Monday, January 12, 2009

The Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: Struggle For Peace and Economic Justice

The Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Struggle for Peace and Economic Justice

What are the lessons of the civil rights and anti-war leader's life for today's challenges

by Abayomi Azikiwe, Editor
Pan-African News Wire


Monday, January 19, 2009, marks the federal recognition of the 80th birthday of the late civil rights and anti-war martyr, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Although the actual date of his birth is January 15, since 1986, when the third Monday of every January was designated as a federal holiday in his honor, thousands of commemorative events are held on an annual basis across the United States.

A National Fightback Conference will be held in New York City on January 17 in order to take up the need to organize around the current economic crisis. In Detroit on January 19, the annual rally and march in the downtown area will take place again. This demonstration over the last five years has consistently linked the ongoing wars of occupation in Afghanistan and Iraq with growing crisis in the cities.

There will be demonstrations and other forms of public activities to both celebrate and renew the continuing movements that lay claim to the MLK legacy. Many this year will cite the recent election of Barack Obama as president of the United States as a fullfillment, at least in part, of the goals of the civil rights struggle of the 1950s and 1960s. On January 20 Obama will be inaugurated in Washington, D.C., while millions of people gather in the capital to take part in the myraid of events that surround the occasion.

Nonetheless, in this important year of commemoration of the 80th birthday of MLK and the ascendancy of the nation's first African-American president, the United States is experiencing the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. The social conditions of the nationally oppressed, the poor and the working class as whole are becoming more desperate everyday.

During 2008, the U.S. Government recently announced that over 2.6 million workers were thrown out of their jobs. Workers have lost trillions of dollars through the theft of their jobs, homes, health care programs, the forced taxpayer bailouts of financial institutions and the evaporation of their pension funds.

At the same time, there is a wave of repressive attacks being launched against the nationally oppressed, the LGBT communities and organized as well as unorganized labor. The cold-blooded murder of Oscar Grant by the transit police in Oakland symbolized the state's response to the people in the current period. Another African-American, Adolf Grimes III, died ater being shot 14 times by the New Orleans police.

The funding and passage of Proposition 8 in California illustrated how the right-wing will use popular demands for equality as a target to not only attack the rights of all working families, but to divide workers who need a united approach to fight the current assault on their living standards in the United States. After handing over $750 billion of workers' tax dollars to the bankers last fall, the U.S. Congress has set strenuous conditions on a loan to the auto industry that are designed to break the UAW and reverse the gains won over the last several decades.

Consequently, the 2009 MLK Day activities take on added significance. Despite efforts to distort and conceal the true legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the African-American social movements of the 1960s, it must be clearly stated that the significance of these struggles relate to the historic link between the fight against racism, national discrimination and oppression, in all its forms, and the class struggle.

National oppression and the class struggle

After World War II, the struggle against Jim Crow racism and lynching intensified. Even during the war, organizations within the African-American community fought against discrimination in the war industries and within the military itself. By the conclusion of the 1940s, African-Americans, particularly those in the labor movement, were demanding an immediate end to job discrimination, inferior education and residential segregation.

Many of the leading organizations in the early civil rights struggles of the late 1940 and early 1950s, such as the Civil Rights Congress and the National Negro Labor Councils were labelled as subversive and subjected to the wave of anti-communist hysteria that swept the country during this period. These militant groups had firm ties to the left, includng the Communist Party, and were destroyed along with many others in the so-called "McCarthy era."

Nonetheless, a new wave of civil rights activities would emerge after the Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Topeka in 1954 that delcared segregated educational systems as unconstitutional. In 1955, the lynching of 14-year-old Emmitt Till in Mississippi, created the political conditions for the emergence of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955-56.

Other civil rights leaders emerged from the South such as Rosa Parks and E.D. Nixon, both of whom had worked in the labor movement through the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. It was within this context that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would emerge as the principal spokesperson for the civil rights movement.

Between 1957, when the first federal Civil Righs Act was passed since 1875, and 1965, when the Voting Rights Act was won after the struggles in Selma and other areas in the South demanding universal suffrage, the movement out of necessity had to shift toward the question of economic exploition and oppression in both the rural and urban areas of the country.

However, what is often not acknowledged, King, who is labelled by the media and bourgois writers as middle-class, in actuality came from a working class background. As a descendant of slaves, his ancestors understood clearly the horrors of American life for millions of people of African descent. Even in subsequent generations, King's parents and grandparents were subjected to the realities of black life in America.

A working class historian, Michael K. Honey, points out in his book on Dr. King entitled: "Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King's Last Campaign", that: "White journalists may have seen the well-dressed, highly educated, eloquent 'Dr. King;' as the quintessential middle-class leader, but he came from a line of people, including slaves, who struggled fiercely against poverty and Jim Crow. His grandmother took in washing and ironing for whites but was not afraid to beat up a white man who had assualted her son, Martin's father. Martin's grandfather on his maternal side, A.D. Williams, lost his thumb in a sawmill accident and was no stranger to hard work. He escaped from plantations and peonage in the countryside by migrating to Atlanta and turning a minuscule congregation of former slaves at Ebenezer Baptist Church into one of the city's largest black churches." (Honey, pp. 23-24).

In June of 1966, King marched alongside leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in Mississippi when the slogan for Black Power was raised by SNCC leaders Willie Ricks and Stokely Carmichael. King did not fully accept the new slogan but stated that if the cry for Black Power meant "amassing political and economic power to achieve our goals...a belief in ourselves and our heritage," then he would support it. (Honey, p. 89.)

Despite King's continued belief in the possibility of social change through nonviolent direct action, he did not blame the rising militancy reflected in the urban rebellions as a direct result of the Black Power movement. In fact he blamed the resistance of the federal government to full equality for African-Americans as the spark that initiated the unrest in urban areas.

According to Michael K. Honey, "King did not blame the Black Power movement for riots, as many whites did; he blamed riots on the wall of white indifference and 'winters of delay' by the government in the War on Poverty. [James] Lawson and King both rejected the idea that a much-publicized 'white backlash' would subside if the Movement only slowed its pace; they felt the backlash merely expressed a long-standing white opposition to black equality. Society needed to bring its prejudices to the surface in order resolve them." (Honey, p. 89).

In Chicago, where King joined the ongoing struggle for open housing and equal employment during July of 1966, the agitation around these demands would set off rebellions for several days on the city's west side. The racist and violent response of white working class and middle class residents of segregated communities in Chicago that summer illustrated that resistance to fundamental change was not confined to the South.

By early 1967, King felt that he could no longer remain silent in his opposition to the United States war against the Vietnamese people. He saw that the escalating defense budget of the Johnson administration took vital resources away from the purported War on Poverty. Moreover, he understood that the struggle for civil rights and economic justice could not be won when the federal government waged wars of occupation against people who themselves were struggling for their national liberation and sovereignty.

Once King made the link between racial injustice, economic inequality and imperialist war, he became an even greater threat to the ruling class in the United States. In 1967, more urban rebellions occured across the country revealing the social inadequacy of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. By late 1967, King and his cohorts in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which was formed a decade before in the aftermath of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, had drafted plans for a National Poor People's Campaign that would occupy Washington, D.C. until action was taken to eradicate poverty and create a guaranteed annual income in the U.S.

The last campaign waged by Dr. King was his support for the sanitation workers strike in Memphis during the early months of 1968. Over 1,300 African-American employees of the public works department had walked off the job in February demanding union recognition under AFSCME. The strike had been prompted by the deaths of two workers who were crushed in a garbage truck after they were denied the right to wait inside a city office during a thunderstorm.

The strike galvanized the entire city of Memphis leading to the formation of a broad-based strike committee chaired by Rev. James Lawson, a longtime movement strategist. King came to Memphis in mid-March and immediately recognized that the strike represented the emerging phase of the African-American struggle that merged the fight for economic justice with the efforts to end racism completely. It was at the height of the efforts to win the strike that King was assassinated on April 4.

King's martyrdom sparked rebellions in 125 cities throughout the United States. Even though the Poor People's Campaign did occupy Washington that summer, it was eventually crushed at the aegis of the Johnson administration. When the Nixon administration took power in early 1969, political repression escalated and effectively criminalized the African-American struggle for political and economic power.

The fightback today

All indications suggest that 2009 will be a significant year in the struggle to build an effective fightback movement aimed countering the effects of the deepening economic crisis in the United States. Even bourgeois economists are predicting that up to ten million jobs may be loss in the coming twelve months. More workers will lose their homes through evictions and foreclosures and the police apparatus will intensify repression aimed at suppressing the mass actions in response to the worsening crisis.

This is why the conference in New York and other mass actions around the country take on added significance. The ruling class in the United States will continue its wars abroad in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Colombia as well as its support for the state of Israel in its genocidal onslaught against the Palestinian people. It will be up to the most militant and organized sections of the movement to take up the challenge to build broader alliances that link the fight against the economic crisis with the anti-imperialist and anti-war struggle.

At present, amidst the current crisis, the contradictions of capitalism should be emphasized and the need for a socialist alternative can be advanced. The fact that the capitalist system provides no real solutions for reversing the declining quality of life for the workers and the oppressed, this political crisis within the ideological foundations of the exploitative system provides an excellent opportunity for the propagation of bold ideas and political initiatives.
Abayomi Azikiwe is the editor of the Pan-African News Wire and has been following the growing crisis in world capitalism and its impact on the political system in the United States.

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