Socialist Worker

King's dream and the American nightmare

by Kevin Ovenden
Issue No. 1867

IT WAS a miracle of oratory. Martin Luther King's 'I have a dream' speech 40 years ago projected the struggle for black civil rights in the US to the whole world.

King's words bit deeply into the racism that has characterised the US from its inception.

The biggest and most advanced capitalist state on earth has at every stage of its history fostered new forms of racism while refashioning old ones.

King delivered his speech on the steps of the memorial to president Abraham Lincoln.

It was Lincoln who, in Washington 100 years before, in 1863, had issued the 'Emancipation Proclamation' in the middle of the American Civil War. It declared the end of slavery.

Black people had arrived in America as slaves. Their labour underpinned economic expansion.

By the 1860s the industrialised Northern states feared the strength of the Southern states, where the economy was based mainly on slave labour.

The civil war of 1861-5 was a consequence of this divide.

At the beginning of the war Abraham Lincoln did not even call for the freeing of the slaves. But it became clear he would have to promise to end slavery if the Northern states were to win.

Some 186,000 blacks, many of them from the South, enlisted in the Northern army.

That was despite racist restrictions that denied blacks the right to vote in some Northern states and placed them in separate army units on half the pay of whites.

The defeat of the South in 1865 brought hopes for radical social change. Northern troops occupied the South and began a process known as 'Reconstruction'.

The US Congress passed a law granting the vote to Southern blacks and banning 200,000 supporters of the old slave system from holding office.

Black people began to vote. Six Southern states elected 14 blacks to the Congress in Washington. Mississippi elected two black senators and the speaker of its state assembly was black.

Between 1869 and 1901 a total of 816 black people were elected from the South to local state assemblies and to the federal congress in Washington.

Laws barring blacks from certain jobs were lifted. An incredible 1,200 black-owned newspapers were started.

The radical changes in the South, where 90 percent of blacks lived, brought moves against racism in the North too. After the Civil War the state of Illinois finally allowed blacks to testify in court.

Blacks in Washington, led by Sojourner Truth, boycotted segregated public transport. Her tactic was resurrected a century later in the movement led by Martin Luther King.

It is a measure of the level of discrimination that remained that no black person was elected from a Northern state to the Congress until the 1920s and there were no Northern black senators until the 1960s.

Despite these changes one area was left fundamentally unchanged-economic power.

There was no redistribution of land to the freed slaves. In most states the top 10 percent of white farmers owned between half and two thirds of farmland.

The great black anti-slavery campaigner Frederick Douglass said of the freed slave: 'He was free of the individual master, but the slave of society. He had neither money, property, nor friends.'

The Northern capitalists feared demands for land redistribution would spill over into a general rising of the poor against the rich.

The 'liberal' paper the Nation argued, 'A division of rich man's lands would give a shock to our whole social-political system from which it would hardly recover.'

A Northern Republican told readers of the New York Tribune in 1871 that, if you add poor whites and blacks together: 'So vast a mass of ignorance would be found that, if combined for any political purpose, it would sweep away all opposition the intelligent class might make.'

By the early 1870s the cost of occupying the Southern states was becoming too great for the industrialists in the north.

They withdrew their troops and struck a deal with the former slave-owners of the south. The racist thugs of the Ku Klux Klan went on the rampage.

Any black person, especially those who dared to own property or were politically active, could be lynched.

The Supreme Court reversed the civil rights introduced during Reconstruction.

When poor black and white farmers united to challenge the Southern rulers they were met by savage repression.

History of racism at the heart of the beast

BY THE beginning of the 20th century the South's rulers had denied blacks the right to vote and had re-established legal segregation.

This system of apartheid was known as the 'Jim Crow' laws.

There were 181,000 blacks in Alabama eligible to vote in 1900. Two years later there were just 3,000.

All-pervasive racism encouraged poor whites to identify with the system and laws banned them from meeting blacks.

The period in which the US eclipsed Britain as the world's biggest economic power also saw the imposition of officially sponsored racism across the US.

Two of the most famous films from the period, Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind, extolled the racism of the south.

And where black people refused to accept segregation they faced racist violence.

Some 70 blacks were lynched in the summer of 1919, including ten soldiers who had fought in the First World War against 'despotic' Germany.

The whiff of revolution in Europe led to a savage clampdown on organised labour and an intensification of racism and segregation by the US ruling class.

Revolutionaries and socialists had managed to organise some black and white workers and the poor. But the bulk of the small labour movement accommodated to racism to varying degrees.

But US economic growth was having wider effects on society.

Between 1900 and 1930 1.3 million black people left the rural south and headed for the cities.

The great migration continued even during the depression-hit decade of the 1930s.

And in the 1940s 1.6 million black people moved north.

The number of black industrial workers began to outstrip the number who worked as tenant farmers. They were part of a militant strike wave in the mid-1930s.

After the war the southern establishment propped up segregation. The US state unleashed a decade of witch-hunting against the left, which hit even moderate black lobbying organisations.

By the mid-1950s it seemed segregation in the South would last for decades.

Then the rising expectations of black people exploded in the civil rights movement, led by Martin Luther King.

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Sat 6 Sep 2003, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1867
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