Martin Luther King's birthday is passing and the politicians are making their respectful statements. This year is the fortieth anniversary of King's assassination, still the fishiest of the major assassinations of the 1960s, because the killer, a petty professional criminal, was able to flee the country before he was apprehended, and later changed his account of events to suggest that he had been set up by others as part of a plot, while the official story was and continues to be that he was just a bitter racist
But I am not writing about the assassination although many people's suspicions about what really happened, myself included, have never been really answered by four decades of official "case closed" statements from those in authority.
I am writing to say that we should see Martin Luther King as a flesh and blood mass leader of the people, both white and Black, not a Christ figure who died for the sins of racism. We should also see his philosophy of non-violence, influenced by Mohandas K. Gandhi and the Indian national liberation movement, as centered on the doctrine of "positive peace" or peace that eliminates the inequalities and injustices that produce hatred and violence. In that sense, King and the Civil Rights movement were part of the global upheaval against colonialism which followed WWII, even though the Jim Crow South was a complicated internal colony and King was leading a minority people, not the overwhelming majority of the people, as was Gandhi and other
We should also see King as the leader of an inclusive mass movement in which Communists and former Communists, at the height of cold war reaction, played an important role as activists, in spite of the pressures on King by establishment Democrats and in the early 1960s the Kennedy administration to purge such activists.
We should look as Marxists at King dialectically. The mass movement and the unity in struggle it achieved made his leadership possible, and his leadership, flexible in inspiring and directing that movement while he maneuvered and negotiated with those elements of the power structure, the liberal wing of the Democratic party, the section of the AFL-CIO supporting civil rights, foundations whose financial support was important, the then New Deal influenced federal judiciary, whose support was necessary also for the movement to succeed (something that ultraleftists, the "John Waynes of the left," as a friend of mine once called them, for whom struggle and confrontation are ends in themselves never understand).
We should remember that the unity in struggle that the Civil Rights movement achieved produced what was by far the greatest victories one by the American people in the second half of the twentieth century, the elimination of de jure segregation and disenfranchisement in the South and the establishment of Civil Rights laws that benefited not only African Americans but all other minority populations and women, who in the U.S. constitute at any given time a slight majority of the population given their slightly higher life expectancies. The Civil Rights movement also created the political space that made progressive legislation like Medicare/Medicaid, possible, by going beyond the empty gradualism of the 1950s, which not only tolerated Southern segregation but the lack of many public health protection for both senior citizens and the general population, federal environmental standards for air and water, and federal aid to the defunded and declining cities, among other things.
At the end of the Montgomery Bus boycott in 1956, the first great victory of the Civil Rights movement and the first major victory of a mass movement in the U.S. after the development of the cold war, the Korean War, and the rise of McCarthyism, Martin Luther King made a powerful speech where he called that victory much bigger than merely a victory for the African American people of Montgomery, Alabama, or the African American people of the United States, but a victory for the whole people of the United States and by implication the world.
We should remember that Martin Luther King opposed the Vietnam war even though that meant breaking with the Johnson administration, which had implemented the most significantly civil rights legislation of the twentieth century (we should remember that the last major civil rights bill was passed in 1968, the year of his assassination).
Martin Luther King organized a poor peoples movement which sought to unite all of the poor regardless of ethnic background, to push the political power structure to revive the war on poverty which Lyndon Johnson declared in 1964 but which was by 1968 a casualty of the Vietnam War escalation. King before his assassination planned to lead an encampment of the poor in Washington to pressure the government to act. At the time of his assassination, King was in Memphis as part of a solidarity campaign for striking sanitation workers.
J. Edgar Hoover, a politically and personally grotesque and degraded figure who headed the FBI from 1924 to his death in 1972, had King labeled a Communist and essentially blackmailed the Kennedy administration into permitting him to harass King relentless in the last nearly six years of his life, attempting, among other things, to encourage him to commit suicide. King survived and, in the social gains that the movement which Hoover did everything in his power to defeat made prevailed over Hoover, who outside of the FBI headquarters in Washington which bears his name is remembered today by millions of Americans with contempt for his tyranny and corruption.
Actually, J. Edgar in his twisted mind wasn't that wrong, because King, I would say, had much more to do with Lenin, Mao Tse-tung, Ho Chi Minh, and many other leaders of the Communist and socialist movements of the world, however he might differ with them on how to achieve peace with social justice, than with capitalist leaders who seek to keep the people in check for the capitalist class.
Just as Hoover from his early days in the 1920s connected anti-Communism with racism in the U.S. King fought the latter and as far as he could rejected the former. Even his processional statements that "if this were Russia or China" he would understand such practices were said to expose the hypocrisy of the cold warriors, who constantly said they were fighting for "freedom," while they ran and hid from a freedom movement, the Civil Rights movement, that drew millions of people into mass struggle.
It has been said (and I think rightly) that millions of Americans are socialists of the heart, in that they want an egalitarian and democratic society that in reality has meaning only under socialism. Martin Luther King, a leader of those millions, was also, I would say, very much a socialist of the heart, and a mass leader from whom we can learn much as we fight against a reactionary political power structure today. So, as labor for generations said about Joe Hill, "Don't mourn Martin Luther King; organize to defeat the enemies of social justice and peace," which is what his legacy means to me.