Almost every Democratic Party politician, black or white, claims the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. Even some republican politicians like Mike Pence or the President, will take time once a year to invoke the memory of King, in a hypocritical attempt to make it look as if he would have been one of them. All public speakers when asked would gleefully lend their praise to the famous ‘I have a dream’ speech, delivered during the march on Washington in 1963.
Conveniently forgotten by all these however is the fact that in the final years of his life, before his assassination in 1968, King broke with the Democratic President Lyndon Johnson over the Vietnam War and the administration’s failure to enforce civil rights legislation in the South. That’s something no Politicians of national stature have been willing to do today. While the reforms advocated by King for most of his life were mild compared to the demands of the more radical black nationalists, they were nevertheless condemned by the same Democrats and Republicans who have since tried to turn King into a heroic icon and a symbol of Black accommodation to the system. In order to understand any of this and Kings eventual shift to the left, it is necessary to look at the class struggle that underpinned the civil rights movement and the nature of Kings Organisation, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).
When King emerged as a leader of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in the 1950’s, he was at the forefront of a local movement whose example was followed in dozens of other Southern Cities in Subsequent years. The organisation he helped found, the SCLC, established several field offices, but it was essentially a group of professional organisers who typically moved from city to city to get involved in struggles initiated by local black students, workers and farmers. SCLC’s aim was not to help these activists develop independently, but rather to lead them into nonviolent confrontation with segregationists and the brutal cops and state police who backed up the Jim Crow law. According to leaders of the movement such as Hosea Williams and Wyatt T. Walker, the federal government would then be forced to intervene to support civil rights activists in order to stop the mayhem. King defended his movement’s use of direct action as follows:
‘You may well ask, why direct action? Why Sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path? You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent Direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent register may sound rather shocking. But I must confess I am not afraid of the Word ‘tension’. I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt it was neccesary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood’
At first, the strategy seemed to work. A Supreme Court decision supported the Montgomery Bus Boycott. President Kennedy introduced civil rights legislation after Birmingham, Alabama cops repeatedly attacked the SCLC organised marches in 1963, and the bill became law a year later. Bloody confrontations in St Augustine, Florida and Selma, Alabama prodded Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, to push the Voting Rights act of 1965 through congress. However, Kennedy and Johnson supported civil rights only when they believed it necessary to stave off more militant Black Rebellion. They had no wish to alienate the powerful Southern Dixiecrat wing of their party. King and the SCLC’s protests were tolerated so long as they remained ‘non-violent’, were limited to fighting segregation in the South, and did not challenge racist economic discrimination rooted in US capitalism. King said in his letter from Birmingham jail that:
‘I had hoped the white moderate would see this need, Perhaps I was too optimistic; perhaps I expected too much. I suppose I should have realised that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong persistent and determined action’
By 1965, Kings Credibility among Southern activists was waning. The SCLC’s habit of arriving in town in the midst of a struggle, grabbing the media spotlight and negotiating a settlement irritated both local blacks and the increasingly radical members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating committee (SNCC), who were trying to help southern blacks develop their own leadership. Meanwhile, Black Nationalist Malcom X argued that the strict nonviolence advocated by king and the SCLC exposed blacks to attacks by police and racist thugs. This criticism reached its peak in Selma 1965, where police tear gassed and clubbed activists who were attempting to march to the state capital in Montgomery. When a second march was organised, police didn’t block it, but king led marchers back into Selma rather than defy a court injunction. This retreat, along with Kings Acceptance of token concessions from Selma politicians, was denounced as a sell out by radicals.
Differences spilled into the open a year later after James Merdith, the first black student to attend the University of Mississippi was gunned down during his solo protest march across the state. King and SNCC leader Stokey Carmichael were among the civil rights leaders who joined several hundred activists to complete Meredith’s march in the summer of 1966. Hounded by racist thugs and brutal cops every step of the way, angry marchers eagerly joined Carmichaels impromptu chant of ‘black power’ and listened intently to his ideas. While King refused to join conservative civil rights activists in attacking the ‘black power’ slogan as racist, he refused to support it on the grounds that it implied violence and would alienate potential white support. ‘We have got to transform our movement into a positive and creative power’ he said when asked his opinion on Carmichael. To black militants, King was viewed as a sell-out. However, to democratic liberals, worried about the influence of Black Nationalism, Kings Statement seemed like an endorsement of the ‘Black power’ movement.
In reality King was trying to breach an ever widening gap between activists and the government. ‘The government has got to give me some victories if I’m going to keep people non-violent’ he said. In fact, King would soon confront the Northern Democrats as an open enemy. Since the voting rights act of 1965 had formerly abolished the last of the southern Jim Crow segregation laws, King and SCLC turned their attention to their attention to the increasingly militant Northern Blacks.
Kings final break with Johnson came in April 1967, when King called for the US to pull out of its ‘colonial’ war with Vietnam. While a number of important democratic senators had already placed themselves in opposition to the war, most civil rights leaders continued to support the administration. Liberal Newspapers such as the New York Times and Washington Post, which had usually been sympathetic to King during the civil rights struggles in the south, attacked him for his anti-war stance. A vengeful Johnson allowed the FBI to step up its harassment of King and other SCLC members. The President was outraged when he learned of Kings Plan to lead a poor people’s march on Washington to close down the US capitol. Johnson and the Democrats had come to rely on Kings nonviolent tactics and his support for their party as an important counterweight to the growing number of radicals in the rising Black Power revolt. When King denounced the war in 1967, the democrats regarded him as a traitor.
However, Kings break with the democrats did not earn him the support of blacks in the North, where street rebellions swept every major city in the country. The politics of the more radical black nationalists – particularly their advocacy if self-defence in the face of racist violence – seemed to speak more to the struggle in these circumstances.
Attacked from both the left and the right, King was forced to rethink his career and the organisation he led. ‘We must admit there has been a limitation of our achievement in the south’ he told a meeting of SCLC board members in 1967. SCLC would have to call for a ‘radical redistribution of wealth and power.’ On several occasions King told his aids that the US needed a democratic socialism that would guarantee jobs and income for all. This is what led King to propose the setting up of a poor people’s movement.
Other SCLC leaders however were hostile to this approach. The movements Southern field offices had been neglected during an ill-fated attempt to organise against housing segregation in Chicago, and the group’s Northern offices were even weaker. Moreover, the plan clashed with the black capitalist orientation of the SCLC’s Operation Breadbasket, directed by Jackson. ‘If you are so interested in doing your own thing that you can’t do what the organisation is structured to do, go ahead’ King said in response to Jackson’s criticism of the march. ‘If you want to carve out your own niche in society, go ahead, but for god’s sake don’t bother me!’
Still, The Democrats saw betrayal in Kings poor people’s movement, while the right declared that it proved their long term claim that King was a Communist. These elements, encouraged by the presidential campaign of segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace, publicly threatened Kings Life.
Faced with Hostility from the Johnson administration, criticism from both black nationalists and the black establishment and a divided staff, King was politically isolated as never before he was assassinated in Memphis on April 4th 1968, - less than three weeks before the Poor Peoples Campaign was to begin. King had travelled to Memphis to support a strike by black sanitation workers – he was the only national civil rights leader to do so.
Yet it wasn’t until after his death that the media hacks of the ruling class began to convert King into a harmless liberal. To do this however, they had to bury the legacy of the real Martin Luther King – both the leader of the critical early struggles of the civil rights movement who refused to accept pleas for patience and moderation from his liberal democrat allies, and the more radical black leader of the 1960s whose vision of what needed to be changed in society had widened enormously. This final quote from King Sums up his enduring lesson:
‘I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negros great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the white citizens councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension, to a positive peace, which is the presence of justice; who constantly says ‘I agree with You in the goal you seek but cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advices the Negro to wait for a more convenient season. Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection’