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.

Getty
Show Hide image

The problem with grammar schools – and the answer to Labour's troubles

This week's news, from Erdogan the despot, to memories of Disraeli, and coffee and class.

Whom should we be cheering in Turkey? Coups are by their nature ­anti-democratic, whatever the rhetoric of their instigators, but Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Islamist president, is about as much of a democrat as Vladimir Putin. Once he regained power, he dismissed several thousand judges, putting some under arrest. A large number of journalists were already in prison.

As recently as 1990, nearly half of Turkey’s employed population worked on the land and, even now, the proportion is more than a quarter. Erdogan has ruthlessly exploited the pious, socially conservative instincts of his people, who are rarely more than a generation away from the peasantry (and therefore politically “backward” in the Marxian sense), to win elections and push through economic liberalisation and privatisation. His foreign affairs ministry claims that the aim is to confine the state’s role to health, basic education, social security and defence. That is good enough for most Western governments. Provided he also co-operates in limiting the flow of Middle Eastern migrants into Europe, Erdogan can be as Islamist and authoritarian as he likes.

 

Quick fix for Labour

I have an answer to Labour’s problems. Its MPs should elect their own leader while Jeremy Corbyn continues as party leader. The former, recognised by the Speaker as the leader of the parliamentary opposition, would get the usual state aid for opposition parties. Corbyn would control Labour Party funds and assets.

He and his hardcore supporters should welcome this arrangement. Their aim, they say, is to build a new social movement. Relinquishing the burden of parliamentary leadership would leave them free to get on with this project, whatever it means. Corbyn could go back to what he enjoys most: voting against the Labour front bench. He would no longer have to dress up, bow to the Queen or sing the national anthem. This, I grant you, would not be a satisfactory solution for the long term. But the long term is more or less extinct in British politics. If Labour had peace for a few months, it might be enough. The situation would be resolved either by Corbyn falling under a bus (preferably not one driven by a Labour MP) or the Tory government collapsing in the face of a mass people’s uprising demanding Corbyn’s installation as supreme ruler. Don’t tell me that neither is likely to happen.

 

Divide and rule

The choice of Birmingham as the location to launch Theresa May’s leadership campaign, combined with proposals such as worker representation on company boards, has drawn comparisons between the new Prime Minister and Joseph Chamberlain.

Chamberlain, who as mayor of Birmingham in the mid-1870s tore down slums, brought gas and water supplies under public control and opened libraries, swimming pools and schools, was a screw manufacturer. There was an Edwardian joke – or, if there wasn’t, there ought to have been – that he screwed both major parties. He became a Liberal cabinet minister who split the party over Irish home rule, putting it out of power for most of the next 20 years. He and his followers then allied themselves with the Tories, known at the time as the Unionists. He duly split the Unionists over tariff reform, excluding them from office for a decade after the Liberals won the 1906 election.

Chamberlain was a populist who brilliantly combined patriotic imperialism with domestic radicalism, proposing smallholdings of “three acres and a cow” for every worker. One can see the appeal to some Brexiteers but he was also divisive and volatile, making him an odd role model for a supposedly unifying leader.

 

Mind your grammar

Justine Greening, the new Education Secretary, is the first to be wholly educated at a mainstream state secondary comprehensive. Pro-comprehensive groups were almost lyrical in praise of her appointment. Yet, unlike her predecessor-but-one, Michael Gove, she declines to rule out the ­return of grammar schools.

To understand how iniquitous grammar schools were, you need to have attended one, as I did. Primary-school friendships were ruptured, usually along lines of social class. The grammars were rigidly stratified. I was in the A stream and do not recall any classmates from semi-skilled or unskilled working-class homes. They were in the C stream and left school as early as possible with a few O-levels. No minister who wants a “one-nation Britain” should contemplate bringing back grammar schools.

 

Living history

Simon Heffer’s recent account in the NS of how his father fought in the Battle of the Somme led one letter writer to ask if anyone alive today could have a grandparent born in the 18th century. Another NS reader replied with an example: John Tyler, a US president of the 1840s, born in Virginia in 1790, had two grandsons who are still alive. Here is another possibility. “As Disraeli said to my husband . . .” If you hear a 94-year-old say that, don’t dismiss her as demented. Disraeli died in 1881. A 71-year-old who married a 24-year-old in 1946 (not impossible; the actors Cary Grant and Anthony Quinn both married women 47 years younger) could have spoken to Disraeli as a boy.

The past is not as far away as we think, though many politicians and journalists behave as though anything before 1980 happened on another planet.

 

Milk money

The class system is alive and well in parts of England. On a family weekend walk, we came across a small village with two adjacent pubs – one clearly for the toffs, the other more plebeian. This was most evident when ordering coffee. The downmarket pub told us that it served only UHT milk with its hot drinks. The other was ostentatiously horrified at the suggestion that it might serve any such thing. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt