This year’s celebrations of civil rights leader Dr Martin Luther King, a national holiday on January 19, were quite different from the staid affairs in recent decades.
Tens of thousands of protesters across the country held more than 50 actions, marches and civil disobedience, reclaiming his radical legacy and condemning the police killings of unarmed African Americans.
From Ferguson, Missouri, where this new movement started after an unarmed Black teenager was shot dead by a white cop, a statement by Ferguson Action said: “We resist efforts to reduce a long history marred with the blood of countless members of our community into iconic images of men in suits behind pulpits.
“This MLK weekend we will walk in the legacy of Dr. King and the movement that raised him.”
“The nation’s celebration of Dr. King’s birthday … was punctuated by protest,” New York Times said on January 19, “as a new generation of activists, angered by the deaths of several unarmed African Americans in confrontations with the police, demanded that the traditional holiday rituals of speechmaking, community service and prayer breakfasts give way to denunciations of injustice and inequality …
“In Atlanta, Georgia, where the holiday has long been a big but mellow and celebratory affair — a showdown occurred between the civil rights old guard and the new, more boisterous generation of protesters.”
Aurielle Marie, 20, an activist and author, shouted at the Atlanta protest: “We will not allow those that subject us to an oppressive lifestyle to lead the parade or be in the parade!”
In St Louis, several thousand marched from the Old Courthouse, where enslaved Blacks were once sold as property, to a university auditorium.
One young protester took over the microphone, and led a chant, “St Louis PD, KKK! How many kids did you kill today?”, referring to the police department and the Ku Klux Klan.
This echoed a chant from the movement against the Vietnam War in the 1960s, when Lyndon Johnson (LBJ) was president — “Hey, Hey LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?”
There was a march of about 5000 in Oakland, California, near where I live, through largely Black and Latino neighbourhoods. It ended at a site where there are plans to tear down housing where poor workers live, in favour of a development project.
This target of the protest was indicative of most of the actions nationwide, which included economic and other demands in addition to opposition to the police killings.
I missed this march, but ended up at another action at the Oakland City Hall, called by Christians for Black Liberation. This rally was led by young Black preachers.
Interspersed with religious moments like the reciting of the Lord’s Prayer, there were militant speeches to the more than 500 overwhelmingly Black participants.
Then the crowd marched, shouting “Hands Up! Don’t Shoot!” with their hands up, and “Black Lives Matter!”
At a major intersection, the crowd held a “die-in” with protesters lying down in the street.
In Philadelphia, the site of one of the largest protests, issues raised by protesters included an end to the “stop and frisk” police policy directed against people of colour, higher funding for cash-starved public schools, and a rise in the minimum wage.
In Chicago, marchers went to the upscale Magnificent Mile shopping district and the Board of Trade, to highlight the huge disparity in incomes and wealth in society.
Part of what reclaiming King’s legacy means is a return to his advocacy and leadership of mass militant actions and civil disobedience. King was ready to go to jail when necessary.
But it means more than that. From the start of his high-profile role as a civil rights leader, with the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama against segregation, King raised deeper questions about the oppression of Blacks.
After the victories of the civil rights movement in winning Black voting rights in the South, and with the start of the dismantling of segregation laws known as the Jim Crow system, King saw that economic super-exploitation of Blacks would be a more difficult problem to solve.
King had begun to see the struggle for racial equality as an economic struggle and the capitalist system as the problem. In 1967, in a speech titled “The Other America”, King talked about “work-starved men searching for jobs that did not exist”.
He described the Black population as living on a “lonely island of poverty surrounded by an ocean of material prosperity” — and living in a “triple ghetto of race, poverty and human misery”.
That year, King also came out against the Vietnam War, against the advice of the Black establishment, and said that the US was the “greatest purveyor of violence” in the world.
He said: “The [civil rights] movement must address itself to the restructuring of the whole of American society. There are 40 million poor people here. And one day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there 40 million poor people in America?’
“And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising a question about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth.
“When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy … We’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society…
“It means questions must be raised. ‘Who owns the oil?’, ‘Who owns the iron ore?’, ‘Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that’s two-thirds water?’”
In 1968, the year was assassinated, King called for a “revitalised labour movement” to place “economic issues on the highest agenda”.
“The coalition of an energised section of labour, Negroes, unemployed, and welfare recipients may be the source of power that reshapes economic relationships and ushers in a breakthrough to a new level of social reform.”
In an earlier speech, King had said: “You can’t talk about solving the economic problem of the Negro without talking about billions of dollars. You can’t talk about ending the slums without first saying profit must be taken out of slums.
“You’re really tampering and getting on dangerous ground because you are messing with folks then. You are messing with captains of industry …
“Now this means we are treading difficult water, because it really means that we are saying that something is wrong … with capitalism … There must be a better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.”
King was shot dead on April 4, 1968, while in Memphis, Tennessee, supporting striking sanitation workers. The largely Black workforce became famous via photos of them holding signs reading “I Am A Man”.
The impact of the global financial crisis and Great Recession of 2008 hit the whole US working class hard. The anaemic recovery has left workers feeling they are still in recession.
The Black oppressed nationality has been especially hard hit. This is the context where a new layer of young Black women and men, galvanised by the fight against police killings, are starting to embrace the whole of King’s message. This can be seen in the broader economic and political demands being raised by protesters today.
And this approach has the potential to resonate in the working class as a whole.