May 23, 2008
By Eljeer Hawkins, Harlem, New York
“Still America’s collective memory of King captures only a reductive freeze frame, a historical notion of his life and labors.”
Houston A. Baker, Betrayal: How Black Intellectuals Have Abandoned the Ideals of the Civil Rights Era.
The Roots of Dr. King’s Radicalism
The political character and social vision of Dr. King was shaped and transformed by the black freedom movement in the U.S. and the revolutionary process internationally, especially the colonial revolution. Dr. King’s public ministry, social gospel, and Christian democratic socialist vision are rooted in his studies at Morehouse College, Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, and Boston University. Dr. King’s father and grandfather were ministers and teachers of the social gospel and liberation theology. Dr. King was mentored by such figures as Morehouse President Benjamin Mays, the tactics and teachings of non-violence by Mahatma Gandhi, the writings of Walter Rauschenbusch and Reinhold Niebuhr, and the political work of union leader and socialist A. Philip Randolph, who developed the tactics of the protest movement of the ‘30s and ‘40s that defined a generation of the black freedom movement.
In his 13 years of political work, Dr King’s radicalism was largely rooted in the interests, needs, and aspirations of the black working class and the poor. This was reflected in his determination to alleviate the economic, social, and political misery faced by working people and the poor with a programmatic call for a total “redistribution of wealth,” guaranteed annual income, the need to nationalize some industries, and a “revolution of values.”
These are the ideas that big business, the two-party system, the black leadership, and some members of the King family would like us to forget.
The Poor People’s Campaign
“The roots of economic injustice are in the system rather than in men or faulty operations.” -Dr. King
The urban explosions of Watts, New York, and Roxbury in the mid-to-late ‘60s were the culmination of the failure of capitalism and President Johnson’s liberalism to solve the systemic problems faced by the generation of African Americans who migrated to the north in the ‘20s and ‘40s to escape rural poverty, white supremacy, violence, and Jim Crow. Even with the developing industrialized and powerful trade unions in the northern states and cities, blacks experienced segregation and the denial of rights and resources, becoming prisoners of police violence, poor housing, mass unemployment, and an entrenched political system built on racism and white supremacy. The Kerner Commission report would confirm what many in the black freedom movement and black community knew to be true, that urban explosions were not caused by militant instigators, but by the conditions of racism, abject poverty, and systemic federal government neglect.
Dr. King’s travels to Watts and black communities in northern cities helped him realize that their culture, leadership, and urban landscape were very different from the conditions that blacks faced in the south. The African American community in the north would question Dr. King’s tactics of non-violent civil disobedience. Historian and theologian James H. Cone would state in the documentary Citizen King 1963-68: “There was a belief that the gains of the civil rights movement would trickle down to the northern cities; it didn’t work that way.” Dr. King and the movement would invest time to firmly understand the conditions of African American workers and poor people in the north, including Dr. King and his family renting an apartment on the predominantly black West Side of Chicago.
The black power movement was inspired by the revolutionary struggles in Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean. Individuals like Robert F. Williams and Malcolm X and organizations like the Black Panther Party, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the Radical Action Movement posed the question of self-determination, self-defense, and political and economic power, drawing on political philosophies ranging from socialism, revolutionary nationalism, and Maoism to black capitalism. The black power movement challenged Dr. King to reformulate his thinking and brought out his radical side.
The earlier phase and character of the civil rights movement was linked to the Democratic Party and was dominated by reformist politics, turning the spotlight on the brutal realities of white supremacy in the South. The aim of the movement was to embarrass the U.S. government and to enforce legal equality, including voting rights in the South during the Cold War period.
The black power movement posed questions of political independence from the two-party system, internationalism, and reaffirming African Americans’ sense of self-worth. The birth of the Poor People’s Campaign is rooted in a critique of U.S. capitalism including consumerism, imperialism, militarism, racism, and structural poverty. Dr. King spoke of putting people’s needs first before “profit margins and motives” and raised the question of political and economic power. The campaign came out of an intense debate and discussion within the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) about the goals and aims of the campaign against poverty and the resources needed for such a campaign. The Poor People’s Campaign would eventually create a rift in the SCLC. Even King expected violent confrontations with the federal government and its troops in Washington, D.C.
Simultaneously, the black freedom movement would be met with governmental opposition under the auspices of the Counter Intelligence Program (Cointelpro), which sought to prevent the development of a unified radical movement and leadership. Cointelpro, developed under the leadership of FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, was a continuation of the Palmer raids of the early 1900s and the McCarthy witch-hunts of the late ‘40s early ‘50s to neutralize the movements of resistance against U.S. big business at home and abroad.
The Poor People’s Campaign would bring together a multi-ethnic coalition of organizations and individuals from among Puerto Ricans, Mexican Americans, indigenous, blacks, whites, labor, churches, workers, and the poor. The involvement of single mothers, welfare-dependent households, and their organizations like the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO) would challenge the patriarchic ideals of the movement and educate Dr. King on the issues facing women and welfare families. Dr. King and the movement tried to find a way to end the twin evils of poverty and racism, making necessary a radical reinterpretation of the non-violent civil disobedience and direct action tactics used in the South.
The tactics of protests, boycotts, and sit-ins at corporate headquarters, used by the SCLC organizational arm Operation Breadbasket headed by the then-radical Jessie Jackson in Chicago, represented the beginnings of a radical response to poverty. It culminated in a new march on Washington, a permanent encampment demanding a total reconstruction of the economic foundations of the United States. This radicalization was reflected in Dr. King’s final SCLC speech entitled Where do we go from here?:
“And I say to you today that if our nation can spend thirty-five billion dollars a year to fight an unjust, evil war in Vietnam and twenty billion to put a man on the moon, it can spend billions of dollars to put God’s children on their own two feet right here on earth…And one day, we must ask the question, “Why are there forty million poor people in America? And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy.”
King and the Vietnam War
“Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my heart, as I have called for radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam…”
Dr. King, Beyond Vietnam speech at Riverside church, April 4, 1967.
Dr. King’s powerful indictment of U.S. imperialism in Vietnam would mark a watershed moment in his public ministry and the civil rights and antiwar movements. In fact, Malcolm X was one of the most high-profile black leaders to oppose French colonialism and U.S. military intervention in Vietnam. But Dr. King’s antiwar statement and activism, as a Nobel Peace Prize-winner and leader of a mass movement, was a monumental event.
For two years, Dr. King vacillated on the question of making public statements on the war. During early discussions with the Johnson Administration, particularly with the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Arthur Goldberg, Dr. King sought to bring about a peaceful resolution to the war with UN-sponsored peace talks that included a ceasefire with the National Liberation Front in Vietnam. He received nothing but scorn from the media, while the civil rights and Democratic Party leadership questioned King’s “meddling” in international affairs. As Rev. Bernard LaFayette, Jr., who was appointed director of the Poor People’s Campaign, would explain: “There were some black preachers telling him he was out of his element.” The civil rights leadership and advisers like Roy Wilkins and Bayard Rustin feared that this would harm his “relationship” with President Johnson and voting rights legislation. For a while - and as Johnson continued the build-up of the war - King remained publicly silent.
The war would remain a deep concern for King as the U.S. involvement in Vietnam intensified. Activists within the black freedom movement like Rev. James Lawson, SCLC militants and members like James Bevel, and strong antiwar statements from SNCC and Stokely Carmichael pressed King to make a statement. The time spent in northern cities among the radicalized sections of workers and young people and their antiwar mood had a profound effect on Dr. King.
It was events, the diversion of half a billion dollars from community action programs to war spending in Vietnam, as well as the increasing death toll of U.S. soldiers, particularly black soldiers who were disproportionately placed in combat units, that caused Dr. King to do something. From January through November 1966, almost a quarter of army casualties were black.
As a staunch advocate of pacifism and practitioner of non-violence, the images of the destruction of Vietnam would be profound for King. As he would state: “We have destroyed their two most cherished institutions: the family and the village. We have destroyed their land and their crops.”
King’s silence on the war would be no more. The themes of the speech cowritten by historian and Rev. Vincent Harding would draw on the interconnection of the national and international struggle for freedom and economic justice. Dr. King’s use of the terminology of imperialism, colonialism, racism, nuclear war, militarism, and poverty, casting U.S. big business and government as the “greatest purveyor of violence” supporting some of the most brutal dictatorships in the world, showed he had started to analyze the foundations of global capitalism and its violent expression, war.
Dr. King’s anti-Vietnam war stance shows his total commitment to come to grips with the great questions of the day, and a changing political situation. His courage to speak truth to power despite the slings and arrows unleashed by the media, big business, and the civil rights and Democratic Party leadership on his criticism of the war allowed Dr. King’s radical instincts to come to the fore.
More importantly, his antiwar activism, organizing, leading of marches, and speaking became a conduit for the marriage of the civil rights and antiwar movements. King’s loss of support from liberals, traditional civil rights leaders, church leadership, the SCLC, and the Democratic Party because of his radicalization was immediate. Roger Wilkins, a U.S. Justice Department official, pointed out that “Johnson was outraged … He turned sour toward King and the movement. He felt that Martin had rejected him.” The SCLC executive board voted against backing Dr. King’s public statement against the war.
The movement would develop new radical allies, deepening the radical tone of leadership and articulating the deep crisis facing American capitalism and democracy and the need for a new vision for society.
Speaking in 1966, Dr. King stated: “We are dealing with class issues. Something is wrong with capitalism…Maybe America must move towards democratic socialism.” His socialism was not rooted in a serious class, Marxist analysis of capitalism but was inspired by the example of Jesus Christ and an egalitarian interpretation of the Christian faith. Dr. King’s Christian socialism was never articulated at public events or in the pulpit, only at SCLC and private meetings. He was unwavering in his belief of a more humane and spiritual vision of the world. This was reflected in his Beyond Vietnam speech at Riverside church on April 4, 1967:
“A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day, we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed… A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth… A true revolution of values will lay hand on the world order and say of war, “This way of settling differences is not just.” This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
Dr. King and the Memphis Strike
“Whenever men and women straighten their backs up, they’re going somewhere. Because a man can’t ride your back unless it is bent.” (Michael K. Honey, Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign, pp. 422-423)
The Memphis sanitation workers’ strike of 1968 epitomized the struggle for economic justice. Ending the poverty wages earned by working people punctuated Dr. King’s question, “what’s good with integrating a lunch counter if a man doesn’t make enough money to buy a hamburger?” The Memphis strike showcased the industrial unionism of the southern working class and the power, violence, and resistance of white supremacy. The strike challenged the culture of oppression and inferiority that the black sanitation workers and the black working class and poor endured daily from slavery to Jim Crow. Dr. King’s participation in the campaign is not an accident; it is rooted in the political, economic, and social aims of the black freedom movement.
Dr. King politically and organizationally understood the link between the labor and civil rights movements. The “captains of industry” and big business opposed both labor and civil rights, holding down wages and violently attacking strikes for union representation and better working conditions. The U.S. capitalist class and their political representatives have always used racism and sexism to divide the working class and deny human rights, economic justice, and social uplift to the black masses, immigrants, and women.
To help organize the unorganized, King spoke at countless union halls across the country, including on the platform of 1199 Healthcare Workers Union during their organizing drives, and at the AFL-CIO Convention in 1961. He greatly admired A. Philip Randolph, President of the Sleeping Car Porters Union and Chair of the Negro American Labor Council, which would conduct important political battles within the AFL-CIO and the labor movement on racism, job discrimination, and unionization. So when Reverend James Lawson called for assistance in a bitter and brutal struggle for unionization, economic justice, and human dignity, the black freedom movement and Dr. King would answer the call.
The Memphis, Tennessee city and state governments had a long history of denying labor and civil rights. After Roosevelt’s New Deal, World War II, and the enactment of the anti-working-class Taft-Hartley Act, the situation deteriorated with the anti-communist fervor, opposition to unions, and maintenance of Jim Crow. Big business and their politicians would crush union organizing. That failure would be coupled with the AFL-CIO’s conservative bureaucratic leadership ending organizing drives, denying vital resources, and succumbing to the racism of southern apartheid.
To be a sanitation worker was a miserable job to have in Memphis. 40% of sanitation workers lived below the poverty line. On a stormy night attempting to find shelter, in the back of their garbage truck Robert Walker and Echol Cole would be crushed to death due to poor and outdated equipment. The workers, community, and AFSCME (the union representing the sanitation workers in Memphis under the leadership of Jerry Wurf) found themselves in a brutal and violent struggle with the city administration under racist Mayor Henry Loeb. The city divided along class and racial lines. The role of the black churches would be crucial to Local 1733 and the 1,300 black sanitation workers, providing a home for the workers to organize, strategize, and gather. The local religious leadership would develop COME (Community On the Move for Equality) and the black power self-defense organization The Invaders would pose important questions to the movement over strategy and tactics. King and the SCLC were central to the Poor People’s Campaign’s efforts to bring the national and international press to Memphis and King’s campaign against poverty: “You are reminding not only Memphis but you are reminding the nation that it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages…” (All Labor Has Dignity speech, March 18, 1968)
Dr. King’s All Labor Has Dignity speech was a shot across the bow of the Memphis business establishment, and he posed the question of a general strike: “I tell you what you ought to do, and you are together here enough to do it: In a few days, you ought to get together and just have a general work stoppage in the city of Memphis… And you let that day come, and not a Negro in this city will go to any job downtown. When no Negro in domestic service will go to anybody’s house and anybody’s kitchen. When black students will not go to anybody’s school, and black teachers…” (Michael K. Honey, Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign, p. 303)
The labor movement has used this militant call to stop business as usual and challenge the ruling elite about which class controls society. The 1919 Seattle general strike, inspired by the Russian Revolution, was led by socialist and militant trade unionists and placed the working class in virtual control of the city for five days, democratically administering resources and services. The historic Minneapolis Truckers strike of 1934, which shut down the city and made Minneapolis a union town, was led by Socialist Workers Party members and paved the way for the building of the Teamsters as a powerful union. The longshoremen’s union (ILWU) has called for a “No Peace No Work” strike shutting down ports along the West Coast on May 1 in protest against the war in Iraq, which provides a great example about the kind of policies needed for workers to stop U.S. imperialist wars.
Dr. King’s speeches and his arrival in Memphis demonstrated his commitment to the campaign. While continuing to organize for the new radical March on Washington, there was no turning back for the freedom movement. The slogan “I am A Man” defined the struggle and the fighting spirit for justice, equality, and freedom, which inevitably led to a struggle against the very foundations of the political, economic, and social institutions of white supremacy.
The first mass march led by King would end in violence when police provocateurs, members of The Invaders, and youth began shattering windows and destroying property. Having always stated he would never lead a violent march, King left the march. The press and racist establishment politicians like Democratic Party Senator Robert Byrd from West Virginia would ridicule Dr. King for causing trouble and running away like a “scared rabbit.”
In essence, they sought to discredit King’s radical stance on the war, poverty, and racism. On April 3, 1968, Dr. King returned to Memphis for another march, fighting an injunction by the city administration and big business. That evening, he delivered his final address, I’ve Been to the Mountaintop, a speech given before; this version was filled with an eerie mood. The daily death threats and his political trajectory signed his death warrant. On April 4 at 6:01 pm on the balcony of the Loraine Motel, the life and mission of a minister, thinker, activist, organizer, and revolutionary was gone with one single shot.
The strike would open an important period of industrial struggle for unionization of the Memphis working class. It marked the final phase of the civil rights movement and the beginning of the ascendancy of the black power movement.
The Struggle for Freedom Today
The working class, the poor, and people of color are facing a deep crisis at present. As of January 1, 2008, more than one out of every 100 adults is in prison, with half being people of color. We have 2.3 million prisoners, the highest number in the world. Researcher Dr. Gopal K. Singh of the Department of Health and Human Services has found “…widening socioeconomic inequalities in life expectancy at birth and at every age level.” The affluent and rich are living longer than the working class and poor - who are succumbing to heart disease, cancer, and stress.
This past year witnessed a staggering number of jobs lost, while food and gas prices increased across the country. Over the past eight years, three million manufacturing jobs have disappeared. Globally, food shortages have led to riots and mass demonstrations by workers, peasants, and the poor against the horrors of capitalism’s globalization agenda in several countries. As the U.S. economy continues its downward spiral, the Federal Reserve saw it appropriate to bail out financial giant Bear Stearns, while millions of the working and middle classes scrambled to find a way out of the cycle of debt and home foreclosures. The three trillion dollar wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have drained resources and human lives like some “demonic destructive suction tube.”( Dr. King, Beyond Vietnam speech at Riverside church, April 4, 1967)
The survivors of Hurricane Katrina are now facing a new tsunami. The re-collection of grant money, given by the federal government to survivors to rebuild their homes, is being sought by big business due to so-called overpayments. Government reports show that half of New Orleans’s poor are permanently displaced: “…Areas that are fully recovering are more affluent and predominately white. New Orleans, which was 67 percent black before Katrina, is estimated to be no higher than 58 percent black now.” (Human rights lawyer Bill Quigley, “Half of New Orleans’s Poor Permanently Displaced: Failure or Success?,” March 6, 2008)
The crisis of leadership is quite pronounced today. The legacy and leadership of Dr. King is the exception and not the rule. Today, we need a new, radical, mass movement of the working class and poor to challenge capitalism and big business. This movement must be multi-ethnic, gender-balanced, democratic, accountable, and politicized, learning the lessons of the black freedom movement. A movement organized in our workplaces, communities, and schools around demands for national healthcare, jobs for all at a living wage, against racism and poverty, for environmental justice for the planet, and to end militarism and imperialist wars.
As we have seen, big business and its two parties will continue to try to take back what they were forced to give up due to militant social struggle by workers and youth. The life and labors of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. will continue to provide an example for this generation of workers, poor, youth, and people of color to defeat racism, poverty, and war and end the misery of global capitalism with the vision of building a democratic socialist world.
Program Against Racism and Poverty
* Free national healthcare and childcare systems.
* Abolish tuition fees; create free high-quality public education for all, from pre-school through college.
* Full employment with a living wage.
* No housing foreclosures.
* End the war – Cut military spending. Use the money to rebuild the inner cities and the infrastructure under union conditions and wages. Build schools, hospitals, and affordable, decent housing.
* Shut down all military recruitment centers on our campuses and communities; build training, employment, education, and cultural centers.
* Defend immigrant rights; papers for all.
* End police brutality and harassment through labor-community committees to control all aspects of public safety.
* Abolish the death penalty.
* Break with the two parties of big business. For independent anti-war, anti-corporate candidates to challenge the two parties of big business and prepare the way for a mass workers’ party.