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Martin Luther King and the fight against racism in the US

This article is over 16 years, 3 months old
Forty years ago this week the Civil Rights Movement lost its leading champion. Yuri Prasad explains why King grew more radical with time
Issue 2095
King at the march of Washington in 1963
King at the march of Washington in 1963

The legendary US civil rights leader Martin Luther King was assassinated on the balcony of his hotel in Memphis, Tennessee 40 years ago.

King’s death was mourned by millions of people across the world who wanted to see an end to racism and the war in Vietnam. US cities exploded in rebellion – with many among the black poor expecting something akin to a civil war to follow.

Some 4,000 troops were sent to protect the White House, but the rioting still came within blocks of the president.

In the years that have passed since his death, mainstream politicians have been only too keen to claim King’s mantle, insisting that they too share his dream.

They are quick to use King’s exposition of non-violent tactics against all those who continue to raise the demand for radical social change. They hope that non-violence will mean cooperation – not confrontation – with the state.

But at the time of his murder the establishment did not regard King as a conciliator – far from it. J Edgar Hoover, the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), labelled King as “the most dangerous Negro in America”.

King had risen to prominence with the rebirth of the Civil Rights Movement in the mid-1950s. Racial discrimination and segregation were legal across the Southern states of the US.

The decision in 1955 by black civil rights activist Rosa Parks’s not to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, led to a year long transport boycott by black residents. The 26 year old King, a local pastor, became the key leader of this campaign.

King later spelled out the lesson of the boycott, saying, “Feeling that our demands were moderate, I had assumed that they would be granted with little question… I came to see that no one gives up his privileges without strong resistance.”

By 1960 the campaign had spread to colleges, where thousands had joined sit-ins and Freedom Rides to desegregate lunch counters, restaurants and inter-state travel.

In August 1963 King was as at the head of a movement that could bring at least 250,000 people on to the streets of Washington in a march for jobs and freedom.

The immediate goal of these campaigns was to win civil rights guaranteed under the US constitution for all Americans.

Activists hoped that they could force the US federal authorities into taking action against state governments in the Deep South – and win the same legal rights that blacks had in the North. Most assumed that this freedom would be won by pressurising the US Democratic Party into passing civil rights legislation.


The Democrats in Washington calculated that Civil Rights Movement voter registration drives in the South would deliver them a “pay-off”. Between 1964 and 1969 the percentage of black adults registered to vote in Alabama rose from 19 to 61 percent.

But after the passing of civil rights legislation in 1964 and 1965 the strategy of pressurising the Democrats hit problems.

First, the same Democratic Party that in Washington talked of its commitment to civil rights also ran many of the racist administrations in the South. This contradiction created a crisis inside the party.

The Democrats desperately tried to hold their party together by finding a compromise between white racist Democrats (known as “Dixiecrats”), the civil rights movement and its millions of voters.

As the Democrats backed away from civil rights, activists in the movement became increasingly disillusioned with the strategy of winning concessions from the White House.

Many felt that King was too moderate and started searching for more radical ideas.

It was becoming clear that winning an end to legally enforced segregation, as was already the situation in the North, did not mean an end to racism.

In 1965 King went to the Northern city of Chicago to organise against “de facto segregation” in education, housing and employment.

Many of the Northern white middle class liberals who had supported his campaigns in the “racist South” were hostile to his attempts to challenge them on their doorstep.

The Civil Rights Movement was increasingly coming into conflict with landlords, big business and a state machine that depended on racism, if not the legal apparatus of segregation, to help it divide workers and make profits.

King increasingly felt that racism was an essential component of capitalism, rather than an aberration. Both his tone and his strategies started to take on a more radical edge.

Conscious of the shift he was making, King told his activists, “For the last 12 years we’ve been in a reform movement.

“But after [the civil rights march in] Selma and the voting rights bill, we’ve moved into a new era, which must be an era of revolution.”

King spoke out against the Vietnam War in 1967 in a way that connected injustices at home with those being committed abroad.

“We are taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them 8,000 miles away to guarantee liberties in South East Asia which they had not found in south west Georgia and East Harlem,” he said.

“I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today – my own government.”

The establishment attacked him. Time magazine, which three years before had named him “Man of the Year”, now declared that his anti-war speech sounded like a “script for Radio Hanoi”.

King continued to draw radical conclusions from his battle. He began to attack capitalism and the assumption that it was the only way the world could be organised.

In the months before he died, he started work on a new march on Washington – a poor people’s march, comprising both black and white workers. The FBI regarded this as King’s most dangerous period yet and conspired to derail the campaign.

In March 1968, while in Memphis to support striking sanitation workers, King addressed a rally of 15,000 people. “If America does not use her vast resource of wealth to end poverty and make it possible for all god’s children to have the basic necessities of life, she too is going to hell,” he said.

King responded to questions about how the long-running strike might be won by arguing, “I tell you what you ought to do, and you are together here enough to do it. You ought to have a general work stoppage in the city of Memphis.”

However, a small but vocal part of the movement was drawing very different conclusions.

A section of the black middle class was glad that the battle for civil rights had earlier opened doors for them into the top colleges and into some positions in the state.

They still faced racial barriers, and so still felt the need to be connected to the movement, but were increasingly embarrassed by the direction in which King was taking it.

The middle class saw their futures as mayors, judges, businessmen and women, top lawyers, and chiefs of police – while the US establishment saw an opportunity to co-opt a layer of black people who could act as a buffer against the black working class.

King was assassinated on 4 April 1968 at the very time when the movement for civil rights had reached a fork in the road. The radicals, and many of the activists, were convinced that only by ending capitalism could they end racism.

Conservatives saw an opportunity to win relatively small changes by working within the system. King had attempted to hold these two wings of the movement together but had himself become increasingly radical.

In the wake of King’s murder, it was not immediately clear which wing of the movement would win out.

Black radicals, such as the Black Panther Party, aligned themselves to both workers and socialism gaining thousands of supporters. But the relative isolation and eventual defeat of the radicals provided the conservatives with victory.

In 1964 there were just 100 black elected officials in the US. By 1990 this number had risen to 7,000 and today there are close to 9,000.

This small layer claims to speak for the majority of the black population, which is still overwhelmingly poor. Occasionally it uses King’s radicalism to embellish its own rhetoric.

But while King was building a movement that sought to confront the system, the black elected officials that followed him are today acting to defend that system against anger from below.

Protesting against the Vietnam war
Protesting against the Vietnam war

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