Category Archives: Martin Luther King

Fifty Years after Selma: The Rebirth of the Radical Martin Luther King


This year, on Martin Luther King day, young activists challenged the political establishment’s sanitization and beatification of the Civil Rights leader so that they could recover the radical side of his heritage, using the hashtag #ReclaimMLK to coordinate protests across America.

Fifty years after the struggle King led, the black upper middle class has been integrated into the corporate world and the political establishment. But deindustrialization has created endemic poverty in many African American and Latino communities, and has led to the demonization and racial identification of minority youth with poverty and criminality. Civil Rights legislation has not prevented Black and Latino youth from facing police violence as a fact of everyday life.

At the same time, continuous reduction in the taxes paid by the wealthy has left state bureaucracies largely unfunded. Besides other social ills, racial profiling conceals an economic imperative to raise funds from fines generated by zealous policing of minor infractions – large numbers of citations represent a way to impose extra taxes on the poor while avoiding political fallout.

The new young leadership of the protests against police violence has undergone a rapid political development, coming into conflict with older activists who focus on organizing peaceful marches rather than the more confrontational civil disobedience actions favored by the youth. These new leaders have turned to King’s more radical speeches as justification for their tactics and to deconstruct the ideological narrative of a “post-racial” America.

The group Ferguson Action said in a statement: “We resist efforts to reduce a long history marred with the blood of countless members of our community into iconic images of men in suits behind pulpits.” Dante Berry, director of the New York-based Million Hoodies Movement, told the Washington Post: “MLK was a radical, very strategic and uncompromising in his strive for justice. It’s reclaiming our own history in a way that is truthful.”

The New York Times reported on Martin Luther King day protests in Atlanta, St. Louis, New York City, Philadelphia and Boston: “The [Atlanta] protesters argued that the holiday had become corrupted by corporate involvement, diluting Dr. King’s ideas about economics as well as race. With signs, slogans and shouts, they inserted themselves into the annual parade as it made its way down Peachtree Street, Atlanta’s downtown thoroughfare. … ‘We’re going to reclaim M.L.K.’s holiday!’ Aurielle Marie, 20, an activist and author, yelled at the Atlanta protest. … Similar events unfolded in St. Louis, where several thousand people marched from the city’s Old Courthouse, where enslaved blacks were once sold as property, to Harris-Stowe State University, where the marchers joined a packed auditorium for an interfaith service.”

About two dozen protesters disrupted the St. Louis service, taking the stage and seizing the microphone, chanting “No justice, no peace.” Harris-Stowe student Tory Russell told St. Louis Today: “This program is more of the same,” and accused the university of representing “the politics of respectability.”

The protesters identify with the radical nature of Martin Luther King’s struggle, firstly because he recognized that desegregation in itself would not settle the question of social and economic equality for African Americans; and secondly because he saw behind the imposition of Jim Crow segregation the workings of an imperialist state he called “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” King’s genius lay not only in his profound understanding of the political moment, but also in his articulation of the way institutional racism was connected to poverty, corporate exploitation, and imperialist war.

Even though there are many more nonwhite police officers than in King’s time, the structural role of police in suppressing the poor has not changed. While the most publicized shootings of young unarmed black men generally involve white officers, the racial dynamic is more complex. After a major corruption scandal and subsequent reform of the Los Angeles police department in the 1990s, it is today majority nonwhite. But the victims of police killings still tend to be overwhelmingly black or brown. Connie Rice, an attorney who heads a national criminal justice reform organization and was a leader in the LAPD reform, said she found that police officers are more apt to shoot in poor and violent areas. “The biggest common denominator [in police shootings] is [neighborhood] income and class,” she said. “It is compounded by race.”

Matt Taibbi comments that the recent police slowdown in New York that led to a 94 percent drop in arrests for minor offenses unwittingly revealed the economic underside of the de Blasio administration’s “broken windows” policing. “First, it shines a light on the use of police officers to make up for tax shortfalls using ticket and citation revenue. Then there’s the related (and significantly more important) issue of forcing police to make thousands of arrests and issue hundreds of thousands of summonses when they don’t ‘have to.’… Both policies make people pissed off at police for the most basic and understandable of reasons: if you’re running into one, there’s a pretty good chance you’re going to end up opening your wallet. Your average summons for a [quality of life] offense costs more than an ordinary working person makes in a day driving a bus, waiting tables, or sweeping floors.”

Politico reports: “‘The primary premise [of broken windows], whether spoken or unspoken, is about policing the poor,’ said Delores Jones-Brown, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. ‘The people who live in a neighborhood with a broken window and can’t afford to fix that window.’ In other words, if the NYPD is policing crimes that might have more to do with circumstance than malintent – selling weed because it’s a way to make money in an unfair economy, squeegeeing windows to afford a meal – then the agency is essentially criminalizing the behavior of New York’s most marginalized and disadvantaged communities.”

The visibility of the militarized police after Ferguson has created a crisis of legitimacy for the police and state forces. Frank Serpico, who was almost killed for exposing police corruption in the 1970s, commented: “citizens across the country are losing faith in our justice system, with brazen acts of police brutality frequently captured on cellphone videos; the militarization of police forces through the acquisition of war-machine surplus; continuing racial tensions coupled with a lack of initiative for community policing; and the sentencing of minor offenders to long terms in for-profit prisons, where they essentially become indentured servants.”

The reforms proposed by liberals after Ferguson are unlikely to change this situation. It’s structurally created by unemployment and the legacy of past discrimination. Institutionalized racism, as Martin Luther King perceived, is bound up with the economic and social oppression of the working class and poor in America. Even though there is now an African American president and attorney-general, police who kill unarmed black youth are still not prosecuted.

The continuing struggle against police violence and for a higher minimum wage is King’s true legacy, and the new, younger, leadership of Black Lives Matter is rapidly developing a political perspective that conflicts with that of the old guard of civil rights leaders. Obama cannot coopt the rhetoric of this new leadership in the way he did the Occupy critique of the plutocracy because the criminalization of poor African Americans and Latinos is at the heart of U.S. domestic rule. Whether the state adopts suppression or liberalization, the protests are not going to stop until minority youth stop getting shot.

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Filed under African Americans, aggressive policing, broken windows, De Blasio, Ferguson protests, Martin Luther King, Mike Brown, New York City protests, Obama, police violence, poverty

Power to the People or Power to Our Masters? King’s Legacy and Obama’s Presidency


We seem to be living in a bizarro alternate universe where Republican politicians are against another imperial military adventure in the Middle East and Nancy Pelosi is all for it. Donald Rumsfeld – who ten years ago wanted to invade the whole of the region, one country after another – now vocally opposes a strike on Syria.

Obama will seek approval from Congress after losing British support and coming under pressure from the Senate and the House, but his success is by no means certain. Like Cameron’s failure to get backing from British MPs, this signals the undermining of executive power as a consequence of its over-reach over the last ten years. Juan Cole points out that the legacy of the false justification for the Iraq war hung over the British parliament; in Washington, the legacy includes an ongoing military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan and the further revelations of NSA spying.

Obama is prepared to use executive power to launch wars on the other side of the world, but he shows no sign of using it to further the fight against social inequality in the US. This dissonance made Wednesday’s commemoration of the March on Washington an embarrassing travesty: while Martin Luther King preached nonviolence to achieve social change, the president who was elected on the back of the achievements of the civil rights movement channeled the outlook of the military-cyber-industrial complex.

Dana Milbank noted the corporate atmosphere of the event: “The original march was a challenge to the established order. The sequel was a rally of the powerful, including three presidents. There were special entrances for ‘ticketed guests.’ There was a $132-per-person ‘I Have a Dream’ brunch at the Willard Hotel (with ‘commemorative Martin Luther King keepsake’).”

Obama berated the desire for government support as “denying agency in our own liberation,” but told ordinary citizens that just by being good citizens (or businessmen paying a fair wage) they were changing the world for the better. He praised the original marchers in terms of dutiful citizenship but minimized the legacy of civil disobedience. “Everyone who realizes what those glorious patriots knew on that day, that change does not come from Washington but to Washington, that change has always been built on our willingness, we, the people, to take on the mantle of citizenship – you are marching,” he declaimed.

In contrast to King, who sought to inspire his supporters to empower themselves through political struggle, Obama recast protest as obeying the law rather than questioning the basis of its fairness. By divorcing social issues from government he urged citizens to leave politics to the political elite – a “trust us” message that buttresses the role of centralized executive power and furthers the agenda for a security state.

The genius of Martin Luther King lay in his ability to connect all the strands of the movement for social justice and simultaneously inspire and give it direction. He had realized how the struggle for civil rights could be translated into a mass political movement that put pressure on the Kennedy administration. The confrontations he led in Alabama were aimed at impacting the political consciousness of the nation.

The 1963 March on Washington is remembered today as a march over civil rights, but it was originally planned by union activists to protest growing unemployment and discrimination against African-Americans in northern cities. It was only after Bull Connor used attack dogs and high-pressure hoses against children in Birmingham that civil rights got national attention and rose to the top of the agenda.

According to historian Taylor Branch,  “[King] took a stupefying risk in Birmingham to allow not only high school students, but elementary school students, to take the place of a dwindling number of adult volunteers who were discouraged. And instead of 10 or 15, which is what the daily quota had finally dwindled down to be, they had over a thousand students march, downtown Birmingham, and were met with dogs and fire hoses on May 2nd and May 3rd. It was a stupefying gamble in his career … before that breakthrough, the sides were in gridlock over segregation in America. … After Birmingham, everybody was raising questions.”

King’s leading role in transforming the political discourse is made clear in a phone call that was recorded by the FBI, cited in a New York Times book review. “ ‘We are on the threshold of a significant breakthrough, and the greatest weapon is the mass demonstration,’ King told his close friend Levison… Because of Birmingham, King went on, ‘we are at the point where we can mobilize all of this righteous indignation into a powerful mass movement,’ and even the mere threat of a march on Washington might so ‘frighten’ President Kennedy that he would send a meaningful civil rights bill to Congress.”

King’s articulation of his dream – that all men are created equal – was a triumph of imagination, an ideal that succeeded in strengthening and encouraging civil rights campaigners who daily confronted jail or death, making it a moral imperative by couching it in the language of the Declaration of Independence and of the Gospels. This language spanned the racial divide to inspire whites as well as blacks and isolate segregationists.

His speech was addressed directly to those who had come “fresh from narrow jail cells,” the “veterans of creative suffering.” He told them to “continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our Northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.”

The substance of King’s rhetoric, and what still resonates today, is the ideal of justice that mobilized the tremendous sacrifices involved in carrying out this campaign of civil disobedience in the most difficult conditions in 1963. The substance of Obama’s rhetoric, on the other hand, is support for the status quo. He seeks to undermine popular sovereignty by telling citizens to go about their business without protesting the authority of the executive to authorize NSA surveillance, the jailing of whistleblowers, and force-feeding foreign nationals imprisoned in Guantanamo.

King’s dream persists not because of the grandiose ceremonies last week, but because of the struggles of ordinary workers throughout the country for a living wage, and the struggle of Chicago teachers to defend the right to education. It lives in the actions of whistleblowers like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, and the growing popular resistance to the security state and military intervention in Syria. The ideal of justice is alive in the people, and that is why freedom will ring.

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Filed under African Americans, Bradley Manning, chicago teachers, Edward Snowden, Homeland Security, Martin Luther King, National Security Agency, Obama, political analysis