Martin Luther King and the African-American fight for justice

From fairly early on, the Civil Rights Movement, in many instances, was a carefully managed affair. Bonnie Greer examines the role of the black middle class in the Civil Rights Movement and the March on Washington.

“Letter From A Birmingham Jail”, Martin Luther King’s declaration of purpose, is the B-Side to “I Have A Dream”.

Less well-known and less celebrated, this is MLK’s “J’accuse” directed not only to what he called “white moderates” but also, in a sense what we in the UK call the black middle class. They are the ones that a friend of mine called the NAACP: “National Association Of Certain People.”

From fairly early on, the Civil Rights Movement, in many instances, was a carefully managed affair. Enough boats were being rocked, propriety didn’t have to be one of them.

In Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks was chosen to be the one who would not give up her seat to a white person.

But nine months earlier, a teenager Claudette Colvin, had refused to give her seat to a white woman. But Miss Colvin was deemed unsuitable. The fight had to be mainstream.

My upset at discovering that we were moving from our West Side of Chicago neighbourhood to the South Side was not because I would miss being mugged for my mother’s cigarette money, or falling asleep to gang initiations outside my bedroom window.

It was because the South Side was “middle class”, people more concerned about their lawns; their fraternities and sororities; their cars and clothes and not looking “country”: that dreaded sign that they had roots somewhere in the rural South.

Because of them, and certain of the “church people”; and just for overall white acceptance, the March on Washington had to be a “user friendly” experience. It was, after all, going to be the biggest thing that TV had ever done. The American press made a bet and decided to side with the ladies and gentlemen of the Civil Rights Movement. But the fear was still there.

You can view it on the Meet the Press interview conducted a few days before the march with Dr King and Roy Wilkins, head of the NAACP. What can only be described as the utter fear of the fact that “100,000 Negroes” as one journalist said, marching down the Mall is still palpable. He didn’t fear nice Dr King nor Mr Wilkins, but people like my people, the folks with roots in the “ghetto”.

But the journalist needn’t have worried. Internal housekeeping had been conducted.

Bayard Ruston, who had been one of the initiators of the idea way back at the beginning of the 1940s, and had laid it on the table to FDR during the beginning of World War Two was a troublesome inconvenience: he was gay. And not only was he gay, he was out, and he didn’t give a damn who knew it. Add to this the fact that he was an avowed left-winger, a prominent place for Rushton was not on. Neither was it for Paul Robeson an all-singing rebuke to American hypocrisy.

James Baldwin wasn’t invited to speak, either, not only because he was homosexual and not in hiding with it, but he was also considered to be too loose a cannon. The biographer who has claimed “that the politician had sabotaged the writer” simply doesn’t get that Baldwin owed his allegiance to the working class, to the ghetto. Even John Lewis, now the only survivor amongst the main speakers, had his speech vetted for fear of what the young student firebrand might say.

The smoke and mirrors that have always been used to obscure the African-American fight for justice and turn it into a Broadway show or a three popcorn tear-jerker at the multiplex, was always something, I believe, that Dr King knew. He didn’t move fast enough for my generation, but he knew what was going on, the direction things could end up.

Kitsch and the March on Washington may be inevitable. Most people who talk about it and write about it did not experience it, nor the events leading up to it. But that’s ok. We’re in a post-movement era and analysis and insight from that point of view is as valid and important as any other. Maybe more important.

Maybe next year, President Obama can ditch Martha’s Vineyard for his annual summer break, and go back home to his house on the South Side of Chicago. Even though his property is surrounded by guards, he can still get a flavour of what folks are going through there: the gang violence; the school closures; the fight to avoid what Dr King wrote in his Letter:". . .living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next. . . plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; . . .forever fighting a degenerating sense of 'nobodiness'."

But that famous picture of Dr King peering through the bars of his cell in that Birmingham Alabama jail is of a man looking into the future. Not his own. But ours.

 

 

 

Martin Luther King waves to supporters from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Bonnie Greer is a playwright, author, and the Chancellor of Kingston University.

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Britain's commemoration of Partition is colonial white-washing in disguise

It’s much easier to focus on the indigenous perpetrators of religious violence than on the imperialist policies that facilitated it.

While in London a couple of weeks ago, I couldn’t help but notice a curious trend in the British media’s coverage of the upcoming 70th anniversary of the end of British colonial rule in the Indian subcontinent. It wasn’t the familiar think-pieces about "the jewel in the crown", thinly disguised nostalgia for empire masquerading as critiques of colonialism (see for example, The Conversation’s piece on how colonialism was traumatic for, wait for it, officials of the British Raj). It wasn’t the patronising judgements on how India and Pakistan have fared 70 years down the road, betraying the paternalistic attitude some of the British commentariat still harbours towards the former "colonies". It wasn’t even the Daily Mail’s tone-deaf and frankly racist story about 92 year old countess June Bedani and her “loyal Indian houseman” Muthukanna Shamugam, who doesn’t even speak a word of “Indian” (that’s just classic Daily Mail). What got my attention was the British media’s raging hard-on for Partition - a flurry of features, documentaries and TV specials about one of the biggest and bloodiest mass migrations of the 20th century.

Just take a look at the major headlines from the past couple of weeks - "They Captured And Forced Him Out Of His Home: This Isn’t Syria In 2017, It Was India In 1947" (Huffington Post UK); "Partition: 70 Years On" (The Guardian, BBC and Independent, each with a different subhead); "The Real Bloody Legacy Of Partition" (The Spectator); "Remembering Partition: 70 Years Since India-Pakistan Divide" (Daily Mail) and many more. It isn’t that - unlike some of my more reactionary compatriots - I believe that the Partition story shouldn’t be documented and spoken about. On the contrary, I think India and Pakistan have failed to grapple successfully with Partition’s scars and still festering wounds, and the way it still haunts both our domestic politics and our relationship with each other. But the overwhelming focus on the grisly details of Partition by the British press is deeply problematic, especially in its unsubtle erasure of British culpability in the violence. Even the Guardian’s Yasmin Khan, in one of the few pieces that actually talks about the British role in Partition, characterises the British government as “naive and even callous” rather than criminally negligent, and at least indirectly responsible thanks to its politics of "divide and rule". Of course, it’s much easier to focus on the indigenous perpetrators of religious violence than on the imperialist policies that facilitated it. That would require the sort of national soul-searching that, even 70 years on, makes many British citizens deeply uncomfortable.

Rose-tinted views of empire aside, the coverage of Indian and Pakistani independence by the British press is also notable in its sheer volume. Perhaps, as some commentators have suggested, this is because at a time of geopolitical decline and economic uncertainty, even the tainted legacy of colonialism is a welcome reminder of the time when Britain was the world’s reigning superpower. There is certainly some truth to that statement. But I suspect the Brexit government’s fantasies of Empire 2.0 may also have something to do with the relentless focus on India. There is a growing sentiment that in view of historic and cultural ties, a post-Brexit Britain will find natural allies and trade partners in Commonwealth countries such as India.

If that’s the case, British policy-makers and commentators are in for a reality check. The truth is that, despite some simmering resentment about colonialism, most Indians today do not care about the UK. Just take a look at the contrast between the British and Indian coverage of Independence Day. While there are a handful of the customary pieces about the independence struggle, the Indian press is largely focused on the here-and-now: India’s economic potential, its relationships with the US and China, the growing threat of illiberalism and Hindu nationalism. There is nary a mention of contemporary Britain.

This is not to say that modern India is free of the influence - both good and bad - of colonialism. Many of the institutions of Indian democracy were established under the British colonial system, or heavily influenced by Britain’s parliamentary democracy. This is reflected both in independent India’s commitment (in theory, if not always in practice) to the ideals of Western liberalism and secularism, as well as its colonial attitude towards significant sections of its own population.

The shadow of Lord Macaulay, the Scottish legislator who spent four eventful years in India from 1834 to 1838 and is considered one of the key architects of the British Raj, still looms large over the modern Indian state. You can see it in the Penal Code that he drafted, inherited by both independent India and Pakistan. You can see it in Indian bureaucracy, which still functions as a paternalistic, colonial administrative service. And you can see it in the Indian Anglophile elite, the product of an English education system that Macaulay designed to produce a class of Indians “Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.” It was this class of Anglophile Indians who inherited the reins of the Indian state after independence. It is us - because I too am a Macaulayputra (Macaulay’s child), as the Hindu right likes to call us. We congratulate ourselves on our liberalism and modernity even as we benefit from a system that enriched the few by impoverishing the many. This class of brown sahibs is now the favourite punching bag of a Hindu nationalism that we have allowed to fester in our complacency.

Still, ghosts of the past aside, the UK no longer holds sway over young India, even those in the Anglophile upper classes. Today’s young Indians look to the United States for their pop culture references, their global aspirations and even their politics, both liberal and conservative (see the Hindutva fringe’s obsession with Donald Trump and the alt-right). We still want to study in British universities (though increasingly strict visa rules make it a less attractive destination), but we’d rather work in and emigrate to the US, Canada or Australia. We drink coffee rather than tea (well, except for the thoroughly Indianised chai), watch Veep rather than Yes Minister, and listen to rap, not grime.

Macaulayputra insults aside, the British aren’t even the bogeymen of resurgent Hindu nationalism - that dubious status goes to the Mughal Empire. Whether this cultural turn towards America is a result of the United States’ cultural hegemony and economic imperialism is a topic for another day, but the special "cultural links" between India and the UK aren’t as robust as many Brits would like to think. Which is perhaps why the UK government is so intent on celebrating 2017 as the UK-India year of Culture.

Many in the UK believe that Brexit will lead to closer trade links between the two countries, but much of that optimism is one-sided. Just 1.7 per cent of British exports go to India, and Britain's immigration policy continues to rankle. This April, India allowed a bilateral investment deal to lapse, despite the best efforts of UK negotiators. With the Indian economy continuing to grow, set to push the UK out of the world’s five largest economies by 2022, the balance of power has shifted. 

The British press - and certain politicians - may continue to harbour sepia-tinted ideas of the British Raj and the "special relationship" between the two countries, but India has moved on. After 70 years, perhaps the UK will finally realise that India is no longer "the jewel in its crown". 

 

Bhanuj Kappal is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.