Friday, April 4, 2008

Obama, Clinton, McCain, and the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King's Murder

by Norman Markowitz

Martin Luther King was murdered forty years ago in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was to support a strike of African American sanitation workers. In 1968, King, while still the most revered leader of the Civil Rights movement, was leading a national poor peoples movement, which brought together poor whites, Native Americans Latinos, and others in an heroic attempt to revive the Johnson administration's largely abandoned War on Poverty. King was planning to lead a march and encampment of the poor in Washington later that year. He was also a leading opponent of the Vietnam War at the time of his murder.

Many scholars regard Martin Luther King as the most revered American globally in the second half of the twentieth century. His murder was a huge blow to the Civil Rights movement, the anti-war movement, the poor peoples campaign, and all progressive forces and movements in the United States. His legacy was to be felt in the struggle of oppressed people against racism and the vestiges of colonialism through the world.

Martin Luther King was despised by the right in the U.S. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover launched a campaign to harass, provoke, libel and slander him from early 1960s to his death, blackmailing Attorney General Robert Kennedy into giving the FBI the power to wiretap him and carry out its other attacks on the ground that he was a "Communist." Hoover crazily saw King as a "black messiah" who would provoke a violent revolution in the U.S. to the benefit of the Soviets and the Communists (or at least he privately spoke such lunacy to provide some rationale for his deep racist hatred of King).

In the aftermath of King's assassination, the Right fought for many years to prevent his birthday from becoming a national holiday. Ronald Reagan was particularly conspicuous in this campaign, which should surprise no one, since Reagan began his campaign for the presidency in 1980 in Philadelphia, Mississippi, scene in 1964 of the murder of three civil rights workers. Reagan's speech pledging to defend "states rights" against the central government was seen as a direct appeal to Southern white supremacists and all racists everywhere.

First, John McCain showed up in Memphis and was booed by some in a speech outside the motel where King was assassinated forty years ago (today converted into the National Civil Rights Museum) when he said that he had made a mistake by voting against making Martin Luther King's birthday a National holiday twenty-five years ago in the House. He didn't say of course that he was merely echoing the position his hero president Ronald Reagan at the time, and the rightwing leadership of his party. He made what to me was a gobbledygook statement about "even in this most idealistic of nations, we do not always take kindly about what more we can do, or how much better we can be, or who else can be included in the promise of America."

Of course, his Reagan administration was crusading to eliminate affirmative action policies through the country and he was supporting that. His Reagan administration had gone far beyond Richard Nixon in jettisoning anti-poverty programs. It was pursuing a whole series of economic policies that substantially intensified and expanded poverty, destitution poverty and together could be seen as a war against the poor (eliminating public housing, rent controls, freezing minimum wages, busting unions, sharply reducing the value of public assistance programs). McCain concluded by saying "I was wrong, and eventually realized that, in time to give full support for a state holiday in Arizona." States rights over national civil rights, citizenship rights, that was what the right was talking about through the entire period. Civil Rights as a closed book, a "thing" of the 1960s that had gone "too far," and now had to be reigned in by ending affirmative action and of course forgetting about Martin Luther King, even as a symbol, much less his ideas. That was what the right was talking about in the 1980s and that was essentially what McCain should apologize for, instead of preparing to lead a political party that basically is worse than it was even under Reagan, a political party which hires consultants to disenfranchise African-Americans, resists serious enforcement of existing Civil Rights legislation, and has escalated Reagan's War against the Poor.

Hillary Clinton spoke at a Church in Memphis and made what on the surface is a decent proposal, even though it was called a proposal to establish a "poverty Czar" (why U.S. media associates positive executive authority with a hated symbol of feudal despotism has always been beyond me). Clinton said that her administration would "be solely and fully be devoted to ending poverty as we know it,that will focus the attention our nation on the issue and never let it go." It sounds good. I remembered Bill Clinton's promise to "end welfare as we know it" in 1992 was originally interpreted as a commitment to help the poor, not the elimination of Aid to Families with Dependant Children which it became in 1996. I remembered Bill Clinton's call to establish universal health insurance (then more than forty years overdue) sounded plausible in 1992, only to end in a political disaster that set back the movement for a national health program. The press was also speculating that Clinton's call for a cabinet level position on poverty (not a specific call mind you to re-establish the OEO or begin make serious funding commitments for such a program) was an attempt to win support from John Edwards, who had picked up delegates in his campaign and whose endorsement might very well revive her campaign and give her a serious chance to win the nomination. Edwards had made the issue of poverty the central one in his campaign. A political adviser to Edwards, asked about the Clinton proposal, said that "he{Edwards} would make a great poverty Czar." So, besides the fact that no Czar ever really did much to fight poverty (although Alexander II did abolish serfdom in Russia in the 1860s) I really don't see any reason to trust Clinton, given her record, the record of her husband's administration, and the fact that this appears to be more of a political ploy to win Edwards support than anything else, including a serious identification with the Poor Peoples Movement which King led at the time of his death.

Barack Obama wasn't in Memphis but continuing his campaign in Indiana and other states. But as has been the case through most of the campaign, he was the one who really got, not Clinton and certainly not McCain. He was the one who said that the struggle that King was leading when he was murdered "was a struggle for economic justice, for the opportunity that should be available to people of all races of all walks of life....Dr. King understood that the struggle for economic justice and the struggle for racial justice were really one, that each was part of a larger struggle for freedom, for dignity,and for humanity."

Dr. King understands that and Barack Obama's understanding continues to show how far ahead of Clinton he really is. The pundits will say that he was vague, but they won't tell you that virtually no politician really comes forward with specific detailed programs on anything, given our system, including Clinton, whose "poverty Czar" is hardly specific. As an historian I am sure of the candidate that Martin Luther King would personally support in this election if he were alive, and King's choice would not be about the color of the candidates skin, but about his vision for the people and "the content of his character."

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