Jonathan Farley, Guardian (Manchester), January 17, 2008
As America prepares to celebrate Martin Luther King Day next week, black presidential candidate Barack Obama stands in a strong position to become the country’s 44th president. Some view Obama’s remarkable popularity as the realisation of King’s dream, the final victory of the civil rights movement. Others view it, their respect for Obama notwithstanding, as a testament to its remarkable failure.
Both the aims and the character of the civil rights movement were flawed. One aim was clearly desegregration. But the movement should never have been about integration. It should have been about demanding the respect that is due to free human beings; about ending the physical, spiritual and economic violence that had been perpetrated against African-Americans since the end of the American civil war. What’s the value in begging for the right to spend money in a store owned by a racist who would rather kill you than serve you?
Lest we forget, integration was the death knell for black teachers and principals. Thousands lost their jobs. “The movement” moved us from the back of the bus into the unemployment line.
Almost 40 years after King’s death, we still haven’t reached the promised land. King lamented that, in 1963, only 9% of black students attended integrated schools. But, to give just one example, Atlanta’s Grove Park elementary school is now 99.99% black.
King complains in Why We Can’t Wait that “there were two and one-half times as many jobless Negroes as whites in 1963, and their median income was half that of the white man”. Black median income in 2003 was 62% that of whites, and the black unemployment rate in 2004 was 10.8%, 2.3 times the white rate. The numbers have barely changed.
Following Mahatma Gandhi, the chief characteristic of the civil rights movement was non-violence. In order to combat violent racists, King speaks of meeting “physical force with soul force”. One wonders how well it would work against, say, Hitler’s Panzer divisions. Civil rights marchers had to pledge to “observe with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy”, promising to “refrain from the violence of fist, tongue, or heart”. Said King: “Remember always that the non-violent movement in Birmingham seeks justice and reconciliation—not victory.” Not victory? Whose side was King on?
The riots that occurred in a hundred cities after King’s death were the ultimate testament to his failure. Black people never believed in non-violence after all. Despite our love affair with King, African-Americans are not a non-violent people. Black Americans kill 5,000 other black people every year. (Instead of urging us to love our enemies, King should have taught us to love ourselves.)
And despite our absolute hatred and fear of groups such as the Black Panther party because they refused to espouse non-violence, we have no problem honouring “heroes” such as General Colin Powell, who may have killed as many as 100,000 Iraqis during the Gulf war. Apparently it is evil to take up arms in defence of black people, as the Panthers did, but perfectly Christian behaviour to take up arms in defence of oil companies’ profits.
King’s many worshippers are fond of Gandhian quotes such as “If blood be shed, let it be our blood”. Which is fine if you are merely sacrificing yourself. But King was sending out women, children and old people to be beaten and blown up. Even at the time, as King notes, there were many who viewed this as monstrous. When those little girls were murdered in Birmingham, why should black people not have booted King out and hunted the killers down, like al-Qaida? As King himself said: “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it.”
King also needs a history lesson. He writes, in The Sword That Heals, that “non-violence in the form of boycotts and protests had confounded the British monarchy and laid the basis for freeing the colonies from unjust domination”. Yes, that, and colonial minutemen with rifles.
Which brings us to Obama, a black candidate who refuses even to say whether he supports reparations for slavery. One of the worst aspects of the King legacy is that, thanks to him, no African-American today is allowed to bring up racism, even in the most objective fashion, without severe repercussions. You will be instantly labelled a radical, a Black Panther (a bad thing), or a Mau Mau (a very bad thing) who wants to kill the white man. King has eliminated the possibility of other black people speaking out, people with other philosophies, who do not necessarily want to hug racists. Obama can succeed only insofar as he makes it plain that, like the British trade unionist Bill Morris, he is “not the black candidate”, that he can be counted on neither to be a champion for, nor to defend the rights of, black people.
Our love for King notwithstanding, if we are honest we will concede that King built nothing, and taught us only how to take a beating. As Gandhi said: “I have admitted my mistake. I thought our struggle was based on non-violence, whereas in reality it was no more than passive resistance, which is essentially a weapon of the weak.”
It is time we all admitted our mistake. A black King did not redeem us. And neither will a black president.