Week In Review
A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
January 19, 2009
What We Celebrate On This Holiday
Today is the observance of the Martin Luther King holiday in the USA. It is receiving much more attention than usual because it is followed tomorrow by the inauguration of the country’s first Black President. Many, including the new President, have correctly noted this would not have been possible without King’s earlier contributions.
I am old enough to remember as a youngster seeing Blacks eating standing up at a cramped “colored” lunch counter at the downtown Woolworth’s. When I passed my seventh-grade test on the Missouri state constitution that document not only mandated segregated schools but all public facilities, interpreted to include hospitals, swimming pools, and even golf courses.
I watched the White Flight that contributed to the curse of urban sprawl. Nobody paid attention to a little kid listening to the pitch of a “block buster” realtor to my grandparents. “The colored are moving this way,” he warned. He cautioned that while he could get them a good price now from some “good colored” in a year’s time property values would plunge. Grandpa sold the house.
And I can recall the unpleasant truth that racism was well established in the unions as well. Many craft unions had clauses in their constitutions banning nonwhites (sometimes women too.) The forerunner of today’s ATA, the General Motors controlled Public Service Company, only accepted white male bus drivers and mechanics. Even in the CIO unions there were tensions. When my dad was a union steward at the Armour packinghouse he sometimes got in to fist fights with racists calling him a “n****r-lover.”
These recollections are rooted in Kansas City–not the Deep South where conditions were even worse. When you don’t have the right to vote you probably don’t expect to some day be elected President. But many started looking for ways to assert their human dignity.
The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr was the more prominent of two outstanding African-American leaders–each assassinated in his prime–who in the 1950-60s helped strike hopefully mortal, if still not yet fatal, blows against the curse of racism in American society.
Dr King, an admirer of Ghandi’s pacifism, had differences with Malcolm X over strategy and tactics. Many young people in the movement at the time became impatient with the tempo King projected. But all recognized his selfless dedication to the interests of the victims of the system’s injustice and his firm belief that only mass struggle could gain justice. Neither threats nor attempts by the Establishment to coopt him ever moved him to back down on these principles.
Dr King first gained national attention during the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955-56. The main strategist of that landmark action was E.D. Nixon, an activist in the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters union who also had contacts with Black unionists around the country. Nixon worked up an outline of a boycott campaign. But he felt it was important to involve better known and “respectable” leaders as public spokespersons.
Several prominent clergymen were approached but turned them down. Dr King, after some initial hesitation, agreed to take charge of the campaign. King proved to be a capable organizer, an effective spokesman, and showed great personal courage. During the boycott he was arrested and his house was fire-bombed. The ultimate victory in Montgomery proved to be the launching pad for the mass civil rights movement.
Within a decade, that movement, utilizing sit-ins, boycotts, and mass marches, largely demolished de jure segregation in public institutions and the poll tax and testing barriers to voting. While these victories were, and sometimes still are, subjected to frequent challenges and intimidation Jim Crow is gone for good.
The struggle around voting rights, and against racist dominated major party organizations, led to some attempts to organize new independent Black party formations, north and south. The Freedom Now Party in Michigan briefly showed some promise. An Alabama voter registration drive led by Stokely Carmichael (who later adopted the name Kwame Toure) of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) quickly led to the formation of a local party, the Lowndes County Freedom Organization. That group adopted a Black Panther as their logo. Two California lads, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, soon requested and were granted the right to use the symbol for a new party they were forming.
The Establishment came down hard on these formations–including the murder of key leaders of the Black Panther Party. But they also recognized the need to adjust with the new times. Enter the BEOs–Black elected officials. White flight paved the way for Black mayors that serve, or served in the past, in such major cities as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland. Even in Kansas City, an African-American clergyman, who had flirted with the Black Panthers in his youth, served a term limit as Mayor and is now my congressman.
The power structure did no great favors in placing Blacks in the position of responsibility for the collapse of the urban cores. Regardless of their intentions, there has been little these office holders could do to counter the social crises, and lack of funds, ravaging nearly every city.
The Black Caucus in the House of Representatives has forty some members--and almost always toes the Democrat Party line. My representative has not only voted for all the war spending but also the bankruptcy “reform” bill that has caused so much misery during the economic crisis–Blacks most of all.
Now there is a BEO in the very top spot–advanced through machine politics in Chicago, surrounding himself with Clinton Democrats and even a few Republicans. Tomorrow’s swearing in will not be blessed by an activist Black minister–such as the new President’s former pastor, renounced early on in the campaign–but by a homophobic megachurch evangelist. The celebrity performers, and the numerous balls tomorrow, will not be paid for by passing around the collection buckets–the new President’s supporters on Wall Street are picking up the tab.
While Dr King’s movement was indispensable to putting a Black man in the center of the world’s attention there is no indication that this was the most important outcome he sought. After the initial achievements of the civil rights movement King could have declared mission accomplished and enjoyed the rewards of a respectable Nobel laureate awaiting the coming of the BEOs. Instead, the final days of his life were spent on two bold new projects–facilitating a link between the civil rights and antiwar movements and the Poor People’s Campaign.
Both were a challenge to the Democrats who then controlled the White House and both houses of congress. Many cocktail party liberals were offended and snapped their checkbooks shut. Even some Black former allies, such as Bayard Rustin, broke with King over this new direction. But he was not swayed from what he saw as the necessary “second phase” of the liberation movement. In his 1967 book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, he wrote,
“The discount education given Negroes will in the future have to be purchased at full price if quality education is to be realized. Jobs are harder and costlier to create than voting rolls. The eradication of slums housing millions is complex far beyond integrating buses and lunch counters.”
The Poor People’s Campaign expanded beyond the African-American base of the civil rights movement, reaching out to Chicanos and poor whites as well. When asked why he wanted to help whites from places like Appalachia, King answered: “Are they poor?” The campaign combined actions to improve local wages and conditions with demands that congress enact a Bill of Rights For Poor People.
One area of focus was sanitation workers. Their average wage at that time was 1.70 per hour. When AFSCME sanitation workers went on strike in Memphis, and encountered strike-breaking injunctions enforced through police brutality, King interrupted a national speaking tour to join them. He didn’t counsel them to postpone their fight until they could elect more friends to enact better legislation. He supported continuing strikes and mass demonstrations, building solidarity until they got a just settlement. That’s when an assassin’s bullet cut him down.
The goals of King and Malcolm, and the countless others who marched, some also dying, have only been partially achieved. By many measures the conditions of African-Americans, and poor people of all colors, are as bad as when King was shot–and getting worse.
As I watch the media-driven euphoria in DC I recall these words of MLK,
“Success, recognition, and conformity are the bywords of the modern world where everyone seems to crave the anesthetizing security of being identified with the majority.”
King earned his share of success and recognition but he never conformed to a system that is built on injustice. He deserves a better fate than being reinvented as an “anesthetizing” icon.
If we follow the legacy King left behind in Memphis the present hoopla in the streets of Washington will be replaced with marchers demanding an end to injustice and poverty. Long live our King!
That’s all for this week.
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