What Dr. King teaches us about revolution

Adam Kranz

In the wake of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, it’s important to reflect on revolution. Yes, revolution. While King is rightfully famous for his role in winning the very important Civil Rights Act and indelibly changing race relations in the U.S., the true history of the civil rights movement is often obscured in revealing ways.

Martin Luther King, Jr. struggled for a society that was not merely race blind, but truly equitable for all. While class issues were left out of his “I Have a Dream” speech, King recognized that the problems of systematic inequality, oppression and human rights violations in the U.S. would not be solved by a mere recognition of racial equality.

Today, African Americans are still disproportionately represented in poverty and its attendant ills: under-education, malnutrition, prisons, drug use, etc. Despite marginal advances in civil rights and race relations, the underlying economic oppression of non-whites is still very much in force.

King apparently recognized why this was the case. A free society, in which one class is no longer able to oppress another, would cost the oppressors everything. And by definition, the oppressors are the power elite, the ones who make the decisions about how power changes. They will never willingly give up power or act against their own interests.

Civil rights reform costs the oppressors comparatively little. Poor African Americans can still be oppressed — as long as they are theoretically repressed in the same ways as poor whites.

The creation of a society without oppression, a society that fulfills the human rights and needs of its members without regard to race and class, cannot be achieved by reform. That requires a revolution, a fundamental change in social power dynamics. That is what the end of oppression means.

King’s contemporary and ally in the civil rights struggle, Malcolm X, also understood this. Malcolm X’s role in the civil rights movement is often underplayed — which of them gets a federal holiday? — yet King arguably could not have achieved what he did without Malcolm X to push the boundaries of socially acceptable strategy.

As Aric McBay put it, “it was Malcolm X who made King’s demands seem eminently reasonable, by pushing the boundaries of what the status quo would consider extreme.”

King’s lessons have important implications for the radical environmental movement. The story demonstrates the importance of a diversity of tactics and philosophies. Even modest reforms will never be tolerated by the power elite unless the resistance forces the oppressors to accept them.

A movement can’t win reforms unless tactics that actually restrict the oppressors’ ability to oppress are on the table. In our case, tactics like nonviolently shutting down a coal plant or a tar sands mine with a sit-in are perfect examples of strategies that would be very effective, but go unused because the movement considers them too confrontational.

I want to close with another point: 200 years ago, 80 percent of the world’s human population was in some form of serfdom or slavery, according to Adam Hochschild. It is no coincidence that the decline of slavery coincided neatly with the rise of fossil fuels. The use of fossil fuels and wage slavery became cheaper and more efficient than direct ownership of other humans.

We owe the gains in standard of living and civil rights made during the last centuries not to the enlightenment of the oppressors or to “progress” but rather to a simple outsourcing of exploitation. Rather than exploiting slaves, we now exploit those most vulnerable to climate change and those who happen to live on top of fossil fuel deposits.

However, as the supply of fossil fuels begins to run short, the oppressors will return to the old standby for cheap, exploitative power: humans. Slaves are cheaper and more numerous today than ever in history, due to the population boom. A person can be purchased for as little as $20 in some places.

Unless the system of oppression known as civilization is destroyed before that happens, we can expect the hints of civil rights regression we are already seeing in the U.S. to expand and balloon.

Racism will return with full force when climate refugee populations boom, as we are already seeing in debates on immigration. Next week, I will discuss what a resistance against civilization might look like and what it must achieve.