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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.

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

“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.