more than 20 million unemployed, he would be able to see through the illusions being offered from the top. The good news is that a new movement for justice need not start from scratch -– it can learn the lessons of history. The civil rights movement offers nearly all the instincts necessary for movement building -- a scepticism about elections, an unquenchable desire for grassroots mobilisation and a firm conviction that the movement is operating on the side of justice.

`New Day in Birmingham'

King’s small essay entitled, “New Day in Birmingham”, should be seen as a blueprint to the pivotal Birmingham campaign. In it, he rails against the request by the white population to accept “polite segregation”. He views the election of Boutwell as less a sympathetic act by white voters, than an expression of how little they understood about the aspirations of the black community. When the hardcore segregationists dug in and filed a lawsuit to maintain themselves in office, even greater pressure was applied to the black community to wait. The judicial process was then held up as the ultimate arbiter of justice. A simple formula was offered -- the polite segregationists would prevail in court, Connor and his allies would be removed and peace would be restored to Birmingham. According to mainstream commentators, all the established black leaders needed to do was keep agitators like King out.

Instead of backtracking, King and the movement entered the city and launched 65 nightly meetings held at various churches in the black community. Each was aimed at mobilising the base of the community and exerting enough moral force to stiffen the will of local leaders. Freedom songs with provocative titles such as “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round” captured “the soul of the movement”. All along, King and others understood that, “we possessed the most formidable weapon of all –- the conviction that we were right”. Mass meetings were the method to build what King called a “special army” of civil rights protesters armed with soul force not military force. Those unwilling or unable to participate in mass arrests still had a place in the movement, contributing to the organisational structure by answering phones or running errands. Community building and movement building were tightly linked.

Despite the energy generated by the mass meetings, King identified two challenges that threatened to stifle Plan C. “The Negro in Birmingham”, he argued, “had been skillfully brainwashed to the point where he accepted the white man’s theory that he, as a Negro, was inferior”. The consciousness of inferiority bred a social paralysis fueled by fear. Authorities from Birmingham to Washington sensed this weakness and used it to market the idea that the proposed demonstrations were “ill timed” and organised by outside agitators. Critics claimed to agree with the cause of civil rights, but to disagree with the tactics of this movement. This was a time, they proposed, for patient negotiations not impulsive escalation.

King cut through this Gordian knot with a simple, yet powerful argument. “It was ridiculous”, he wrote, “to speak of timing when the clock of history showed that the Negro had already suffered one hundred years of delay”. To the charge of being an outsider, he remarked that any American seeking to enhance the cause of freedom and justice ceased to be an interloper. The pressure to abandon the mobilisation, the precarious position of the hardcore segregationists and the increasingly boisterous demands and bold acts from the black community created a volatile situation. Small-scale sit-ins at white churches and segregated libraries began and a large march accompanied the opening of the voter registration drive.

On April 10, 1963, the final fuse was lit as the segregationists were granted an injunction to prevent the protests from going forward. The movement was faced with a difficult choice. Never before had they violated a court injunction, yet King knew that the segregationists had vowed to employ a “century of litigation” to force an end to the mobilisations. Things became even bleaker two days later as a court stripped the movement's bondsman’s ability to issue bonds for bail. All bail would have to be paid in cash.

After another round of community consultations, King opted to escalate the campaign into its final phase. "Bull" Connor responded by unleashing the police armed with dogs and fire hoses, to repress demonstrators, thus producing scenes of brutality that have come to define the Southern part of the civil rights movement. King was arrested almost immediately and placed in solitary confinement for more than 24 hours. While in jail, King issued his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, now a seminal document in US history. On July 2, 1964, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act.

Return to Plan C

Such mighty historical moments were made possible by people “more concerned about reaching our righteous aims than about saving our skins”. No compromise would do, no election result could demobilise and no judicial decision could reverse the conviction that they, and not the segregationists or Northern liberals who preached patience, were operating in the name of justice on the right side of history.

Today, Americans suffering from the effects of a massive financial crisis would do well to familiarise themselves with the version of Dr Martin Luther King Jr that appears in the pages of “New Day in Birmingham”. This is no McDonald's “I Have Dream” commercial. This is Martin Luther King Jr as a militant, a self-described extremist for justice, and a brilliant activist dedicated to community building in the service of social change. What the United States needs most right now is a new “Plan C” that confronts the increasingly unbearable problems of health care, homelessness and unemployment. The civil rights movement is proof positive that no election or any judicial decision, no matter how slick the public relations scheme, can replace the powerful ability of regular people to create movements that change history and society for the better. Eventually, the time for waiting will end.

[Billy Wharton is the co-chair of the Socialist Party USA and the editor of The Socialist and the Socialist WebZine.]

Comments

A time to honor Dr King

By A H Goldberg

January 15, 2010 -- Today not only in the United States, but everywhere in this world we need to honor Martin Luther King Jr, one of the greatest people in US history for his vision to overcome so much evil and injustice including poverty, racism, and militarism as he was truly a citizen of all this world in the best sense of that phrase.

"Somehow this madness" Dr King said of the Vietnam War with all its savagery and atrocities "must end," "We must stop now." The burden for ending this terrible burning of people in Vietnam with napalm and so much else was "our responsibility." He said he knew he couldn't again speak out against "violence" in the US "ghettos" until he had spoken out against "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today, my own government." This brave stand on Dr King's part cost him the friendship and earned him the animosity of not only Lyndon B Johnson, the US president but the US mainstream media as well as they proceeded to attack his patriotism virtually in a McCarthyite style including such magazines as Time and Newsweek.

But they were so completely wrong and he was right. For as he had once said "All life is interrelated. We are caught up in an inescapable network of mutuality tied together in a single garment of destiny." As he so aptly put it "We must learn to live together as brothers (and I would hasten to add sisters) or perish together as fools." It all comes down to the fact of "interlocking nature of problems." As Dr King would say in his day of the struggle for justice over a whole range of issues we "must internationalize" this struggle.

Dr King had once put it especially well when he said of LBJ's domestic programs that "The Great Society was being shot down on the battlefields of Vietnam." Thus we couldn't have both "guns and butter" as LBJ dogmatically maintained, and actually we couldn't even get "oleo" as Dr King said.
When he spoke out against the Vietnam War in 1967 so eloquently he was tapping into the moral compass of people not just in his own country but throughout this world.

Furthermore, he was also at that time taking on racism at home along with a general foreign policy of his own government which had he insisted put his country on the wrong side of history since the Second World War aligning us with the "landed gentry" in Latin America and against the poor and downtrodden there, had put the USA on the side of US and other Western businesses going into the Third World to exploit the people and get the maximum amount of monetary gain for such investment. As a clergyman, he realized and recognized that these and so many other big issues facing his country and others as well must be tackled by getting at the root of the ethical solution to the problems at hand rather than just looking at self centered, self indulgent, and selfish interest. Greed should never prevail over needs of the people anywhere on this planet.

His social gospel version of Christianity, and this would be the case with any other religion, was just what this country and this world of ours needed. Dr King sought a "revolution of love and creativity," but this love was one that sanctioned "a creative campaign of civil disobedience" in the struggle for justice on major issues of his day, as he surely would today. This wasn't some kind of sentimental love, but a love that sought an end to injustice to all people everywhere.

Add to that when he made his speech in Memphis where gunfire would cut him down, he was speaking out against the classist injustice of those who were virtually laboring for slave labor wages. But these sanitation workers, making up as they did real working class people were part of his fight against injustice in this country, about which he had so rightly said "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." He died without reaching "the promised land," but the best way we can honor Dr King is to see to it that "we as a people get there" everywhere in this world. To do that we must truly see his vision and follow it until "every man (and I would hasten to add woman) can sit under his (or her) fig tree and not be afraid," of "The lamb lying down with the lion." It will be "a glorious day. . " "The morning stars will sing, and the sons (and let me say daughters) of God will shout for joy."

Yes, we need to honor Dr King for what he did in the US South starting out in 1955 with the Montgomery bus boycott and with the rest of his involvement in the US civil rights movement, but we must not take away from all the rest of what he did either by pigeon holing him into simply being as the upscale. US white, big business media do seeking put him down and in a corner as only being a black leader in an almost racist, if not outright racist manner which Dr King so resisted and resented, as well he and we all should.

With such a vision of transformation, we will be able to turn away from a foreign policy of endless war, of US and other Western multi national companies exploiting people in the Third World whether in Haiti or in so many other lands, we will be able stop our torture and denial of basic due process to people some pompous government officials call "terrorists," treating them worse than any Nazi war crimes suspects after the Second World War, we will also be able to put the absolute needs of people here and abroad above the greed and special interests of the big banking and brokerage houses on Wall Street and their like numbers abroad and the gangster oriented overwhelming white Pentagon contractors engaging in the worst of atrocities against as Dr King would call it "God's children."
[A H Goldberg is name on this author's blog and can be accessed at ahgoldberg.radioleft.com/blog.]

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