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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United States of Emergency: will the North Carolina riots stain Obama's legacy?

The latest flare up of violence in the US is a reminder that the election of the first black president did not herald a new age of post-racial harmony.

Last April I travelled to Baltimore the morning after the Governor of Maryland had declared a state of emergency in the city, following riots that erupted after the death of Freddie Gray in police custody. Time had just published a poignant article comparing images of disorder on America's streets in 2015 with those 50 years earlier, during the struggles of the civil rights era. However, the scene that greeted my companion and I as we looped round the I-95 into the inner harbour looked more like photos we had seen of Helmand in 2001, or Mosul in 2003. Except this wasn't Baghdad, it was Baltimore – the birthplace of Edgar Allen Poe, Babe Ruth and The Star Spangled Banner. And yet it was clearly a warzone, for how else could you explain the presence of 4,000 national guardsmen, either poking out of armoured vehicles or patrolling the streets with automatic weapons?

During the protests that have erupted in Charlotte, and elsewhere, following the shooting of yet another black man by the police, US Attorney General Loretta Lynch has warned against this kind of violence becoming the “new normal”. As North Carolina governor Pat McCrory declared a state of emergency on Thursday morning, the horrible truth was that the normalcy of it all was plain to see. Such is the frequency with which riot police and even soldiers have been deployed on America's streets over the past few years, that the “United States of Emergency” would not seem like an inaccurate rebranding. Of course all of this civil disobedience plays into the hands of a Republican presidential candidate who is making the restoration of “law and order” one of the central tenets in his bid for power.

It is not hard to see the desperation on Obama's face as he reaches the denouement of his own tenure. While the 44th President's political legacy will be debated for years to come, it is now obvious that one thing it did not herald was a new era of post-racial harmony. America's obsession with symbolism almost willed him to the White House but as so often is the case with US politics: the higher the pretensions, the harder the fall. 

Charlotte doesn't represent anything particularly unique in this long struggle against police racism. It's just another place name to be added to Ferguson, Baton Rouge, St. Paul and dozens of others that could form a particularly grim tourist trail. The horrible truth is that as long as there have been black men in America – especially in places like Charlotte – they have always been unfairly targeted by police. For decades in the South these same forces were the “thin white line” promulgating a form of apartheid against the black majority. The difference now is that 21st century technology allows witnesses to capture and disseminate proof of this worldwide. The power of images to expose racial violence is unquestionable. The campaigner Mamie Till, mother of Emmett, knew this when she published photos of her son's mutilated corpse in 1955. As did George Holliday when he filmed Rodney King's beating in 1991.

There is a kind of despair when it comes to trying to find solutions to America's devastating gun and racial problems. Unfortunately neither presidential candidate seems to offer much hope of significant change. One is perceived as being in thrall to big business (of which the gun lobby represents a significant part) and the other, well, it is not hard to imagine Trump's glee at further proof of how “broken” and disorderly the country is under the Democrats. Both of their reactions to this latest incident have been muted. If either of them care at all about fixing this problem they need to take action and it needs to be drastic. The late comedian Robin Williams once quipped that in Britain the police shout: “Stop! Or I'll shout Stop again”. In America that first “stop” is all too often followed by a much louder sound.

The problem is that whenever a “taskforce” is created to fix the problem – such as Obama's 21st century policing initiative – its recommendations are always non-binding. On top of this is the fact that there are nearly 20,000 distinct police departments in the US representing a myriad of vested interests and demographic differences, and all adhering to slightly different codes of conduct. American police need to revert from a militarised occupying force to a pacific consensual one, perhaps by sending officers out unarmed. Unfortunately the likelihood of this happening with either a Trump, or even Clinton, presidency is sadly close to none. 

Alexis Self is a writer based in New York City.