The King cover-up

September 18, 2013

Sandy Boyer, a longtime socialist who was active in the civil rights movement in the North, is co-host of the weekly radio program Radio Free Eireann on WBAI in New York City. Here, he considers the real legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

THERE HAS been a concerted attempt to use Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech to obscure his role as one of the great revolutionaries of the 20th century America. If King dreamed that "my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character," he knew better than most that the dream would never be realized without an immense popular revolt.

The New York Times commemorated the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington with an op-ed article on the speech that portrayed King's story, ending with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Critical chapters of King's life that followed--the Poor People's Campaign, marching in Chicago against housing and education discrimination, opposition to the Vietnam War, the sanitation workers' strike in Memphis, Tenn., where he was killed--were all erased from his history.

More than many of his contemporaries, King relied on mobilizing thousands, tens of thousands and ultimately hundreds of thousands of people to win change. The NAACP was actively opposed to mass action, choosing to rely almost entirely on legal challenges to segregation and discrimination. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) tended to concentrate on organizing fewer people in the most oppressed, and often very isolated, rural communities. Malcolm X, however sweeping and insightful his indictment of U.S. society, was never able to organize numbers of people on the scale that King did.

Martin Luther King at the 1963 March on Washington
Martin Luther King at the 1963 March on Washington

IT WAS no accident that King came out of the Black church. Especially in his day, the church was the central institution in the Black community. Not coincidentally, it was virtually the only institution that was not dependent on the white establishment. The Black community itself recruited its leaders, filled the collection plates that financed it, flocked to the pews on Sunday and provided all the unpaid labor that sustained it.

The Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-57 first propelled Martin Luther King to national prominence and the forefront of the civil rights movement. In many ways, it was also the first attempt at mass community resistance to segregation and discrimination.

For more than a year, virtually the entire Black community refused to ride the segregated city buses. Many people walked to work the entire time. Hundreds donated their cars for organized car pools. Black taxi drivers charged the same 10 cent fare as the buses charged.

Even hearses were pressed into action. I once heard Bayard Rustin, later the organizer of the March on Washington, explain that the white business establishment couldn't pressure Black undertakers because "dead Negros needed to be buried."

The mass meetings that became so important in all of King's campaigns emerged naturally in Montgomery. Part prayer meeting, part political rally, they gave people the information and inspiration they needed to go on. Inevitably, they were dominated by the Black preachers.

Montgomery set the pattern for other campaigns led by King. Whether it was Birmingham, Albany or Selma, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference--formed by King and his allies in 1957--used the tactic of mass action to demand an end to segregation and win equal voting rights.

SCLC's campaign in Birmingham, Ala., in the spring of 1963 was a turning point. It was the first time the SCLC made a conscious decision to launch a specific campaign, rather than reacting to events. It was also the first time it used local activism to try to force federal action.

The history of the Birmingham revolt--and especially the heroism of the high school and elementary students on the front lines of the struggle, in the face of the brutality of the white power structure, led by Sheriff Eugene "Bull" Connor--has been too widely told to need repeating here.

It took Birmingham to put the Civil Rights Act firmly on the agenda of Congress and the Kennedy administration. The struggle showed that mass mobilization, not behind-the-scenes lobbying, was the key to influencing federal policy. This realization later guided the organizing for the 1963 March on Washington and the Selma to Montgomery marches in Alabama in 1965.

BY 1966, King had concluded that the movement needed to move to the northern cities. The SCLC targeted Chicago against the initial opposition of several board members who insisted that its mission, like its name, should remain southern. King declared that "the poverty issue is now the pressing one."

The initial focus was on slum housing and residential segregation, with King moving his family into a dilapidated apartment on the city's West Side. When King and others marched through nearby white areas, they were attacked by mobs wielding knives, bottles and bricks. King admitted, "I have never in my life seen such hate, not in Mississippi or Alabama."

The Chicago movement was never able to overcome the united opposition of Mayor Richard J. Daley, the white business establishment and Black politicians who were part of the Democratic Party machine. In Chicago, unlike Birmingham, there was no hope of intervention by the federal government. Lyndon Johnson regarded Daley as one of his most valuable allies, and Daley had the entire Chicago political machine lined up behind him.

King and the Chicago movement were forced to settle for the best they could get. There were promises to build more public housing and make mortgages available regardless of race. Although he called the agreement "the most significant program ever conceived to make open housing a reality," King acknowledged that it was only "the first step in a 1,000-mile journey."

But after Chicago, there was no going back to the relatively politically safe Southern-based movement. Instead, King turned to the Poor People's Campaign that reached beyond race to the issue of class.

King envisioned a mobilization of poor people--Black, white, Latino and Native Americans--that would descend on Washington, occupying parts of the city and committing civil disobedience until their demands were met. The Campaign sought an "economic bill of rights," including full employment, a guaranteed annual income and more low-income housing.

King's assassination in Memphis in April 1968 crippled the campaign. As many as 3,000 people came to Washington and camped in a Resurrection City--tents and shacks built on the Washington Mall. But the occupation largely petered out, and the survivors were finally arrested on orders of the Johnson administration.

The Poor People's Campaign had always been basically King's vision. He defended it against "realists" like Bayard Rustin, who said the movement should concentrate on electing Democrats. Even SCLC staff members found it difficult to adjust to organizing around poverty after decades of organizing against racial discrimination. Some voiced their resentment at having to treat Chicano leaders as equals. It's impossible to know what would have happened to the Poor People's Campaign if King had survived.

Today, many people know Martin Luther King was killed while defending striking Memphis sanitation workers. But few realize that King went to Memphis precisely because he saw that sanitation workers' strike as part of the Poor People's Campaign.

King's staff urged him to skip Memphis because they thought it would be a distraction from building the Campaign. It was King who understood that the strike couldn't be divorced from a campaign for economic equality. As he told the strikers:

With Selma and the voting rights bill, one era of our struggle came to a close and a new era came into being. Now our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality. For we know that it isn't enough to integrate lunch counters. What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn't earn enough money to buy a hamburger and cup of coffee?

AT THE end of his life, King was moving toward a new, more comprehensive understanding of American society. David J. Garrow, in his biography of King titled Bearing The Cross, quotes an SCLC staff member who recalled King confiding that "he didn't believe that capitalism as it was constructed could meet the needs of poor people, and that me might need to look at some kind of socialism, but a democratic form of socialism."

For all their achievements, King and the SCLC were not immune from problems--such as sexism and disregard for democracy--that marked the civil rights movement throughout.

The SCLC staff and board were always dominated by Black men, many of them preachers. The whole civil rights movement was the loser when extraordinary women organizers such as Ella Baker and Diane Nash were shunted aside and their ideas ignored. Sexism in the civil rights movement wasn't confined to the SCLC, or Black preachers. Stokely Carmichael (later known as Kwame Ture), who by the mid 1960s had proclaimed that he was a revolutionary, made the infamous comment that the position of women in the movement should be "prone."

Of all the major civil rights organizations, only CORE had a formally democratic structure, with members and chapters represented at a national convention. Even when the SCLC considered instituting membership, the goal was fundraising, not democracy. The thousands of people who marched and went to jail were never able to make decisions about strategy and tactics.

Now that King is dead, many of the establishment forces that vilified him when he was alive are trying to cover up his revolutionary politics by proclaiming that he was some kind of nonviolent saint. Socialists, on the other hand should remember a person who, whatever his failings, sought first and foremost to mobilize working people to liberate themselves.

The best tribute we can pay Martin Luther King is to learn from his failures and build on his successes.

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