News Record [University of Cincinnati]
January 20, 1978
Memory of King challenged
The program put on by UC on Jan. 12 commemorating Martin Luther King, Jr., which featured the I Have a Dream, was an insult which should not be overlooked. In its attempt to demonstrate how liberal it is in observing birthday, the University managed to hold a program which thoroughly distorted the facts of King’s life, the lessons of the civil rights movement and the role of the Democratic administrations the ’60’s.
While a complete refutation would require an entire issue of the News Record, let it suffice for the moment to deal with a few of the distortions.
UC’s program conspicuously omitted several of the more controversial positions taken by King, including his support black labor struggles and his decision to oppose the Vietnam War (at a time when it was not at all respectable).
Curiously, the film also made no mention of King’s major effort prior to his assassination, the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign, where poor people set up a tent city in Washington, D.C. to protest their poverty. It was a demonstration that the government could not allow to exist in the capital of the richest country in the world, which resulted in its forced removal by the authorities.
Another popular distortion is the portrayal of King as a lone messiah, leading the poor and ignorant toward freedom. It is particularly fashionable today, at a time when the black movement is dormant, to glorify King as almost single-handedly responsible for the entire civil rights movement. However the history of the civil rights and black liberation movements of the late ’50’s and early ’60’s is not primarily history of one leader and his strategies.
Above all, King was the product of black conditions of life in America and of a mass movement that involved hundreds of thousands, and perhaps millions, of people to end racism. Whatever gains were won from the white racist profit system were made on the basis of this mass movement throwing a good scare into the ruling class. Surely, it is to this movement of poor, primarily black people that we should rededicate ourselves, notwithstanding the individual contributions of King.
King’s strategy of nonviolence to end American racism is today also idealized by moderate black and white leaders alike, and this praise for the nonviolent approach was also a central theme of UC’s program.
However, many in the civil rights movement rapidly learned the limits of nonviolence.
By 1964, large numbers of blacks were no longer content with the nonviolent strategy which advocated passive resistance to the unrelenting and brutal repression on the part of the government in both the North and South.
In addition, many had learned to be pessimistic about the actual changes that legislation was supposed to bring. Pleas for patience from politicians were not bringing about much change in the conditions of life for most.
As a result, massive, militant black rebellions broke out during the 1960’s in every major American city as a protest against the conditions of black life, and these rebellions in turn were met with brutal violence from the government.
As the black movement developed, different strategies emerged in contrast to King’s. Malcolm X, Rap Brown, Stokely Carmichael and the Black Panther Party (names that are not as fashionable as King’s) pointed out that, far from a minor problem or an exception to the rule, racism was thoroughly tied up with the system of capitalism which benefited enormously from a racially divided working class, a large pool of black unemployment and an extremely effective repressive apparatus to keep the black population in line.
The black power movement was a direct result of the severe limits of nonviolence in eliminating racism. King’s nonviolence was, therefore, being closely followed by another, less tolerant current, and it was largely this situation which “convinced” racist institutions that unless some concessions were made to the milder movement led by King, the more militant movement among black people would go a long way toward tearing the entire system apart.
Certainly today, when the black gains of the ’60’s are being dismantled piece by piece, there is a great need to re-examine the history of the black movement in a sharp and truthful light.
Letwin is a member of the International Socialist Organization.