(published originally at Wrath-Bearing Tree September 2013)
We recently witnessed the 50th anniversary celebration of the famous 1963 “March on Washington”, which was a peaceful gathering in the nation’s capital to advocate for Civil Rights for African-Americans. The original event climaxed with the magnificent speech of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., called the “I Have a Dream” speech, and rightly considered the most important piece of modern American oratory. What went unmentioned at this recent celebration was the same thing that has generally been lost to history: the fact that Dr. King’s vision went beyond just civil rights. The official name of the event was “The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” Dr. King knew that civil rights and voting protections were essentially hollow achievements if they were not accompanied by the arguably more important economic rights that would provide more jobs and opportunity for poor Americans (no matter Black or White). The March is generally considered to be one of the important catalysts that led to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act — two highly important and symbolic new laws that were nonetheless mildly enforced. On the occasion of this semi-centennial anniversary, let’s take the time to assess the legacy of the March as well as Dr. King’s more profound and controversial vision for America.
The March on Washington and the subsequent passage of the two above-mentioned laws were the impetus for a massive change in the American political landscape that still has very real ramifications. When the former slave states of the South saw that the Federal government was no longer going to implicitly support their violent segregation and terrorism of their large Black population, the White leaders of the South led an exodus away from the Democratic party (which had passed the civil rights laws) to the Republican party (which had been the party of Lincoln and Emancipation 100 years earlier). The rampart white supremacism that united the “Solid South” thus led to cynical politicians like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan exploiting the new “Southern Strategy”, a gambit designed to actively alienate Blacks and minorities in order to gain full access to the electoral block of the southern states. It was a hugely successful strategy that allowed the Republicans to win all but three presidential elections from 1968-2008. The election and re-election of Barack Obama, as well as demographic change, seems to have finally rendered ineffectual the 40-year dominance of the cynical Southern Strategy.
On another front, the Supreme Court decided in June of this year to effectively erase one of the most important provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act: a clause which provided Federal oversight and protection of voting rights in nine mostly Southern states with the most egregious history of racial discrimination and disenfranchisement. The Supreme Court voted 5-4 in favor of dismantling part of the law, with the five conservative judges who were appointed by Republican presidents united on the matter. Their rationale was that the Voting Rights Act had worked so well to protect voting rights from discrimination and to allow minorities to vote that it was actually not needed any longer. That is like saying that because the Fourteenth Amendment has worked so well to stop slavery it is no longer needed on account of there being no slaves at the moment. This foolish decision obviously does not take into account the fact that many states have moved from the “first generation” techniques of disenfranchisement, such as literacy tests and outright intimidation (or even physical violence in the worst cases) to stop Blacks from going to the ballot box, to more modern and subtle techniques of racial gerrymandering, voter ID laws, and restricting voting times and access. An example of the extreme gerrymandering that has made of mockery of the democratic process are the states of Pennsylvania and Ohio: both states voted for Obama by solid percentages of 5% and 3%, respectively, yet in Pennsylvania Republicans won 13 of 18 seats in the House of Representatives, and in Ohio it was 12 of 15 for Republicans. Similarly, when the Supreme Court made its recent decision to re-allow discrimination, Republican-led states such as Texas and North Carolina literally could not wait a single day to reinstate the types of voting restrictions that we wished had already vanished from public acceptability. Finally, on the anniversary of the March there was not a single Republican who attended the event, neither to give a speech nor to even support the idea that equality is something to be supported by that party. This is despite the fact that event organizers and the King family had strongly wanted and tried to get leaders from both parties to make it a non-partisan affair, and despite the fact that all elected Congressmen were invited to attend. This reflects extremely poorly on the Republican party, which has yet to abandon the success of its 40-year Southern strategy and cannot accept that its time has come and gone. It also reveals that in the 50 years since the March on Washington we still have much work to do to protect freedom against intolerance, and that for every step forward that we make we also have to guard against those who want to take us a step (or more) backwards.
Dr. King himself continued the fight for five years after the March until he was assassinated in April 1968 at the age of 39. A poor white man with an old rifle was convicted for the murder and spent his life in prison, but the findings have always been highly suspect and it is certain that much more powerful forces were at work to silence Dr. King. The reason is that Dr. King was a controversial figure who, despite the peaceful and positive March on Washington, was actually increasingly active against the general economic and political status quo. In the five years between the March and his assassination, the focus of his work and his rhetoric evolved from fighting for civil rights to fighting against the entire system that produced war and poverty at home and abroad. Specifically, he began to express doubt about the efficacy of the Vietnam War. Some of the first opposition to the Vietnam War came out of the civil rights movement, maybe because it was easier for Blacks to distrust the government claims that it was fighting for freedom. A gathering in 1964 in Mississippi held at the same time of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution compared the use of force against Vietnam to the violence Blacks faced everyday at home in Mississippi. In 1967 (a year before he was killed) Dr. King gave a speech in New York called “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.” In this speech, he spoke forcefully against the American war in Indochina, saying that the goal of the US was “to occupy it as an American colony.” He also said that the US government was “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” This vocal stance put him in opposition to President Johnson, who had earlier signed both of the new laws protecting civil and voting rights. He continued to speak out against the unlawful military action in Vietnam, and in January 1968 he called for another march on Washington against “one of history’s most cruel and senseless wars.”
Directly connected with his anti-war and anti-Vietnam views, Dr. King began to advocate for anti-poverty programs and social welfare at home. “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” For decades after World War Two, the US was by far the wealthiest and strongest country in the world, and spent a large majority of its budget on military spending and only a fraction on social welfare. Today the US is still easily the wealthiest and strongest country in the world and spends more on military than the next 20 countries combined, and yet poverty and income inequality have both increased, rather than decreased, over time. Dr. King’s vision reached to the heart of the matter and saw that the American government spends vast amounts of money to establish and maintain a global empire and a military state, but basically disregards the huge numbers of its own citizens who were poor and without hope.
In 1968, Dr. King started the Poor People’s Campaign to fight for economic justice in general, aimed at helping not only Blacks but all disadvantaged people. He saw that poor white people were in the same boat as poor black people, but that both were wedged apart from fighting together for their economic rights because of the man-made issue of racism. He condemned a system that spent lavishly on making war against poor countries across the globe while ignoring its poor people at home and refusing to guarantee them a living wage. His new message was intentionally more revolutionary than his earlier calls for equal rights. He lost support from many politicians, unions, white allies, the press, and even some of his fellow civil rights leaders. This did not stop him from continuing his new mission to fight against the ingrained injustice of a system that rewards greed but ignores the helpless. The FBI under J. Edgar Hoover had long monitored Dr. King for subversive activity, and from 1963 until his death he was the target of an intensive campaign of investigation and intimidation intended to discredit him. Wire-tapping was authorized by Attorney General Robert Kennedy in 1963, and the FBI harassed him constantly, culminating in a letter threatening to reveal allegations of extramarital affairs unless he committed suicide. Dr. King dismissed the forces stacked against him and continued to fight for justice until he became too dangerous to the powers that be, and he was silenced.
The tragedy of all wars is not only the horror and death that is brought mostly upon weak and innocent civilians, but the fact that the soldiers fighting the wars often come from the same disadvantaged backgrounds and have no mutual enmity with each other but are manipulated all the same by the class of war profiteers, crony capitalists, and power-mongers. This is the case with the Vietnam war, protested by Dr. King and by millions of other Americans; in that war the world’s most advanced military spread destruction, murder, and mayhem against a poor peasant population across the world that wanted the freedom to live their own lives in peace. Dr. King fought against the injustice of a government that could profess to defend freedom overseas while supporting oppression at home. Today, I think we know what he would be fighting for if he saw that we were still preaching the same freedom while hypocritically attacking and bombing other countries, supporting coups d’etats and violent dictators, creating a massive intelligence infrastructure that indiscriminately spies on citizens at home and abroad, sending unmanned “drones” to fire missiles at military-age males in other countries without due process or legal justification, and building a vast network of private prisons across the country to make incarceration a profit-making business that preys on the poor and minorities, all while saying that there is not enough money to support education, health care, social programs, homeless people (who are often veterans), to raise the minimum wage, or to enact Dr. King’s solution of instituting a living wage. The truth that Dr. King knew was that there is a deep connection between the evils of racism, poverty, materialism, and militarism; for him, the only solution was “a radical restructuring of society” that would go beyond giving lip service to high ideals in order to actually defend justice and fairness and human dignity.
The achievements that came from the Civil Rights movement were due not only to strong leadership, but to the idea of sustained solidarity. This is to be the only solution if we are to continue to fight for progress and a more just society. The March on Washington came about by the unified efforts of six independent civil rights organizations, as well as a wide coalition of students, unions, churches, and white Americans that sympathized with the cause. Differences were put aside so that real progress could be made. Only strength in numbers is able to create the pressure needed to force change from unwilling politicians, who otherwise benefit from stasis. More importantly, we must see each other as one human family rather than a group of various classifications, and to ignore those who profit who the division of the weak and the strong. Only by standing together in great numbers with common cause against the power elite can we change an unfair system and try to bend the arc of history towards justice. As Dr. King showed, this means going beyond mere words or beliefs and becoming socially and politically active, not standing by when we see injustice in our communities or our country at large, and joining groups of like-minded activists who are also willing to make a difference. Dr. King made a real difference in fighting for justice and paid the ultimate price for his principles; the way to honor his legacy and his dream is to get involved and not stand on the sidelines. The only way to guarantee freedom and justice is to ensure that they are extended to everyone, rich and poor, home and abroad.