Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
January 21, 2008

Honoring the Man and the Movements–Not the Icon
Today is an official holiday in the USA, observing the birthday of Dr Martin Luther King Jr. Banks, schools, government offices, and some union shops are closed. Shopping malls schedule holiday sales events. In three states Robert E Lee–the commander of Confederate forces in America’s Civil War-- shares recognition with King on this day.

An AP story by Deepti Hajela today interviews historians opening,

“Nearly 40 years after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., some say his legacy is being frozen in a moment in time that ignores the full complexity of the man and his message.” That moment, of course, was the “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered at the Lincoln Memorial to hundreds of thousands of participants in the 1963 March On Washington.

The Establishment doesn’t necessarily disapprove of dreams and they had hopes that King could be coopted. Time magazine made him a Man of the Year. He was awarded a Nobel Prize. White liberals reached for their checkbooks.

The AP story goes on with comments from Melissa Harris-Lacewell, professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University,

She believes it's important for Americans in 2008 to remember how disliked King was before his death in April 1968.

"If we forget that, then it seems like the only people we can get behind must be popular, Harris-Lacewell said. "Following King meant following the unpopular road, not the popular one.

By freezing him at that point, by putting him on a pedestal of perfection that doesn't acknowledge his complex views, "it makes it impossible both for us to find new leaders and for us to aspire to leadership, Harris-Lacewell said.

Part of King’s complex views were shaped in seminary by exposure to the remarkable AJ Muste. Muste was a preacher and a pacifist who became deeply involved in the labor and socialist movements in the 1920-30s before returning to theology. He later played an indispensable role in uniting diverse forces to build a mass movement against the Vietnam war. His pacifism–and later King’s–was not of a passive, turn the other cheek variety. They both saw a distinction between violence of the oppressor and oppressed and believed mass action for justice had to be a component of nonviolence.

Eleven years ago, I wrote the following brief piece, entitled “What Really Happened In Montgomery,” for a rank-and-file newsletter circulated among ATU transit workers at the Kansas City ATA.

The Montgomery Bus Boycott, launched in December, 1955, is generally credited as the birth of the modern-day Civil Rights Movement. We’ve all heard the story on television by now. One day Rosa Parks, tired from work, took a seat in the front of the bus reserved for whites. When she refused to move she was arrested. The young Dr Martin Luther King immediately responded and organized the successful boycott that ended segregation in public transit.

But this simple story is a bit too simple. Rosa Parks didn’t just happen along and spontaneously decide to challenge the rules. She was Secretary of the local branch of the NAACP. But, like a number of other members, she was dissatisfied by that organization’s go-slow-and-work-through-the-courts approach. She was part of an informal group of mainly Black trade unionists who were looking for faster and more effective tactics. Their union experience had taught them organizing skills, and familiarized them with activities such as picketing and boycotts.

Their main strategist was E.D. Nixon, an activist in the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters union who also had contacts with Black unionists around the country. These connections later proved valuable in not only spreading the word about the boycott throughout the nation, but also in raising money to send a fleet of station-wagons to Montgomery to provide some needed transportation.

The transit system was a focus of Black resentment in Montgomery—as was the case in a number of other cities, including Kansas City. Segregated seating was only one of their grievances. Montgomery’s bus drivers were 100 percent white male and there were numerous complaints of rude treatment of Black passengers.

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 that launched him into national prominence.

Dr 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. But it in no way detracts from the appreciation of Dr King’s accomplishments to also acknowledge the indispensable contributions of “ordinary” working people such as E.D. Nixon.

Once King took that initial step down from the respected pulpit in to the streets with workers fighting for justice he never looked back. He, of course, understood the importance of civil rights and, in this area, solid victories were won. Jim Crow segregation was demolished in the South and dented in the North. The right to vote was finally secured and African-Americans were elected to office. New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Kansas City, and many other cities have or had Black mayors. And, of course, a Black senator is considered a serious contender for a major party presidential nomination.

But King was not content with nominal equality under law. His dream was far broader and, to the consternation of the Establishment, he fought to make these hopes reality in the here and now. This at times put him on a collision course with liberals who had embraced civil rights–such as LBJ, who Senator Clinton recently tried to credit as the great liberator of African-Americans.

King responded to his old mentor Muste’s appeal and took a strong stand against Johnson and Humphrey’s Vietnam war. He led marches not only in the South but for fair housing in the suburbs of Chicago as well. He worked to build coalitions of the willing with sections of the labor movement prepared to fight for economic justice.

Throughout his life King was the target of physical attacks. He was also subjected to not only spying but campaigns of slander and disruption by the FBI. In April, 1968, while responding to a call for help from striking AFSCME sanitation workers in Memphis, King was murdered.

King’s assassination came three years after the gunning down of another outstanding Black leader of the Sixties–Malcolm X. Such leaders combining vision, courage, communication and organizational skills, are not easily replaced. Struggles for social and economic justice have suffered as a consequence.

Black workers have suffered the most. By many measures, despite the advances in civil rights, the living standards, schools, and public services in African-American communities are worse today than when the movement took off back in Montgomery.

There may never be another Martin Luther King. But I believe there are some E.D. Nixons and Rosa Parks out there who will find a way to move forward once more. Understanding and reclaiming the genuine heritage of Martin Luther King can be an important step in reviving the struggles for justice among Black workers–and all working people.

The Long and the Short Of the Amtrak Deal
I retired from a job with a quasi-public transit agency where it is not uncommon to work two to three years beyond contract expiration. Union workers at Amtrak, also a hybrid entity largely subsidized by federal funding, had been working eight years since their last contract expired. This past week unions representing 10,000 of 16,000 unionized employees of what’s left of a national passenger rail system reached a tentative agreement.

Senator Ted Kennedy hailed the deal, based on a presidential board recommendation, as a “landmark in labor-management relations,” and predicted it would give Amtrak the “peace and stability it needs to build a stronger future.”

Our friend Jed Dodd, who headed bargaining for the BMWE, was a tad more restrained in his comments to the Washington Post, “The last eight years have been very tough on the members of the union and our families. We're glad this period is over.”

There are many politicians who would like to see Amtrak eliminated, or reduced to just serving the busy Northeast Corridor, and getting funding is like pulling teeth. The workers understandably feel relieved that the new contract keeps the present set up in place through 2010.

But it is hardly the kind of victory of which stories will be told and songs sung. Reportedly, the workers will get a four percent raise this July and another 4.5 percent in July, 2009. Back pay will average 12,800 dollars with forty percent being paid within two months, the balance–conditional on congressional funding–sometime next year. That’s not a whole lot to make up for going eight years without a raise. Kennedy’s “landmark” agreement also makes some substantial changes in work rules to benefit the carrier and requires the workers to pay considerably more for healthcare and other benefits.

Despite the fact that, outside the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak makes it very difficult to ride the train, ridership set a new record last year–26 million passengers. That’s still a drop in the bucket compared to passenger rail usage in Europe and Japan.

If we’re serious about tackling global warming we need a greatly expanded passenger rail system–and one that doesn’t make its workers wait eight years for a raise.

There’s a lot more that could be said but–

That’s all for this week.

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