The Democratic Party advertises itself as the champion of the marginalized, while simultaneously painting the Republican Party as the white man’s party. This series serves to highlight the contradictions in this false illusion and to analyze the two-party system situated on two sides of the same white supremacist capitalist patriarchal coin.
American society treats African American history as if it begins with slavery and ends with the Civil Rights Era, but there is so much more to it than that. Civil rights for African Americans, though they progressed in the 1970s, have yet to be fully realized. In the neoliberalization of the economy, we saw an increase in mass incarceration via the rise of the prison industrial complex and the weakening of the social safety net. Police violence persists, the U.S. imperialist agenda wreaks havoc upon millions around the world and voting rights are denied via gerrymandering and imprisonment.
These are surely necessary phenomena to reflect upon as MLK Day nears, but let us not kid ourselves: U.S. society hardly gives much thought to the ongoing issues facing African Americans today. This is evidenced by the constant news coverage of “Trump this, Russia that,” and the sensationalism of the presidential debates. The only time African Americans are mentioned at all is in relation to the “black vote” that candidates address to paint themselves as supposedly progressive and diverse. Even then, the Democratic Party is convinced that it deserves the trust of black voters and other marginalized members of the populous as the only alternative to the evil Republican Party.
This brings me to Martin Luther King Jr., who is so ubiquitously quoted by modern politicians, yet his politics are mythologized and misunderstood. Today, MLK is championed as having achieved equal opportunity, the very cornerstone of liberalism; if we have a diversity of CEOs, surely that means progress, right? Let us ignore the fact that the majority of people, particularly the marginalized, are living in some form of poverty. Not to mention the fact that Dr. King Jr. initiated the Poor People’s Campaign to fight for economic justice for all races. This was after observing that the gains of the civil rights movement had not quite improved the material conditions of many African Americans. The campaign fought for an Economic Bill of Rights, which would increase full employment, annual income and low-income housing, among other things. Such legislation is considered radical even today, which truly shows how far we have regressed.
King was also in protest of the Vietnam War, an agenda pushed by the U.S. military industrial complex. One year before his assassination on Apr. 4, 1968, he delivered a speech at Riverside Church in New York City titled “Beyond Vietnam.” He called for a withdrawal of troops, a unilateral truce and peace talks with the National Liberation Front. In connecting the peace and poverty movements with racial and humanitarian justice, King’s activism was sweeping. Naturally, the FBI monitored him and attempted to undermine the movements he led via surveillance, saboteurs, insiders, media bias and other government intervention. Eventually he was allegedly assassinated by James Earl Ray, though there are claims that it was really a set-up by the U.S. government.
The organization of the civil rights movement is often relegated to King. Or sometimes even King and Malcolm X, but rarely do we remember the women activists. Rosa Parks was not only instrumental in leading anti-segregation and bus boycott efforts, but also worked to organize with civil rights leaders like King and Edgar Nixon. For the rest of her life she worked for fair housing, civil rights, the freedom of political prisoners, welfare, education and job discrimination. She was much more than just some person who sat on a bus. Rosa Parks was an activist. Coretta Scott King influenced much of Dr. King Jr.’s politics, as they had much discussion over the years. Early on, she was in opposition to the Vietnam War and she pointed him to various readings about economic justice. She was also active during and after the civil rights movement and fought against apartheid, for peace and for LGBT rights.
In the years following the Civil Rights Act, white support for King waned. The white American populace saw it as the final concession, whereas King saw it as the mere beginning of an ongoing struggle for human rights. The U.S. government actively worked to disrupt civil rights activism, and agents of white hegemony pushed against progress every step of the way. The white moderate once supportive of the Civil Rights Act turned away in disgust at the sight of continuing protest. After King’s assassination in 1968, the civil rights movement dwindled.
And how do we view these events in today’s context? King’s legacy is white-washed for a palatable annual celebration on Jan. 20, the third Monday of the year. It is that simple. Politicians all across the political spectrum, even Mike Pence, quote him for their own aims. Lip service is paid to Kingian politics without a real acknowledgement of his evolving ideas and activism. Most reflections on King and the civil rights movement stick to his “I Have A Dream” speech delivered in 1963, painted as advocating for a color-blind politics. His later advocacy for economic justice and global peace is ignored. The ubiquitous white backlash predicted by many civil rights leaders is painted over; we are told to see the years following the Civil Rights Act as peaceful, free of racial inequality.
King is memorialized in the same American pantheon as Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, hardly comparable leaders; this memorialization packages him in a format digestible for the U.S. white supremacist capitalist patriarchal agenda and its constituency. King fought for affirmative action, global citizenship, universal healthcare, housing guarantees, reparations and an end to U.S. imperialism, all of which are still widely debated in today’s disastrous political climate. You can bet your bottom dollar that Republicans and Democrats alike will continue to spew forth quote after quote come Jan. 20, all the while opposing King’s legacy in ideology and action. I recommend that everyone register for events on MLK day this Monday, but also do some research. Watch a few of his speeches. I recommend “I Have Been to the Mountaintop,” his last. Read works from other Black activists like James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde, Malcolm X and so many others.