47. Lest we forget Martin Luther King’s fight for the poor
Monday 11 June 2018, Prof. Adekeye Adebajo
This April marked the 50th anniversary of the death of slain civil rights stalwart, Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK), a commemoration that has remarkably gone largely unnoticed in much of Africa. This July also celebrates the centenary of King’s fellow Nobel peace laureate, Nelson Mandela’s birth. Both the civil rights and anti-apartheid struggles were symbolically linked when Mandela – in a 1994 speech to the United States (US) Congress – echoed King’s words from the 1963 March On Washington, borrowed from an old Negro spiritual: “Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty we are free at last!” Both of these liberation struggles focused on combating racial injustice and social inequality. The black ghettos of the American civil rights struggle mirrored the black townships of South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle.
King and his fellow Nobel peace laureate, South Africa’s Albert Luthuli, issued a joint declaration condemning apartheid in 1962, and during his Nobel prize speech two years later, MLK honoured Luthuli “whose struggles with and for his people, are still met with the most brutal expression of man’s inhumanity to man.” King also championed decolonisation efforts in Africa, attending Kwame Nkrumah’s independence celebration in Accra in 1957. As he noted: “The liberation struggle in Africa has been the greatest single international influence on American Negro students. Frequently I hear them say that if their African brothers can break the bonds of colonialism, surely the American Negro can break Jim Crow.”
King became the youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 at the age of 35. He was a prophetic troubadour, and a religious griot who tirelessly preached the gospel of black liberation across the vast expanse of the American colossus. MLK was described in a rich 2013 essay by African-American journalist, Lee Daniels, as the “Great Provocateur” and “apostle of non-violence,” while African-American pastor-intellectual, Michael Eric Dyson, more recently, called him a “troublemaker for Jesus.” King came from a solidly middle-class background: his father, grandfather, and great grandfathers had all been preachers. He thus followed in a long line of proselytizing ancestors. His faith in the ministry was bolstered at Atlanta’s all-black Morehouse College, before he went on to earn a doctorate in theology from Boston University.
King was assassinated in Memphis in April 1968, where he had gone to support a strike by sanitation workers. His martyrdom at the age of 39 was as tragic as those of similar Pan-African figures assassinated before they reached their fortieth birthday: Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, and Walter Rodney. A day before his death, during his famous “Mountaintop” speech, King had, like a black Moses, warned his disciples that he had seen the Promised Land – having spent many years wandering across the American wilderness – but might not get there with them. He marched towards his painful destiny with the grace and dignity of a Christ-like figure. After his death, violence flared in over 100 American cities in which 12 people died and 1,200 buildings were burned, in stark contradiction of the very principles of non-violence that King had consistently preached.
Through the dog days of countless demonstrations, bus boycotts, and freedom rides that marked one of the most dangerous and violent epochs in American history, King demonstrated a resilience and fearlessness that was almost unnerving, arguing that “The only way we can really achieve freedom is to somehow conquer the fear of death. For if a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.” MLK’s home was firebombed and he was stabbed – nearly fatally – in a New York department store. Handsome, charismatic, and always impeccably dressed, he remains one of the greatest orators of all time. He was relentless and indefatigable in pursuing the liberation struggle. No town was too small and no city too large in spreading the liberation gospel and finding converts to the cause. He had an unbending belief in the rightness of his cause.
India’s Mahatma Gandhi lived in South Africa between 1893 and 1914 where he developed the satyagraha (“soul force”) non-violent resistance methods to fight discrimination against the Indian community, provoking arrest and accepting punishment, while seeking to convert the oppressor to recognise the justness of their cause. Gandhi returned to India in 1914, and launched satyagrahas, strikes, and mass demonstrations that eventually brought down the mighty British Empire. King was inspired by Jesus’ love ethic, and felt that it was through Gandhi that Christ’s teachings had been most effectively actualised. MLK thus unwaveringly adopted Gandhi’s methods to wage America’s civil rights struggle under the banner of his Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
King viewed “passive resistance” as a “philosophy of life”, arguing that “I’m committed to non-violence absolutely.” Even as he recognised the “volcanic lava of bitterness and frustration” in America’s streets, he argued against violent riots, noting that they would lead to a more brutal backlash against black communities, and relieve whites of their guilt while intensifying their fears. King instead sought to “transmute the inchoate rage of the ghetto into a constructive and creative channel.” He advocated for multiracial peaceful demonstrations that would promote solidarity and unity. Like a post-1990 Mandela, he consistently preached racial reconciliation. King was, however, heavily criticised for his pacifist stance by Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, and countless black youth groups.
Though MLK is now often portrayed in the popular imagination solely as a civil rights icon, he waged a lonely “Poor People’s Campaign” in the last three years of his life. Tackling these sensitive issues made him widely unpopular. King was not just waging a race – but also a class – war, describing himself as a “profound advocate of the social gospel” preaching solidarity and “economic justice” among multi-racial workers. He was a disciple of both Jesus and Marx, criticising a capitalist system that he felt put profits ahead of human rights, calling for decent jobs, housing, and education, as well as the redistribution of wealth. King’s much heralded 1963 March on Washington had, after all, been about jobs and freedom.
MLK thus advocated an “economic bill of rights,” insisting on a living wage, a secure income, access to land and capital, and greater civic participation in governance. Having achieved civil and voting rights legislation by 1965, King saw economic equality as the next phase of the struggle. Unlike Kwame Nkrumah, he argued that achieving the political kingdom was not enough, America also had to embark on a further quest for an elusive economic kingdom.
While consistently insisting on non-violence in waging his struggle, King could sometimes sound as radical as Malcolm X, describing his own approach as “militant non-violence.” MLK complained that “White America has allowed itself to be indifferent to race prejudice and economic denial.” In his famous 1963 “Letter From The Birmingham Jail,” he criticised the “white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice,” observing that “most Americans are unconscious racists.” King was particularly scathing in his criticisms of the hypocrisy of white Americans in the North, hiding behind condemnation of Southern white racism, while themselves supporting segregated housing and schools, and condoning the ghettos in which poor blacks lived.
His economic battles led him logically to oppose America’s brutal imperial war in Vietnam on the basis that the country needed more butter than guns. He condemned the terrible triplets of racism, poverty, and war, arguing that Uncle Sam’s grotesque military expenditures in Asia were better spent on vanquishing poverty at home. He insisted that military swords be turned into productive ploughshares. As King put it: “When the guns of war become a national obsession, social needs inevitably suffer.” The civil rights establishment opposed King’s anti-Vietnam stance which they felt would harm support for their cause. Their criticisms and distancing themselves from King must have been one of the most painful moments in his life. But MLK characteristically demonstrated the courage of his conviction.
In assessing King’s legacy, it is significant that his national holiday each January is one of only three that honour an individual in the US: the other two figures are explorer Christopher Columbus, and founding president, George Washington. A 30-feet granite statue of King has been erected in Washington D.C. across from the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials. The Lorraine Motel where he was murdered has been converted into a National Civil Rights Museum. Across from the Ebenezer Baptist church in Atlanta in which MLK had delivered some of his most searing sermons, is his aquatic crypt where he lies buried next to a museum honouring his legacy. It was the torch of liberation that Gandhi handed to King that made it possible for Barack Obama to serve as the first black president of the US (2009-2016). Obama’s career had been inspired by his fellow Nobel laureate’s civil rights struggle, and his pursuit of universal health-care was a struggle that King had waged four decades earlier.
King was, however, not a saint, as evidenced by his adulterous affairs that were leaked by America’s Federal Bureau of Investigation. His militant activism has, however, been somewhat downplayed by some contemporary writers. As African-American scholar, Cornel West, noted: “A radical man deeply hated and held in contempt is recast as if he was a universally loved moderate.” This was, in a sense, similar to the way Mandela’s early radicalism has often been erased from history. More recent American civic struggles such as Black Lives Matter, the Occupy Movement, and the Living Wage campaign can, in fact, be seen as having been inspired by King. Today, many middle-class whites still silently condone brutal policing methods that imprison and maim a disproportionate number of black youths, as long as their streets and suburbs are safe.
Perhaps the greatest recent tribute to MLK’s legacy was the 2014 film, Selma, which captured the struggle to achieve voting rights for blacks in apartheid America. Underlining continuing Pan-African connections, the Nigerian-British actor, David Oyelowo, gave a scintillating performance as King. MLK’s wife, Coretta Scott, is played with great poise by another Nigerian-Briton, Carmen Ejogo. It is perhaps through such continuing cultural collaborations that the Pan-African bridges forged by King, Luthuli, and Nkrumah can be rebuilt.
Professor Adekeye Adebajo is Director of the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation in South Africa.