The Struggle for Peace and Economic Justice
What are the lessons of the civil rights and anti-war leader's life for
by Abayomi Azikiwe, Editor
Pan-African News Wire
Monday, January 19, 2009, marks the federal recognition of the 80th
birthday of the late civil rights and anti-war martyr, Rev. Dr. Martin
Luther King, Jr. Although the actual date of his birth is January 15,
since 1986, when the third Monday of every January was designated as a
federal holiday in his honor, thousands of commemorative events are held
on an annual basis across the United States.
A National Fightback Conference will be held in New York City on January
17 in order to take up the need to organize around the current economic
crisis. In Detroit on January 19, the annual rally and march in the
downtown area will take place again. This demonstration over the last
five years has consistently linked the ongoing wars of occupation in
Afghanistan and Iraq with growing crisis in the cities.
There will be demonstrations and other forms of public activities to
both celebrate and renew the continuing movements that lay claim to the
MLK legacy. Many this year will cite the recent election of Barack Obama
as president of the United States as a fullfillment, at least in part,
of the goals of the civil rights struggle of the 1950s and 1960s. On
January 20 Obama will be inaugurated in Washington, D.C., while millions
of people gather in the capital to take part in the myraid of events
that surround the occasion.
Nonetheless, in this important year of commemoration of the 80th
birthday of MLK and the ascendancy of the nation's first
African-American president, the United States is experiencing the worst
economic crisis since the Great Depression. The social conditions of the
nationally oppressed, the poor and the working class as whole are
becoming more desperate everyday.
During 2008, the U.S. Government recently announced that over 2.6
million workers were thrown out of their jobs. Workers have lost
trillions of dollars through the theft of their jobs, homes, health care
programs, the forced taxpayer bailouts of financial institutions and the
evaporation of their pension funds.
At the same time, there is a wave of repressive attacks being launched
against the nationally oppressed, the LGBT communities and organized as
well as unorganized labor. The cold-blooded murder of Oscar Grant by the
transit police in Oakland symbolized the state's response to the people
in the current period. Another African-American, Adolf Grimes III, died
ater being shot 14 times by the New Orleans police.
The funding and passage of Proposition 8 in California illustrated how
the right-wing will use popular demands for equality as a target to not
only attack the rights of all working families, but to divide workers
who need a united approach to fight the current assault on their living
standards in the United States. After handing over $750 billion of
workers' tax dollars to the bankers last fall, the U.S. Congress has set
strenuous conditions on a loan to the auto industry that are designed to
break the UAW and reverse the gains won over the last several decades.
Consequently, the 2009 MLK Day activities take on added significance.
Despite efforts to distort and conceal the true legacy of Martin Luther
King, Jr. and the African-American social movements of the 1960s, it
must be clearly stated that the significance of these struggles relate
to the historic link between the fight against racism, national
discrimination and oppression, in all its forms, and the class struggle.
National oppression and the class struggle
After World War II, the struggle against Jim Crow racism and lynching
intensified. Even during the war, organizations within the
African-American community fought against discrimination in the war
industries and within the military itself. By the conclusion of the
1940s, African-Americans, particularly those in the labor movement, were
demanding an immediate end to job discrimination, inferior education and
Many of the leading organizations in the early civil rights struggles of
the late 1940 and early 1950s, such as the Civil Rights Congress and the
National Negro Labor Councils were labelled as subversive and subjected
to the wave of anti-communist hysteria that swept the country during
this period. These militant groups had firm ties to the left, includng
the Communist Party, and were destroyed along with many others in the
so-called "McCarthy era."
Nonetheless, a new wave of civil rights activities would emerge after
the Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Topeka in 1954 that delcared
segregated educational systems as unconstitutional. In 1955, the
lynching of 14-year-old Emmitt Till in Mississippi, created the
political conditions for the emergence of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in
Other civil rights leaders emerged from the South such as Rosa Parks and
E.D. Nixon, both of whom had worked in the labor movement through the
Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. It was within this context that Dr.
Martin Luther King, Jr. would emerge as the principal spokesperson for
the civil rights movement.
Between 1957, when the first federal Civil Righs Act was passed since
1875, and 1965, when the Voting Rights Act was won after the struggles
in Selma and other areas in the South demanding universal suffrage, the
movement out of necessity had to shift toward the question of economic
exploition and oppression in both the rural and urban areas of the
However, what is often not acknowledged, King, who is labelled by the
media and bourgois writers as middle-class, in actuality came from a
working class background. As a descendant of slaves, his ancestors
understood clearly the horrors of American life for millions of people
of African descent. Even in subsequent generations, King's parents and
grandparents were subjected to the realities of black life in America.
A working class historian, Michael K. Honey, points out in his book on
Dr. King entitled: "Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin
Luther King's Last Campaign", that: "White journalists may have seen the
well-dressed, highly educated, eloquent 'Dr. King;' as the
quintessential middle-class leader, but he came from a line of people,
including slaves, who struggled fiercely against poverty and Jim Crow.
His grandmother took in washing and ironing for whites but was not
afraid to beat up a white man who had assualted her son, Martin's
father. Martin's grandfather on his maternal side, A.D. Williams, lost
his thumb in a sawmill accident and was no stranger to hard work. He
escaped from plantations and peonage in the countryside by migrating to
Atlanta and turning a minuscule congregation of former slaves at
Ebenezer Baptist Church into one of the city's largest black churches."
(Honey, pp. 23-24).
In June of 1966, King marched alongside leaders of the Student
Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress of Racial
Equality (CORE) in Mississippi when the slogan for Black Power was
raised by SNCC leaders Willie Ricks and Stokely Carmichael. King did
not fully accept the new slogan but stated that if the cry for Black
Power meant "amassing political and economic power to achieve our
goals...a belief in ourselves and our heritage," then he would support
it. (Honey, p. 89.)
Despite King's continued belief in the possibility of social change
through nonviolent direct action, he did not blame the rising militancy
reflected in the urban rebellions as a direct result of the Black Power
movement. In fact he blamed the resistance of the federal government to
full equality for African-Americans as the spark that initiated the
unrest in urban areas.
According to Michael K. Honey, "King did not blame the Black Power
movement for riots, as many whites did; he blamed riots on the wall of
white indifference and 'winters of delay' by the government in the War
on Poverty. [James] Lawson and King both rejected the idea that a
much-publicized 'white backlash' would subside if the Movement only
slowed its pace; they felt the backlash merely expressed a long-standing
white opposition to black equality. Society needed to bring its
prejudices to the surface in order resolve them." (Honey, p. 89).
In Chicago, where King joined the ongoing struggle for open housing and
equal employment during July of 1966, the agitation around these demands
would set off rebellions for several days on the city's west side. The
racist and violent response of white working class and middle class
residents of segregated communities in Chicago that summer illustrated
that resistance to fundamental change was not confined to the South.
By early 1967, King felt that he could no longer remain silent in his
opposition to the United States war against the Vietnamese people. He
saw that the escalating defense budget of the Johnson administration
took vital resources away from the purported War on Poverty. Moreover,
he understood that the struggle for civil rights and economic justice
could not be won when the federal government waged wars of occupation
against people who themselves were struggling for their national
liberation and sovereignty.
Once King made the link between racial injustice, economic inequality
and imperialist war, he became an even greater threat to the ruling
class in the United States. In 1967, more urban rebellions occured
across the country revealing the social inadequacy of the Civil Rights
Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. By late 1967, King and
his cohorts in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC),
which was formed a decade before in the aftermath of the Montgomery Bus
Boycott, had drafted plans for a National Poor People's Campaign that
would occupy Washington, D.C. until action was taken to eradicate
poverty and create a guaranteed annual income in the U.S.
The last campaign waged by Dr. King was his support for the sanitation
workers strike in Memphis during the early months of 1968. Over 1,300
African-American employees of the public works department had walked off
the job in February demanding union recognition under AFSCME. The strike
had been prompted by the deaths of two workers who were crushed in a
garbage truck after they were denied the right to wait inside a city
office during a thunderstorm.
The strike galvanized the entire city of Memphis leading to the
formation of a broad-based strike committee chaired by Rev. James
Lawson, a longtime movement strategist. King came to Memphis in
mid-March and immediately recognized that the strike represented the
emerging phase of the African-American struggle that merged the fight
for economic justice with the efforts to end racism completely. It was
at the height of the efforts to win the strike that King was
assassinated on April 4.
King's martyrdom sparked rebellions in 125 cities throughout the United
States. Even though the Poor People's Campaign did occupy Washington
that summer, it was eventually crushed at the aegis of the Johnson
administration. When the Nixon administration took power in early 1969,
political repression escalated and effectively criminalized the
African-American struggle for political and economic power.
The fightback today
All indications suggest that 2009 will be a significant year in the
struggle to build an effective fightback movement aimed countering the
effects of the deepening economic crisis in the United States. Even
bourgeois economists are predicting that up to ten million jobs may be
loss in the coming twelve months. More workers will lose their homes
through evictions and foreclosures and the police apparatus will
intensify repression aimed at suppressing the mass actions in response
to the worsening crisis.
This is why the conference in New York and other mass actions around the
country take on added significance. The ruling class in the United
States will continue its wars abroad in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia,
Colombia as well as its support for the state of Israel in its genocidal
onslaught against the Palestinian people. It will be up to the most
militant and organized sections of the movement to take up the challenge
to build broader alliances that link the fight against the economic
crisis with the anti-imperialist and anti-war struggle.
At present, amidst the current crisis, the contradictions of capitalism
should be emphasized and the need for a socialist alternative can be
advanced. The fact that the capitalist system provides no real solutions
for reversing the declining quality of life for the workers and the
oppressed, this political crisis within the ideological foundations of
the exploitative system provides an excellent opportunity for the
propagation of bold ideas and political initiatives.
Abayomi Azikiwe is the editor of the Pan-African News Wire and has been
following the growing crisis in world capitalism and its impact on the
political system in the United States.