TeleSur English, January 27, 2015. In his magisterial, Pulitzer Prize-winning history of Martin Luther King, and the American Civil Rights Movement, David Garrow relates an interesting story from Selma, Alabama, just a few weeks before the famous 1965 Selma marches that helped push United States (US) President Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ) and the US Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act (VRA) later that year. Writing about King’s brief stay in a Selma jail in February of that year, Garrrow notes that “King and [his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) partner Ralph] Abernathy shared a cell with white SCLC staffer Charles Fager.” One morning, “King struck up a conversation with Fager about how difficult it would be to win true freedom. King’s vision was more far reaching than his public remarks would indicate. It was an unforgettable realization, Fager recalled years later. “I remember the words, exactly, ‘If we are going to achieve equality, the United States will have to adopt a modified form of socialism.’”
I wonder what King would think of the powerful, recently released Oprah-produced movie “Selma” and of the narrow debate that has emerged among some well-off Democrats about whether the film is historically accurate in its depiction of US President Lyndon Johnson as an obstacle to King and the Civil Rights Movement in Selma (the movie’s faithfulness to real historical facts is quite imperfect in that and other regards for reasons I have indicated in a recent ZNet essay.) My sense is that King would be less than enthusiastic about the movie and not particularly interested in the elite debate the film elicited. He would be particularly displeased with “Selma’s” false depiction of King as – in the words of the Black Left commentator Glen Ford — “yearning for an end to mass protests, so that Black people could achieve real political power – quite clearly meaning the election of more Black people to office. As if that’s what the mass movement was all about, in King’s mind. We know that’s not true,” Ford notes, “because Dr. King said the opposite in countless sermons, speeches, books and essays; that he was seeking social transformation, a new system of living. Three years after Selma, King died, still seeking to revive the mass movement.”
“The Real Issue to Be Faced”
The really untold or at least badly under-told story about Martin Luther King, Jr. is that he was a democratic socialist who was remarkably unimpressed by the legislation his movement passed in 1964 and 1965. The victories were not small. The 1964 Civil Rights Act ordered the desegregation of public facilities in the US South. The VRA granted previously disenfranchised Southern Black Americans the right to vote. But in the years after Selma (if not before), King (never comfortable with the profits system) concluded that only “drastic reform” involving “the radical reconstruction of society itself” could “save us from social catastrophe.” Consistent with the teachings of Marx (of whom King was something of an admirer during his time at the Crozier Theological Seminary in the early 1950s), King argued that “the roots of [economic injustice] are in the [capitalist] system rather in men or faulty operations.” In King’s view the simultaneous existence of mass poverty at home and U.S. imperial violence abroad attested to the fact that “a nation that will exploit economically will have to have foreign investments and everything else, and will have to use its military might to protect them.” He insisted that Americans “question the whole society,” seeing “that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation [capitalism], and the problem of war are all tied together.” These “triple evils that are interrelated” were so intertwined, he said, that “you really can’t get rid of one of them without getting rid of the others.” As King explained in a posthumously published essay, “The black revolution …reveals systemic rather than superficial flaws and suggests that radical reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced.”
“Power for Poor People”
Given his socialist and anti-imperialist beliefs – probably intact by his early twenties – King wrote and spoke of the need for cross-racial economic justice. He included poor whites and the Third World along with poor black Americans in the circle of those who deserved an egalitarian new social order. “We want no classes and castes,” he said in 1956, the year he emerged on the national stage.
By King’s observation in 1966, impoverished blacks in US ghettoes were struggling with “class issues.” At the root of the problem was the fact that “something is wrong with the economic system of our nation…something is wrong with capitalism.” That system, King felt, “produces beggars” alongside luxuriant opulence for the privileged few, calling for “the radical redistribution of economic and political power.”
“One unfortunate thing about [the slogan] Black Power,” King wrote that same year, “is that it gives priority to race precisely at a time when the impact of automation and other forces have made the economic question fundamental for blacks and whites alike. In this context, a slogan of ‘Power for Poor People’ would be much more appropriate.”
“The Second Phase”
More than is commonly recognized, King saw his movement’s mid-1960s legislative triumphs over southern racism as strictly partial and even potentially problematic victories. He saw the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts as relatively fractional, bourgeois and all-too easily, even cheaply won accomplishments that dangerously encouraged mainstream white America to think the nation’s “race problems were automatically solved.” He saw these regionally specific victories as falling far short of his deeper objective: advancing social, economic, political, and racial justice across the entire nation (including its northern, ghetto-scarred cities) and indeed around the world.
It was one thing, King argued, to open the doors of opportunity for some few and relatively privileged African-Americans. It was another thing to move millions of black and other disadvantaged people out of economic despair. It was another and related thing to dismantle slums and overcome the deep structural and societal barriers to equality that continued after public bigotry was discredited and after open discrimination was outlawed. It was one thing, King felt, to defeat the overt racism of snarling white southerners like Bull Connor and Alabama Governor George Wallace; it was another thing to confront the deeper, more covert institutional racism that lived beneath the less openly bigoted, smiling face of northern and urban “liberalism.” It was one thing. King noted, to defeat the anachronistic caste structure of the South. It was another thing to attain substantive social and economic equality for black and other economically disadvantaged people across the nation.
King reflected on his bitter experience in the urban North when he penned the following trenchant considerations on the impasse that the struggle for black equality had reached in the wake of its fateful “turn North” in 1965 and 1966, after the voting rights victory:
“With Selma and the Voting Rights Act one phase of development in the civil rights revolution came to an end. A new phase opened…For the vast majority of white Americans, the past decade – the first phase – had been a struggle to treat the Negro with a degree of decency, not of equality. White America was ready to demand that the Negro be spared the lash of brutality and coarse degradation, but it had never been truly committed to helping him out of poverty, exploitation or all forms of discrimination… When Negroes looked for the second phase, the realization of equality, they found that many of their white allies had quietly disappeared…the free-running expectations of the Negro crashed into the stone walls of white resistance… Negroes felt cheated, especially in the North, while many whites felt that the Negroes had gained so much it was virtually impudent and greedy to ask for more so soon.”
“Even though we gained legalistic and judicial victories,” King told his colleagues during a 1966 SCLC gathering, these accomplishments, “did very little to improve the lot of millions of Negroes in the teeming ghettoes,” so that “the changes that came about were at best surface changes…not really substantive.”
Beyond “Bargain Basement” Change
King argued that the cost of the radical change he advocated would be far greater than the comparatively slight price paid by white privilege for the comparatively easy victories achieved by the black freedom struggle to date. “When millions of people have been cheated for centuries,” King wrote, “restitution is a costly process… Justice so long deferred has accumulated interest and its cost for this society will be substantial as well as human terms. The fact has not been fully grasped, because most of the gains of the past decade were obtained at bargain prices. The desegregation of public facilities cost nothing; neither did the election and appointment of a few black officials.”
For Mass Civil Disobedience
Would the “new phase” change come through electoral politics, its scope widened by the Voting Rights Act? After Selma as in earlier years (when the John F. Kennedy administration repeatedly tried to channel the Civil Rights Movement’s anti-desegregation struggles into voter-registration campaigns), King was less than impressed by U.S. elections as a vehicle for the transformation required. He rejected antiwar and social justice progressives’ efforts to enlist him as a candidate for office, opting instead for a direct action campaign to end poverty in America. Having been badly defeated in his 1966 effort to bring progressive racial and socioeconomic change to Chicago – a city where (as across the urban North) Blacks had long possessed the right to vote – King clung to his longstanding emphasis on mass civil disobedience and social movement action beneath and beyond electoral politics.
“The dispossessed of this nation [the US] – the poor, both White and Negro – live in a cruelly unjust society,” King told Canadian radio listeners in late 1967. “They must organize a revolution against that injustice,” he added. Such a revolution would require “more than a statement to the larger society,” more than “street marches…There must,” King added, “be a force that interrupts [society’s] functioning at some key point.” That force would use “mass civil disobedience” to “transmute the deep rage of the ghetto into a constructive and creative force” by “dislocate[ing] the functioning of a society.”
King Would Not Be Impressed
Were he able to return today, King would not be happy to see the SCLC and SNCC’s Voting Rights victory celebrated on film while: the median income of white households is 20 times that of black households; more than a third of Black children live below the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level; the Black unemployment and poverty rates continue as usual to double those of whites; the richest 400 Americans possess amongst themselves as much wealth as the bottom half of the US populace; the gigantic US “defense”(Empire) budget accounts for nearly half the world’s military spending; a militarized police state (revealed to television and Internet audiences like never before during the Ferguson drama last summer) and a racially hyper-disparate mass incarceration system (with more than 2 million prisoners, 40% of them Black) stalk the high-surveillance “homeland;” and the chaotic and unjust capitalist system pushes livable ecology past omnicidal limits.
King would hardly see the neoliberal and imperial presidency (enabled in part by the Voting Rights Act) of the technically Black Barack Obama and the rise of rich and influential Black Americans like Oprah Winfrey – a producer of “Selma” (as well as an actor in the film, playing a working class civil rights activist) – as remotely emblematic of the radical change for which he fought. If anything, he would observe that the ascendancy of bourgeois Blacks like Obama and his good friend the entertainment mogul Winfrey was part of the problem for Black America insofar as the much ballyhooed advance of a relatively small number of privileged Blacks tends to reinforce “white America’s” (King’s phrase) belief that all the racial corrections have been made and that the only remaining relevant barriers to Black progress and equality are internal to the Black community itself.
We can be sure that Winfrey would have vetoed the inclusion of Dr. King’s comment to Charles Fager on the necessity of socialism in “Selma’s” script. The comment does not fit the domesticated image of King that Oprah, Obama, and other guardians of the reigning white- and capital-friendly national memory wish to keep in place.
Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy.
Sources: For the sources quoted and consulted in the writing of this essay, please go to the end of the essay linked here.