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Reclaim Martin Luther King the radical

This article is over 5 years, 11 months old
Liberals have tried to sanitise Martin Luther King ever since his death 50 years ago. But, says Yuri Prasad, King was a radical who blamed capitalism for racism, poverty and war
Issue 2595
Martin Luther King in Washing, August 1963
Martin Luther King in Washington, August 1963 (Pic: National Park Service/Flickr)

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in the US tweeted a message on 4 April last year, the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King. “The FBI honors the life, work, & commitment of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to justice,” it said.

The same Bureau had, in King’s time, labelled him, “The most dangerous Negro of the future in this nation”.

King had fought racial segregation in the US South during the 1950s and 1960s. Those racist laws were no accident. Southern rulers built prejudice into the system to divide and rule those who make them profits.

Northern politicians, while washing their hands of segregation, had no interest in change. Without massive pressure from below there would have been none.

The Second World War had seen a big change for black Americans. Many had left the rural South and headed to factories and cities. And there was a bigger, more confident, black middle class.

In 1955 left wing activist and seamstress Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. It sparked a year-long bus boycott and the Civil Rights Movement was born.

A 26 year old preacher called Martin Luther King Jr shot to prominence as the leader of the 40,000-strong movement. The minister was radical but liberal, and embraced the philosophy of civil disobedience.

He started his political life as a moderate who saw the civil rights struggle as one for the right to integrate fully into US society.

King’s prominence grew as news of the boycott spread. Pressure on the establishment increased and eventually the Supreme Court moved to outlaw segregation on Montgomery buses. The victory sent a shockwave through the South and scores of new campaigns sprung up.

The movement and its leaders learned quickly. “Feeling that our demands were moderate, I had assumed they would be granted,” said King. “I came to see that no one gives up his privileges without strong resistance.

“I saw further that the underlying purpose of segregation was to oppress and exploit the segregated, not simply to keep them apart.”

By 1960 students joined the action, launching a sit-in movement at segregated lunch counters across the South.


Within months tens of thousands of young people, black and white, had protested, with many beaten by racists and jailed by police.

Non-violent protest was the badge of honour of the movement. As a largely poor and generally unarmed minority facing a powerful and heavily armed enemy, the strategy made sense to many.

It also appealed to many middle class whites in the North who supported the movement.

But King’s strategy carried a contradiction. When faced with violence, it relied on the threat of the US federal government sending armed troops to protect them and enforce anti-segregation laws.

As victories came, the leadership set itself ever bigger goals. In April 1963 it targeted segregation in the major city of Birmingham, Alabama, with massive demonstrations.

In front of the world’s cameras, city chiefs turned fire hoses on children protesters and jailed hundreds. Panic grew in president John F Kennedy’s administration in Washington.

The Civil Rights Movement now threatened rebellion across the South, with major disruption to businesses hitting profits. It was also discrediting the US’s claim to be the great democratic superpower in an increasingly tense Cold War.

But if Kennedy took action against the Southern racists he risked splitting his own Democratic Party.

With a massive march on Washington planned for the summer, Kennedy gambled on major civil rights legislation. He hoped it would end the protests but avoid igniting tensions in the racist camp.

When the march came, King ensured it celebrated anti-segregation laws rather than castigating liberal America for its tardiness.

But passing laws wasn’t enough. The rulers of the South promised “massive resistance” and their followers set about bombing, maiming and killing. The US government feared any intervention and stood aside.

To many, including most student activists, King’s strategy now looked weak. They wanted to respond with greater radicalism—some even demanded armed self-defence.

The government’s repeated conciliations fed growing cynicism about whites in general, with many young activists now believing that only black people could genuinely fight racism. Older, more middle class activists feared large scale confrontations.

“They were now hostile because they were watching the dream that they had so readily accepted turn into a frustrating nightmare.”

Martin Luther King

King increasingly found his role was to hold together the radical and conservative wings of his movement. Campaigns in the North demanding better jobs, housing and education for the black poor seemed only to make matters worse for King.

White liberals that ran cities such as Chicago had backed the movement, but were hostile when the battle came close to home. And, the US government made it clear it would not offer any further Civil Rights legislation after the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Between 1964 and 1968, black people rose up in almost every city in the north east, the Midwest and California. When the Watts district of Los Angeles exploded in rage in 1965, the authorities deployed 15,000 armed police and National Guards. Some 34 people were killed.

The anger of the ghettos helped drive militant students further from King.

After he was booed at a mass meeting in Chicago King reflected, “For twelve years I had held out radiant promises of progress. I had urged them to have faith in America and in white society. Their hopes had soared.

“They were now booing because they felt that we were unable to deliver on our promises. They were booing because we had urged them to have faith in people who had too often proved to be unfaithful.

“They were now hostile because they were watching the dream that they had so readily accepted turn into a frustrating nightmare.”

King’s growing disillusionment with the possibility of reform caused him to question the nature of racism. He concluded that the capitalist economy was responsible for poverty and division, and dedicated himself to building a Poor People’s Campaign to challenge it.

His radical turn was already creating tensions among his supporters. And in 1966, long before anti-war sentiment was widely popular, he spoke out against the Vietnam War.

1968—when the world caught fire
1968—when the world caught fire
  Read More

Liberal newspapers that had hailed him as a hero now attacked him. The Poor People’s Campaign hit trouble before it even got off the ground. The Civil Rights Movement leadership was made up primarily of Southern, black, middle class religious figures.

They had limited contact with the black poor and almost no contact with white workers so it was unclear how they would build the new movement.

A solution came when a strike broke out among refuse workers in Memphis, Tennessee.

On a rainy day in February 1968, Echol Cole and Robert Walker sought shelter in the back of their rubbish truck. An electrical short-circuit started the hydraulic ram and the two black men were crushed.

Nearly all 1,300 black Memphis sanitation workers immediately walked out on strike. King saw the possibility of reviving his campaign.

The strikers identified themselves with the Civil Rights Movement and wore placards saying, “I AM A MAN”. King celebrated their resistance, saying, “Don’t go back on the job until the demands are met.

“Never forget that freedom is not something that is voluntarily given by the oppressor. It is something that must be demanded by the oppressed.

“I tell you what you ought to do, and you are together here enough to do it. In a few days you ought to get together and just have a general work stoppage in the city of Memphis.”

King returned on the night of 3 April, 1968. The next day he was shot and killed by a white racist, James Earl Ray. King had become a bitter opponent of the government and its wars, was organising a poor people’s campaign, and was calling for a city-wide general strike.

He had travelled a long way. And, the more radical he became, the more of a threat the US establishment and its allies calculated him to be.

Today, we must seek to answer King’s question about what kind of society could replace capitalism by arguing and fighting for the alternative—socialism. Such a world can only come about through revolution.

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