A demanding legacy by Mike Marqusee UK Guardian April 4, 2008 10:00 AM


Mike Marqusee

April 4, 2008 10:00 AM


It's testimony to the awkward power of Martin Luther King's life and work that so much effort has gone into sanitising his memory. Today he's commemorated as an apostle of social harmony, a hero in the triumphant march of American progress. But at the time of his death 40 years ago today, his increasingly radical challenge to war and poverty had made him deeply controversial, spied on and harassed by his government, feared and loathed by millions of Americans.

The civil rights movement's challenge to Jim Crow in the south had secured major advances, but had also exposed the intractability of American racism. Legal segregation had been destroyed, but economic inequality loomed larger than ever. Inner cities across the nation erupted in violence every summer between 1964 and 1967. The Black Power slogan signalled a new black nationalist consciousness among younger activists. The role of white people in the movement came under scrutiny and there were calls for black-only organisations.

Martin Luther King stood in the middle of this tempest, under pressure from militant youth on his left and cautious elders on his right. In 1967, his opposition to the war in Vietnam had been denounced by mainstream civil rights leaders and liberal opinion-makers, including The New York Times. While he agreed with the militants that the movement had to enter a new, more ambitious phase, he continued to advocate both non-violence and inter-racial alliances. "We don't enlist races in the movement. We enlist consciences. And anybody who wants to be free, and to make somebody else free, that's what we want."

In January 1968, King launched an inter-racial Poor People's Campaign. The idea was to bring black, white and brown poor people to Washington, where they would establish a tent city and camp out in front of Congress until either a job or a living income was guaranteed for all.

Increasingly, King identified the war in Vietnam as part of a global struggle against colonialism, and black inequality as a function of class inequalities that also affected many whites. Though he opposed the separatism espoused by black nationalists, he had his own view of what "integration" meant: "We are not interested in being integrated into this value structure." A "radical redistribution of economic power" was needed. "So often in America," he observed, "we have socialism for the rich and ragged free enterprise capitalism for the poor."

King's political direction alarmed the FBI, which planted stories in the press to discredit him as a "Communist" and link the Poor People's Campaign to violent plots against the government.

On March 18, he journeyed to the city of Memphis, on the Mississippi river, where for five weeks 1,300 black sanitation workers had been on strike for union recognition and a living wage. King was excited by the sometimes tense but creative coalition that had emerged in support of the strikers. Black churches, white-led trade unions, students and ghetto youth had kept up a succession of marches and protests, despite assaults and arrests by local police. (For an excellent account of the Memphis strike and King's last months, read Going Down Jericho Road by Michael Honey.)

"All labour has dignity," King told the strikers in Memphis. "It is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages." He urged them to stay out till their demands were met. "Never forget that freedom is not something that is voluntarily given by the oppressor. It is something that must be demanded by the oppressed."

In the US in recent weeks the sermons of Barack Obama's pastor, Jeremiah Wright - notably his "God damn America" speech - have been denounced by all and sundry. Wright's anger and "divisiveness" has been contrasted with King's gentle and unifying approach. But I doubt many of Wright's critics would be much more satisfied with "the indictment of America" pronounced by King on that night in Memphis in 1968: "If America does not use her vast wealth to end poverty and make it possible for all of God's children to have the basic necessities of life, she too is going to hell."

King returned to Memphis on April 3. In his famous speech at the Mason Temple he acknowledged fears for his safety. But he told the strikers he'd been "to the mountaintop" and "seen the promised land": "I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land. And I'm happy tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man!"

The next day he was shot dead on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. He was 39 years old.

The civil disorder that ensued was the most widespread in US history. Riots erupted in 125 cities; 70,000 national guard and US troops were called in to quell them, with 50,000 on stand-by - the largest domestic deployment of military forces since the Civil War. Curfews were imposed and martial was declared. In the end 24,000 were arrested; 3000 injured; 46 killed, all but five black.

In Washington DC, crowds 20,000 strong overwhelmed local police. Marines mounted machine guns on the steps of the Capitol. At one point, rioting reached within two blocks of the White House, which was guarded by the Third Infantry.

Sixty-five days after King's killing, his alleged assassin was captured in London. James Earl Ray was painted as a racist loser and was declared to have acted alone. But there have always been doubts. Hundreds of police and FBI agents surrounded the Lorraine Motel that day. Ray escaped their detection to position himself comfortably within shooting distance of King; he was then able to flee the scene without being stopped. It's been suggested that not only the Memphis police, but US military intelligence were involved in the assassination (see An Act of State by William Pepper). In 1999, the King family brought a civil suit in Memphis for wrongful death; after reviewing the evidence in more detail than had ever been done before, the jury ruled that government agencies had indeed been involved in a conspiracy to kill Martin Luther King.

The immediate impact of the King assassination was to deprive the US anti-war and black freedom movements of their most effective leader, perhaps the only one who could have united the disparate constituencies of dissent. Long-term, it deprived the world of a voice for social justice that was to be desperately needed in the decades that followed.

Who knows how King would have evolved? After the first flush of fame, leading the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955-56, and winning a Nobel peace prize in 1963, it would have been easy for him to rise above the fray and enjoy his prestige. He chose to do the opposite. He chose to take the hardest course, confronting the realities of power, the scale of change necessary and the obstacles to that change. He not only talked; he listened. King had something precious and rare among leaders: a capacity for self-criticism and growth. The real Dr King was an altogether more demanding and inspiring figure than the emollient angel we are asked to revere.