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Socialism Today 118 - May 2008

Fighting for a promised land

FORTY YEARS AGO this April Martin Luther King was assassinated as he demonstrated in support of a sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis, Tennessee. His death sparked riots in over 100 cities across America. Ten years ago (in the article below)  HANNAH SELL looked at the life and ideas of the civil rights leader who inspired millions with his vision that a fundamental change in US society was possible. (First printed in Socialism Today No.27, April 1998)

The lessons of Martin Luther King’s life are perhaps even more pertinent today than they were a decade ago. Following the successful passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 King recognised the limitations of the victories that had been won, declaring that the gains of the movement were "limited mainly to the Negro middle class". He argued that the movement had to go on to fight poverty, saying: "Now our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality. For now we know that it isn’t enough to integrate lunch counters. What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t earn enough money to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee?"

Towards the end of his life he recognised to effectively fight poverty means to challenge capitalism itself and suggested that, "maybe America should move towards democratic socialism".

Today the poverty suffered by the majority of black Americans remains unchanged, as Hurricane Katrina brutally revealed. Official census figures from 1996 show that 24.3% of US black people live in poverty compared to 8.2% of whites. The recession currently hitting the US will dramatically increase the numbers, black, white and Latino, who will be left in dire poverty. It is estimated that two million could lose their homes in the coming year as a result of the housing crisis.

At the same time the black middle class is larger, and far more prosperous, than was the case in the 1960s. For the first time, there is the real possibility that a black man, Barack Obama, could become president of the United States. Obama claims the mantle of the civil rights movement, linking his candidature to the struggles of the 1960s, to the "teenagers and college students who left their homes to march in the streets of Birmingham and Montgomery; the mothers who walked instead of taking the bus after a long day of doing somebody else’s laundry and cleaning somebody else’s kitchen".

Many of the children and grandchildren of those civil rights activists are indeed inspired by the idea of president Obama. Unfortunately, however, there are many parallels between Obama and the white leaders of the Democrats that Martin Luther King initially supported but then, on the basis of bitter experience, came into conflict with. Like the Democrat establishment, Obama is largely funded by big business. Seven of Obama’s top ten donors, for example, are amongst the giant financial institutions responsible for the US sub-prime crisis and all the human misery it is causing.

The lessons Martin Luther King drew from his experiences, particularly the need for a united struggle of the working class, black and white, will be understood and built upon by a new generation in the coming years.

AT THE TIME of his assassination Martin Luther King, like Malcolm X, George Jackson and other black activists of the time, was becoming a major threat to the US establishment. There is still widespread suspicion that the establishment ordered his killing. James Earl Ray, who was convicted of the killing, consistently claimed he was innocent, a claim supported by King’s family. Today evidence is increasing that people linked to the state machine were involved.

The problems black Americans faced then remain today. Laws may have changed but the economic discrimination for the vast majority has not. A small minority has gained wealth and power, but the average black family’s income is $23,482 compared to $37,161 for whites. Police racism and brutality remain a part of everyday life – 80% of complaints against the police come from blacks or Latinos. The lessons of Martin Luther King’s life remain as pertinent today as ever.

Martin Luther King came to prominence during the battle to smash the Jim Crow laws.(1) These laws stated that black Americans were ‘separate but equal’. In reality this meant second-class education, housing and jobs. Discrimination affected every aspect of life in the black communities. In addition, although black people had the formal right to vote, in the Southern states a conscious campaign of vicious and unrelenting violence took place to stop them registering to vote.

This had been the situation since the American civil war. There was a North-South divide. In the North a more economically advanced industrial capitalism had developed. The wealth of the Southern states had been built on the slavery of millions of black people, brought in chains from Africa to work on the cotton plantations. The plantation owners’ rapacious need for more land had brought them into conflict with the Northern capitalists. In the war that followed US president Lincoln initially had no intention of freeing the Southern slaves. Under pressure, following heavy defeats from the Southern army, and enormous sympathy for the slaves amongst the Northern working class, Lincoln was forced to declare the freeing of the slaves.

The declaration itself had a major effect in undermining the Southern economy as hundreds of thousands fled the plantations. Most went to fight for the North. As they marched forward, they seized the land from the retreating plantation owners.

The period immediately after the civil war was known as the ‘reconstruction’. Following the defeat of the South, poor whites and blacks fought together for the right to vote, for education and for land, summed up in their slogan ‘40 acres and a mule’. The Northern capitalists backed the movement up to a point, because it consolidated their victory over the plantation owners. However, once they were confident of their power they allowed Southern big business a freer rein. The South then unleashed the Ku Klux Klan to carry out a reign of terror on black people, as well as poor whites. The formal rights won were diluted by the Jim Crow laws while ‘lynch law’ enforced the reality of no rights for black people.

The civil rights movement

THE NEXT MAJOR chapter in the struggles of black Americans, the civil rights movement, began in the 1950s for a number of reasons. The second world war had an effect. A high proportion of those who went abroad to fight were black. Not only had thousands of black soldiers fought and died for US imperialism, they were struck by the glaring hypocrisy of the war propaganda. Here was a capitalist class claiming they had to go to war against the racism of the Nazis – while in their own country vicious racism was the norm. In addition, the labour shortage resulting from the war meant black people and women got jobs in industry that were previously unavailable.

After the war US capitalism entered a prolonged period of economic prosperity. This meant that many more black Americans were moving from the rural South to the cities (mainly in the North). In 1940 half the black population lived in the cities, by 1970 it was three quarters. Becoming part of the working class in the cities – moving from isolated rural communities to massive urban centres – increased confidence and the capacity to struggle. In addition, the increased wealth and higher living standards of the white middle class made the poverty and degradation of the vast majority of black Americans seem even starker than before. Finally, the liberation struggles of the masses in Africa and Asia, who were succeeding in overthrowing colonial rule, provided inspiration.

Against this background the civil rights movement began. In 1955 a 14-year-old black youth, Emmett Till, was brutally murdered for supposedly whistling at a white woman. The two white men accused of the murder were acquitted by the all-white jury; widespread anger erupted. Later that year Rosa Parks, a garment worker in Montgomery, Alabama, refused to give up her bus seat to a white man. She was arrested and a boycott of the buses ensued. Martin Luther King, a local preacher, came to prominence in this movement which, after another year of struggle, forced the desegregation of the buses in Montgomery.

The movement gathered pace over the next eight years. Students began to organise mass sit-ins in segregated cafeterias, demanding the right to be served. Freedom riders rode long-distance buses across the South demanding that facilities should be deregulated. In Birmingham, Alabama, mass demonstrations were met by police brutality. King was arrested and held in solitary confinement. Eventually, forced to compromise in the face of the movement, the local authorities agreed to desegregate facilities – only to renege on their promises as soon as the demonstrators dispersed.

King’s organisation, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), was one of several organisations that emerged at this stage of the civil rights movement. Previously, the main organisation campaigning for black Americans had been the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples (NAACP). The leadership of this group concentrated on legal change and had succeeded in winning a number of reforms, including the desegregation of schools in 1954. However, without mass action it was becoming clear legal reform was worthless. King’s organisation was based on the need for mass action. He believed that non-violent mass protests were the way forward, mistakenly thinking that Gandhi had defeated British imperialism in India through these means. Other organisations, in particular the Student Non-violent Co-ordinating Committee (SNCC), also organised mass action on a similar basis to King, although they tended to be more radical and have fewer illusions in the establishment.

The televising of police brutality in Birmingham led to demonstrations spreading like wildfire through America. Under this pressure president Kennedy spoke on national television in June 1963 saying: "And this nation, for all its hopes and boasts, will not be free until its citizens are free. Now the time has come for this nation to fulfil its promise. The events in Birmingham and elsewhere have so increased the cries for equality that no city or state or legislative body can prudently choose to ignore them". He went on to propose legal changes to introduce desegregation.

In response, the civil rights movement called a march on Washington, in which over 200,000 people took part. Originally, the march was seen as demanding economic improvements – better housing, jobs, education and pay – for black Americans. However, under pressure from the Democratic establishment, it became a march to support Kennedy. For example, John Lewis, chair of SNCC, had included in his proposed speech the following statements: "We march today for jobs and freedom, but we have nothing to be proud of. For hundreds of thousands of our brothers are not here. They have no money for their transportation, for they are receiving starvation wages... or no wages at all...

"This nation is still a place of cheap political leaders who... ally themselves with open forms of political, economic and social exploitation... The party of Kennedy is also the party of the Eastland.(2) The party of Javits is also the party of Goldwater.(3) Where is our party?...

"Revolution is at hand, and we must free ourselves from the chains of political and economic slavery... The revolution is a serious one. Mr Kennedy is trying to take the revolution out of the street and put it in the courts. Listen Mr Kennedy... The black masses are on the march for jobs and freedom and we must say to the politicians that there won’t be a cooling-off period". Under pressure from Democratic Party representatives all this was taken out of his speech.

Moving beyond civil rights

THE ISSUES THAT were buried on the Washington march flooded to the surface in the months and years that followed. Legal changes were made, but reality got worse. On 10 August 1965, the New York Times commented: "The discontented point to several ugly paradoxes that have accompanied progress on civil rights... The unemployment gap between the races has been growing. The Labor Department reported that Negroes constituted 20.6% of the unemployed last year although they only account for 10% of the population...

"There is a growing conviction that civil rights alone are not enough… Even in complete possession of his civil rights the Negro would still face automation, urban decay, family deterioration, entrapment in slums and de facto segregation of schools. These are social and economic failures that transcend racial injustice and minority grievances. They call for more drastic remedies, and there are doubts among the more radical leaders that such remedies can be found within existing political and economic institutions".

The frustration felt by black Americans at the failure of the civil rights movement to provide fundamental change led to a searching for new ideas. The Republicans and Democrats then, as now, both represented the cynical interests of big business. No party existed which fought for the working class, black and white. While some people were attracted to the Cuban and Chinese revolutions and drew inspiration from figures like Che Guevara, their belief that guerrilla struggle was the main force for change had no effective application in the cities of the US. In addition, the horrifically distorted and Stalinist nature of the so-called ‘socialist’ regimes was abhorrent to black activists. Without any clear alternative many different ideas were thrown up.

King’s idea of non-violence was increasingly challenged. On the one hand, it was becoming understood that to turn the other cheek in the face of the might of the US state forces was unrealistic and naive. On the other hand, the need for organised mass protests was sometimes abandoned as well. The idea that spontaneous uprisings and riots were enough to win was rightly argued against by King.

A section, particularly of the most radical youth, drew black nationalist conclusions – that the whole of white society had to be written off. Some, seeing integration as a failure, raised the idea of a separate black state. Others, for example Malcolm X, who had initially drawn black nationalist conclusions, began to change his ideas. At the end of his life Malcolm X had begun to turn towards socialist ideas. Later the Black Panthers developed. The Panthers saw themselves more consciously as socialists. Both Malcolm X and the Panthers were revolutionaries in their determination and willingness to struggle to change society totally. They understood that capitalism offered no alternative.

King, by contrast, was for much of his life more prepared to accept a slower pace of change and take the establishment at its word when it made promises. However, in the face of reality, he too was looking for new ideas. He argued that: "This revolution in values must go beyond traditional capitalism and communism. We must honestly admit that capitalism has often left a gulf between superfluous wealth and abject poverty... The profit motive, when it is the sole basis of an economic system, encourages a cut-throat competition and selfish ambition... Equally, communism reduces men to a cog in the wheel of the state. The good and just society is neither the thesis of capitalism nor the antithesis of communism but a socially conscious democracy that reconciles the truths of individualism and collectivism".

King’s idea was basically one of reforming capitalism. He argued for state intervention in the US to carry out a massive anti-poverty programme, including a decent minimum wage for all and a huge social housing programme. This was utopian – he did not understand that fundamental improvements could only be achieved if capitalism was overthrown and replaced with a democratic, socialist system. The only time in its history that American capitalism allowed substantial economic and social gains for black people was during the reconstruction after the civil war. This came about because, for a brief space in time, the interests of the Northern capitalists on the need to finally crush the plantation system coincided with the interests of black people in the South.

In the 1950s and 1960s capitalism had no interest in giving real equality. One of the organisers of the march on Washington, Bayard Rustin, estimated in 1965 that it would cost $100 billion to organise a genuine ‘war on poverty’.(4) US capitalism was completely unwilling to undertake such a project. On the contrary, they relied on black poverty to guarantee their profits.

King’s ideas were equally utopian internationally. He argued for a massive ‘Marshall Aid’ plan of 2% of GNP a year for 15 years to Africa, Latin America and Asia. (Marshall Aid was the money injected into Western Europe and Japan by the US at the end of the second world war, which amounted to 1% of US GNP for three years.) Yet big business in the US only carried out the Marshall Aid plan to reconstruct Europe because they feared that Stalinism would increase its geographical strength by taking Western Europe (it had already taken Eastern Europe). In reality, even in the post-war economic upswing, the US relied on poverty in Africa, Asia and Latin America to supply them with cheap raw materials and labour.

Martin Luther King’s legacy today

UNDER THE PRESSURE of the civil rights movement, some action was taken by the establishment. Laws were changed and a conscious policy of developing a black middle class was instituted. The hope was that black ‘role models’ would create the illusion that the American dream was realisable for all. Today, celebrities like Oprah Winfrey are among the richest people in America. There are black judges, police chiefs and politicians. The reality for the majority, though, is worse than ever. Black men are three times as likely to be unemployed than white men. Half those on death row are from a racial minority. In 50% of murders the victim is black yet only 10% of executions are for the murder of a black person.

Even the legal changes won in the civil rights movement, such as affirmative action programmes (for instance, where a certain percentage of college places or jobs have to be given to people from ethnic minorities), are under attack from the right. Although they did not produce fundamental change their removal is a backward step. In universities where affirmative action laws have been repealed, black student numbers have halved overnight. At the university of California law school one black student enrolled last year, compared to 20 the previous year. The medical college rejected all 196 black applicants.

Campaigns have taken place across America to stop the repeal of the affirmative action legislation. On this and many more issues, like housing, pay and police brutality, there is a glaring need for a mass, organised campaign today. The Democratic government is making no pretence of being ‘radical’. Although Clinton is in favour of affirmative action laws, his general economic and social policies, for example his plans to destroy welfare, are resulting in increased poverty for millions of black Americans.

As the black community rises up to fight for real equality many of the same issues that were debated in the 1960s will surface again. The collapse of the Stalinist regimes in 1990 and the capitalist triumphalism that accompanied this led to a disillusionment internationally that an alternative to capitalism is possible. The leadership of the labour movement in the US has, even more than other countries, failed to offer a way to fight back for black and white alike. As a result, in the US today the idea of class action is not widely understood. Nonetheless, increased poverty for the majority of the population in the richest country in the world, combined with the economic catastrophe that capitalism means today for the masses of Africa, will lead to many seeking a socialist alternative to capitalism.

Despite the limitations of King’s ideas he was prepared to fight for change and he had grasped one vital fact more clearly than many others at the time. In arguing against black separatism he called for a coalition with poor and working-class whites: "Within the white majority there exists a substantial group who cherish democratic principles above privilege and who have demonstrated a will to fight side by side with the Negro against injustice. Another and more substantial group is composed of those having common needs with the Negro and who will benefit equally with him in the achievement of social progress. There are, in fact, more poor white Americans than there are Negro. Their need for a war on poverty is no less desperate than the Negro’s".

On the trade unions he argued that "ten percent of the population cannot by tensions alone induce ninety percent to change a way of life. Within the ranks of organised labour there are nearly two million Negroes. Not only are they found in large numbers as workers, but they are concentrated in key industries. In the truck transportation, steel, auto and food industries, which are the backbone of the nation’s economic life, Negroes make up nearly 20% of the organised workforce, although they are only 10% of the general population. This potential strength is magnified further by the fact of their unity with millions of white workers in these occupations. As co-workers there is a basic community of interest that transcends many of the ugly divisive elements of traditional prejudice".

King was a mass leader. In his lifetime the establishment attempted to use him as a ‘reasonable’ advocate of black rights. For example, in 1964 he was awarded the Nobel peace prize. Typically, he gave the $54,000 prize money away.

Since his death the image of him as the moderate representative of black activism has been immortalised, there is even a national holiday in his name. The reality was very different. He was dangerous to the establishment primarily because he inspired a generation of black Americans to struggle. In his search for a way to win real equality for the black community he began to draw the conclusion that a serious battle against poverty and oppression had to be fought alongside working-class whites. He understood the collective power of workers in workplaces. At the time of his assassination he was founding a movement against poverty. He was also becoming actively involved in supporting workers in struggle. For these reasons he had ceased to be a ‘reasonable man’ for US capitalism; instead he was a major threat.


(1) The laws that said black Americans were ‘separate but equal’ were known as the Jim Crow laws. They were based on the Supreme Court ruling of 1896 in the Plessy v Ferguson case. This effectively overturned the legal equality won after the civil war by allowing state laws mandating separate facilities – providing they were ‘substantially equal’.

(2) This refers to the Democratic Party. While Kennedy posed as a supporter of civil rights, Eastland was a far-right Southern ‘Dixiecrat’ who supported segregation.

(3) This refers to the Republicans. Javits posed as a supporter of civil rights, Goldwater was at that time a far-right segregationist who ran a racist presidential campaign in 1964 and argued that the racist right of the Democratic Party belonged in the same party as him.

(4) In 1965 Bayard Rustin called for a war on poverty, aimed primarily at the black community. His estimated cost included $5 billion a year for the elimination of slums and a minimum wage of $2 an hour. (New York Times magazine, August 1965)


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