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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Welcome to South Africa’s new political landscape

The era of one-party rule is over.

Last night, after a whole day of drama, tedium and tragedy, Johannesburg had a new mayor. 

Opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) councillors, dressed in conventional suits, sat quietly throughout the mayoral election, looking very much like businessmen and women. Their sartorial code was completely at odds with the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) – supporters of the far-left’s Julius Malema. They came dressed in their trade-mark red overalls and matching miner’s helmets. 

Singing and dancing, the EFF held up the voting for hours, demanding that an ANC councillor against whom they had laid charges of corruption should be excluded from the election. Finally an ANC councillor collapsed and died in the chamber, having suffered a heart attack.

The proceedings had dragged on for eleven hours, with South Africans complaining on social media that they wanted to go to bed. But eventually the DA’s Herman Mashaba was sworn in as mayor. The 56-year-old businessman, who made his money in cosmetics, would not have been in post without EFF support.

It is a strange alliance. Malema refused to go into a formal alliance with the much larger DA. It was – as he put it – a question of choosing between the better of “two devils”.

It is difficult to see how the DA, whose policies are clearly free-market and capitalist, will work with the EFF. Malema has repeatedly called for nationalisation of the mines and the land, without compensation. But on one issue the DA, EFF and other opposition parties are united: their loathing for the ANC and the quagmire of corruption and nepotism that it has dragged the country into.

The ANC won the largest share of the 3 August local elections, taking 54.5 per cent of the vote – against the DA’s 27.0 per cent and the EFF’s  8.3 per cent. Yet it has found itself excluded from running most of South Africa’s key metropolitan areas.

The opposition holds Tshwane (which includes the administrative capital, Pretoria) Nelson Mandela Bay (including Port Elizabeth) and now Johannesburg itself, as well as Cape Town, which the ANC lost back in 2006.

The ANC has found itself largely relegated to rural towns and villages, with only the metropolitan area of Durban and cities like Kimberley and Bloemfontein in its control.

Transformation

What the election really marks is the end of one-party rule.

From 1948 the National Party ruled the country, imposing apartheid. After 1994 and the release of Nelson Mandela, the ANC governed, with little the opposition could do to challenge its hold on power.

The local government elections ushered in a new era of multi-party politics. Communities across the country are now run by coalitions.

Take Nelson Mandela Bay, as an example.

In the 3 August 2016 election, the ANC lost their majority. The DA gained 57 seats, 4 seats short of a majority. So the DA negotiated a coalition including the African Christian Democratic Party, the Congress of the People, and the United Democratic Movement.

Athol Trollip – the DA’s Xhosa-speaking mayor – has set about rebuilding the metro's reputation. Outlining his plans for his first 100 days in office with promises of jobs and a clean administrations, Trollip said: “Political instability in this metro has rendered this city moribund and unresponsive… It is time to lock the revolving doors of corruption‚ cadre deployment and cronyism and bring about a new model of administration by this multiparty government, that will eschew the blight of such practices and that ushers in a model of good government…".

Can the opposition deliver?

As the reality of their new responsibilities become apparent, the opposition may discover that winning the election was the easy part. The DA will have to show tact, skill and extraordinary diplomacy if it is to hold together its relationship with difficult parties like the EFF.

They have already faced challenges from trade unions allied to the ANC, with protests from South African Municipal Workers Union (Samwu). Journalist and commentator Stephen Grootes has warned that the going will get rough.

"Samwu is likely to try to bring administration in DA-led metros to a halt. But it also faces a risk. It has tended to get what it wants through illegal actions and political pressure in the ANC through Cosatu. This time, it could well find that Mashaba, Msimanga and Trollip are tougher nuts to crack."

The ANC and the president

Meanwhile, the ANC and President Jacob Zuma are not without resources.

They still run central government and have at their disposal the finances of the Treasury and the state’s highly politicised security apparatus.

Yet the ANC is struggling to react effectively.

Its first response was to deny that Jacob Zuma had lost the party votes – preferring instead to take collective responsibility for the defeats.

There are suggestions that the ANC is now so divided and ineffectual that they have almost ceased to govern.

Writing in Business Day, the South African equivalent of the Financial Times, columnist Carol Paton today suggested that: "No one runs SA. It is an aircraft in which the pilot has left the cockpit and locked the door behind him."

Paton accuses President Zuma of having: "Centralised power in his office, using his powers of appointment, in a way that is highly effective in achieving his personal goals, but has had chaotic consequences for the process of governing."

It is difficult to see how this can continue. There is a real loss of a sense of direction. Ordinary South Africans can only watch in anger and frustration as they attempt to muddle along.

But one fact seems certain: the era of one-party rule is over. South Africa has become a much more interesting, complex country.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?