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Issue #1532      25 January 2012

Memories of Martin Luther King

Today (January 17) is Martin Luther King Day in the United States. It has been a national holiday for a generation-even though Ronald Reagan and other right wing Republican politicians delayed that for years after King’s 1968 assassination.

Public offices and schools will be closed. There will be some ceremonies in communities and most people will do what they do on most holidays, both religious and non-religious (what they are expected to do) go shopping, watch sports events on television, and prepare for work the following day.

There will be references of course to King’s legacy. Republican politicians (many of whom fought for years to prevent his birthday from becoming a national holiday) will distort everything that King lived and died for.

In the process, they buried in rituals of celebration the reality of segregation, de facto and de jure, disenfranchisement, supported terroristic violence represented in the 1920s by a KKK that numbered in the millions. As for African Americans, when they were remembered positively before the civil rights movement it was through a handful of individuals, the accommodationist leader Booker T Washington, the scientist George Washington Carver, and most of all the fictional character, Uncle Tom, in the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth and of course WEB Dubois, who himself was a scholar and activist with a global reputation, simply didn’t exist in the conventional reality of their own country.

They will make him into an opponent of affirmative action, economic and social integration as “reverse racism” (they usually throw in John F Kennedy’s speech about “taking race out of American politics” for good measure) which they have done routinely for many years. Other “conservatives” will also damn King with false praise, crediting him with ending segregation and thus eliminating racism from US politics and society.

In the 1920s, novelist Sinclair Lewis at the time of the opening of the Lincoln Memorial wrote cynically that Abraham Lincoln was the “patron saint of America,” the common man who freed the slaves and then, Christ-like, died for the sins of the Republic.

Today there are those who seek to make Martin Luther King into a sort of “patron saint” for a fictional US where racism no longer exists. And there are many more who control school curricula who teach children that the most important thing about King was that he preached and practiced non-violence-in essence he was the “good Black” in contrast to Malcolm X, the “bad Black,” (although you usually have to get to high school and sometimes to college to hear Malcolm X mentioned in school curricula).

But the real King and his real legacy lives on directly today in peoples struggle-most dramatically in the Occupy movements through the nation.

For King non violence was both a strategy and a philosophy united by the concept of “positive peace”, peace with social justice. He agreed with Mohandas K Gandhi, the teacher/activist who led the Indian Independence movement, that poverty was the greatest violence. He rejected entirely the view that integration without any change in the distribution of income, without large advances in economic and social equality, was either possible or desirable

He broke with the Johnson administration that advanced through its war on poverty and civil rights legislation everything that he had fought for on the Vietnam War because he realised that war itself, imperialist war with in this case a clear and large racist subtext was the worst enemy of positive peace.

And he at the end of his life organised a “Poor Peoples Movement”, of all ethno cultural groups in poverty to launch Go to Washington, not simply to march but to stay there, the way the bonus marchers did in 1932, to force the Johnson administration to confront between its promises of a war on poverty and a great society and the realities in the US.

And he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, supporting a strike of public employees African-American sanitation workers in a “right-to-work,” segregationist state which chronically underfunded education and other public services.

This was the real Martin Luther King and he lives today directly in the Occupy movement everywhere. He lives also in public employees everywhere they are fighting against draconian anti-labor actions being pushed in Wisconsin, New Jersey, and many other states.

He lives also in the opposition to both wars and a military budget over $600 billion (ten times greater than it was during the Vietnam War) and a federal deficit more than 50 times greater than it was, thanks to military spending and tax cuts, than it was at the end of the Vietnam War.

I think that King would like Obama, not because of the colour of his skin, but because of the content of his character. He would also probably be amused as the politicians who, proclaiming that Obama’s election is evidence that racism no longer exists in the US out of one side of their mouths, try to make him into a national scapegoat for all of the society’s problems, seeing him not as a servant of the people but as a servant above his station out of the other sides of their mouths.

The real King was always an optimist about what could be accomplished in this society and we should remember that he was the most important leader of the most important movement in the United States in the second half of the 20th century, a movement which he always understood that the struggle to advance equal rights and social-economic justice for an oppressed minority and for the whole society were both independent and dialectical, changing and interacting, either strengthening or weakening each other. By combining that optimism and that realism, we can honour him best and help ourselves achieve through struggle the positive peace that he believed in and stood for.

Political Affairs  

Next article – “Occupy Nigeria” strike victory

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