by Rufus Vernon
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.
August 28th 2013 marked the 50th anniversary of the historic speech delivered by Dr Martin Luther King Jr, who remains a key figure for civil rights in the modern world – but how far have we come today from that speech delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963?
That August thousands flocked to Washington DC for the momentous rally. As a direct consequence of this the landmark Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, which led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Further demonstrations followed, including a major one in Montgomery where 25,000 protesters heard King’s powerful oratory and sang out the movement’s anthem, “We shall overcome”. Images of the violence against the crowd were broadcast throughout the world, forcing the federal government to intervene. King’s eloquence made him a powerful advocate against both injustice and inequality.
That speech stirred the emotions not only of Black Americans but of freedom-loving people the world over. That rally for freedom and brotherhood against the racism enshrined in the laws of many states in the US at that time was revolutionary. The so-called United States in the 1960s were in fact divided by race, class and generation. King sought to lay out a vision of a better America and a better world while, grounding his words in the harsh realities that he confronted. He fought for racial integration, while other Black leaders had emphasized separatism and identification with Africa.
Leaders such as Paul Cuffe and Martin Delaney were convinced that Blacks could never achieve equality in the United States. It should be noted that most African Americans even today do not crave integration, although they support it. This stems from their own history and pride in their Black heritage. The horrors of slavery and the more recent civil rights movement are very much ingrained in the black narrative.
King was deeply inspired by Gandhi, notably his ideal of nonviolent resistance. But the nonviolent approach was increasingly challenged by younger and more militant Black activists who looked towards a leader such as Malcolm X. Malcolm X was widely condemned in his lifetime by those civil-rights leaders who advocated nonviolent methods. However Malcolm X changed his more militant philosophy following his breakaway from the Nation of Islam. He exerted considerable influence on the new wave of Black consciousness which culminated in the Black Power movement of the late 1960s. It was in 1966 that the Black Panther Party was formed. This was an armed revolutionary socialist organization advocating self-determination for Black ghettoes and born out of years of suppression and subjugation.
The Black Panther Party represented the alternative to what King had campaigned for. Nevertheless King was able to build on the momentum of the Black Civil Rights Movement that had emerged in the mid-1950s with a series of boycotts against racially segregated facilities, particularly in the South. The best-known boycott was the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott in Alabama, led by figures such as King himself and Rosa Parks, the woman who had started it off by refusing to move from her seat on a segregated bus. The boycott lasted over a year and successfully desegregated city buses in Montgomery. Parks said: “I wanted to as be free as everybody else. I didn’t want to be constantly humiliated for something I had no influence on – the colour of my skin.” By refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger, Parks created a domino effect on American politics, and led to the Black Civil Disobedience Movement gaining the necessary impetus.
The short life of Martin Luther King Jr, took him to the heights of world recognition and was capped by the Noble Peace Prize in 1964. The prestige and status of such a prize might have diminished somewhat since but he was able to use it as a springboard for his concept of a nonviolent revolution for the poor, which was also to become his legacy.
Today Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday has been made into a national holiday in the United States. Barack Obama may have become president but other African-Americans still face discrimination. They are disproportionately represented among the criminal classes and they are still not achieving, nor do they have the same educational opportunities as their peers of other races. Black people in the US account for 40% of the prison population but only 12% of the population overall. US unemployment among Blacks remains nearly double the rate for Americans of non-African origin. The average household income for a typical Black family is just 60 percent that of the national average – a gap that has grown since 2009. A study in 2011 found that nearly one in three Blacks lived in poverty, almost double the national average.
In a recent BBC interview, Professor Cornel West of Princeton University said: “The United States has made tremendous progress in terms of Black elites having unprecedented opportunity. But in terms of the Black working class and Black poor including the poor of other ethnic groups and the working classes, they have been devastated by the policies of the last 30 years.”
In the end we can only hope that Martin Luther King’s vision for progressive social transition can lead to change. Sadly, in today’s America his dream of justice and equality is still marked by injustice and inequality.
The author is a historian and activist