Ten Years After Assassination
BOURGEOISIE CELEBRATES KING’S LIBERAL PACIFISM
[reprinted from Workers Vanguard #207, 26 May 1978]
Ten years after he was assassinated in Memphis nearly every black ghetto in the U.S. has its renamed Martin Luther King Avenue, its King school and asphalt playground. The day of his birth is now institutionalized as a national holiday. Young black school children are carefully taught the political gospel of M.L. King, Jr. as the martyred embodiment of the civil rights movement- the prophet of “nonviolence” and “patient moderation” which all black people who yearn for equality ought to follow.
It is no wonder then that the tenth anniversary of his murder has been the occasion for further mythology. It does not seem to matter to the mythmakers that the ghetto school named in his honor is probably less integrated today than it was ten years ago, that the parents of its black schoolchildren are more likely to be unemployed, that their housing is even less habitable and more expensive: and most of all, that the future of these ghetto youth in racist capitalist America appears even more desperate as their jobless rate climbs above 50 percent.
While the anniversary of the King assassination is the perfect occasion for mythologizing, it is indicative that this year the festivities were actually smaller than ever. The purpose of the celebrations has always been to dilute the memory of that original “Martin Luther King Day” which sent shivers of fear through America’s ruling class: the ghetto explosions which swept the country upon the news of his death. On the night of 4 April 1968 hundreds of thousands of black people took to the streets, leaderless and without political focus, in outrage over the cold-blooded murder of the man who was seen as the leader of blacks in struggle against their oppression. A nervous bourgeoisie once pushed this holiday as a diversion and cheap concession to an enraged minority population. But as the spectre of a political mobilization of the ghetto masses against their oppressors has grown dimmer, even “saints” like Martin Luther King become expendable.
The ten-years-after assessments are not able to completely cover up reality, so they have sounded this refrain: King brought us a long way-we’ve got a long way to go (presumably along that same “glory road”). The major chord is that King and the liberal civil rights movement won increased democratic rights, and the minor chord is the rendition of the “economic miracle” of a racially harmonious “New South.” Thus the New York Times (3 and 4 April) published a two-part article entitled, “The Legacy of Martin Luther King,” in which the “New South that King made” is presented as a bouquet of fresh liberal magnolias and black elected officials:
‘”A street named for Dr. King in Selma, racial harmony in Birmingham. burgeoning black power in Atlanta: These are the triumphs of political change in the South.”
The important and real partial gains made for blacks during this period exist largely in the realm of formal democratic rights-resulting in desegregation of public facilities, voter registration as well as a degree of school integration. But even the liberals must acknowledge that these real gains have not eliminated the “handicap” of being black in white capitalist America. Down the street from the office of Atlanta’s black mayor, Maynard Jackson, the unemployed still hang out in doorways. And as a veteran civil rights activist interviewed for the New York Times “Legacy” article bitterly remarked, “What good is a seat in the front of the bus if you don’t have the money for the fare’!”
The fact is that the “social miracle” of the “New South” is based on the old refrain of the “community of interest” between oppressor and oppressed, one which harks back to the days when the plantation owners insisted that, unlike cutthroat Northern capitalists, they “took care” of their slaves. More currently the working premise is that what is good for business is good for the poor. If Jimmy Carter is the supreme being of the “New South,” and Martin Luther King its messiah, the non-union led workers remain outcasts in this land of milk and honey. “Racial harmony” is today enforced by “black power” Mayor Jackson who smashed the 1977 strike by Atlanta’s largely black sanitation workers with a brutality that rivaled Bull Connor.
Self-serving King mythmaking is by no means restricted to the liberals whose purpose is rather obvious. Reformists on the left have joined this pilgrimage to the King shrine to stay in close touch with the “progressive forces” they tailed then and now. They add left “miracle stories” to the case for liberal canonnization. And there is an odd intersection of the liberal and reformist myths with regard to King’s assassination. For different reasons they both agree he died just in time.
Certainly the most cynical statement on the subject was made by the purest product of that movement-the King aide who made it to the top as black front man for U.S. imperialism. As Andrew Young said in a 1977 Playboy interview about King’s assassination:
“He was fortunate … really…. It was a blessing… Martin had done all he could…. He was misunderstood…. God decided Martin had had enough. It was time to go on home and claim his reward.”
Of course, Andy Young (whose readiness to sellout was so famous that even King jocularly called him “Tom”) claimed his reward in a more temporal realm, at the doorstep of the capitalist class. For the liberals King’s murder makes it somewhat easier to blame the failure of the civil rights movement on an assasin’s bullet rather than on their own political misleadership. After all, what kind of symbol would King have made had he lived on? His pacifism was utterly discredited by the ghetto explosions, his preaching of reliance on the capitalist state was exposed as the federal troops bloodily suppressed these upheavals. As a preacher of poisonous bourgeois ideology King had lost his credibility and thus outlived his usefulness to the ruling class.
For its part the reformist left has a different reason tor feeling it was a blessing King died when he did. The Communist Party (CP), for instance, claims that King was shot down just as he was embarking upon a revolutionary course. His last trip to Memphis to support the sanitation workers strike and his opposition to the Vietnam War are cited as proof positive of his growing partisanship on the side of the working class. King did come out against the war. if only for a negotiated settlement, and that opposition was to cost him his privileged relationship with LBJ. Undoubtedly King was feeling pressure from more militant black SNCC youth who saw Vietnam as a racist war. However, he anticipated the important current of bourgeois defeatism in demanding that the guns for Vietnam be replaced by government butter for the black poor. “The Great Society has been shot down on the battlefields of Vietnam,” he said in New York City.
But to hear thc CP tell the story, you would think King was some sort of crypto-Marxist by the time he goes to Memphis:
“He guided the movement for liberation… He began to see the relationship between the class struggle and the struggle for equal rights. He also saw these struggles as part of the worldwide struggle against imperialism. US imperialism in the first place.”
Daily World, 1 April 1978
This sounds more like the M.L. King of J. Edgar Hoover’s imagination than the one who actually existed. In fact, King would be no more suitable for such an honored place in the “progressive pantheon” than is Ralph Abernathy had he lived to slosh around in the mud in front of the Capitol in the “Poor People’s Tent City.” The fact is that the civil rights movement had died when King was shot. This is what makes his death so “timely” for Andrew Young, the CP and others who want to cash in on the moral capital of the “good old days” without taking responsibility for the failure of that movement.
The central theme of the bourgeoisie’s hosannahs to Martin Luther King is to present him as the symbol of a civil rights movement that went from success to success by the good old American way of pressure politics. The present condition of the ghetto populace is sufficient proof of the emptiness of this fairy tale. In fact King produced defeats every time he directly confronted the economic roots of black oppression. And from early on the preacher of nonviolence and reliance on the liberals was challenged bv more militant forces in “the movement.” The tragedy was that none of the forces in the emerging left wing of the civil rights movement had grasped a political program which could mobilize a united proletarian army to liberate all the oppressed, by smashing the capitalist system which forges the chains of their oppression.
By far the most publicized media event was Abby Mann’s King, broadcast last February over national TV for six hOllrs on three successive nights. Evcn belore it was shown, objcctions to the program were heard from disciples who feared the King image was not heing properly worshipped. Along with Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) president emeritus Ralph Abernathy. Hosea Williams objected to his diminished role and tried unsuccessfully to organize a national boycott of the production. Supporters of Mann’s version included Andrew Young, Coretta King and her lawyer, Stanley Levison. all of whom are portrayed as playing key roles in the TV “docudrarna.” But for all the squabbling there was no disagreement over what ought to be the purpose of the program. As Williams said, “Our preoccupation is that King be presented as the greatest peaceful warrior of the 20th Century. That’s aH” (Po/itiks, 14 Fehruary).
That’s all? Mann’s failure to take into account the left wing of the civil rights movement brought more serious objections from a number of ex-Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) memhcrs. Mann said he “understands” thc criticisms made by the former SNCC members (who organized some of the projects Mann attributes solely to King). But he added in his defense: “This is the kind of film Martin Luther King wanted” (New York Times, 16 February). He’s probably right about that.
Certainly the TV “docudrama” is the appropriate genre for slickly packaged contemporary myth making. Its discomfiting mix of fact and fiction, data and impression, history and fantasy all serve to hlur rather than clarify an already obscured reality. It captures the cymclsm of post-Watergate liberalism with its syndrome of exposure and cover-up and ultimate unanswered questions. King focuses on the government’s targeting of black leaders, particularly the FBI’s criminal COINTELPRO program whose first commandment was: “Prevent the rise of a black messiah.”
In Ahby Mann’s King the liberal view of the FBI is given melodramatic import with J. Edgar Hoover portrayed as the arch-paranoid villain sitting stone-stiff in a dark room clenching his teeth and planning to get King. No doubt this is true. As FBI agent Arthur Murtaugh of the Atlanta field office later told Kennedy assassination buff Mark Lane (in an interview for his book, Code Name “Zarro”): “The concentration of effort against King was grea ter than any single investigation that I saw take place at the bureau and I saw a lot of them in twenty years.”
But it is not the whole truth. Relying on Lane’s research and theories, Mann paints a dark picture of the FBI to whitewash the role of the liberal government. In an early segment when then-president John Kennedy is asked what the government will do about attacks on civil rights activists, he says: “We’ll do what we always do. Nothing.” Fair enough. But by the end of the program John and his attorney general brother, Bobby, have been cast as warriors against Hoover, the FBI and the Ku Klux Klan. This post-Watergate convention of the mortal combat between Hoover and Camelot is phony in King and in history.
Far from being reluctant “good guys” the liberals differed with Hoover over tactical assessments on how to best contain the struggle for hlaek equality. The government’s attack on the hlack movement, particularly against its most militant sectors such as the Black Panther Party, was so intensive and widespread that to suggest it was done without the knowledge of Kennedy or Johnson is ludicrous. Indeed, liberal columnist Carl Rowan wrote that Hoover had leaked word to the press that Bobby Kennedy had authorized wiretaps on King’s phone, a charge he repeated in a 19 June 1968 interview in the Washington Star. But while for Hoover the “black messiah” had to be stopped by any means necessary, the liberals increasingly saw King as the man most capable of containing the civil rights movement within the bounds of liberal pacifism. The more the masses thrcatened to break out of these bonds. the more the liberals supported King against spokesmen for more militant strategies.
Yet by the late 1960’s the mood of the black population had become so explosive that a fearful bourgeoisie tended to allow Hoover a freer hand. After Harlem, Watts, Newark and Detroit went up in flames, any black leadership began to seem a threat. And so they were systematically put out of action or simply “eliminated.” Malcom X had already been assassinated; SNCC leader Rap Brown was in jail; within a Yiar Chicago Black Panthers Mark Clark and Fred Hampton would he murdered in their beds, while Newton. Cleaver aild Seale were hounded with arrests.
We may never know how much of the post-Watergate liberal speculation ahout FBI involvement in the King assassination is fact and how much conspiratorial paranoia. But it is certainly proper to make thc sinister connection with the government’s search-and-destroy missions against the black movement. We demand to know the whole truth about the King assassination, the murder of Malcom X and the all-out secret police war against the Black Panther Party! Instead we arc dished up post-Watergate apologia for pacifist liberalism.
From Montgomery to Washington
The Mann docudrama presents its hero as the leader of a long march of stunning victories for the hlack masses. But the truth is that Martin Luther King did not hegin the civil rights struggle in the U.S. And he certainly did not make possible the partial gains that characterize its tarly years. After World War II. the government found formal Jim Crow segregation increasingly embarrassing. It stood in stark contradiction to the integration of masses of hlack workers into the industrial proletariat of the cities; and it exposed U.S. pretensions as champion of a “Free World” both in the Cold War with Russia and in the jockeying for inlluenee in decolonizing Africa. By 1’147 the U.S. military and all departments of the fedcral govcrnmcnt were desegregatcd, and when black soldiers came back from integrated units ill Korea they sworc they would no longer submit to Jim Crow. Even before the 1954 Brown VS. Board of Education decision, the National Association for the Advanccment of Colorcd People (NAACP) had won a number of legal victorits for school desegregation in the South.
It was with the arrest of Rosa Parks in Montgomery. Alahama in 1955 that the movement that became known as the civil rights movement dramatically overtook NAACP legalism and led to the )Tar-Iong bus boycott. It was also the event that thrust Martin Luther King to center stage as a national spokesma n of pacifist Hd ircct act ion” for hlack equality. Contrary to popular myth it was not King. hut Ralph Abernathy. a less polished Montgomcry preacher at a less esteemed church. who was the d riving force hehind the hoycott. Ahernathy, E. D. Nixon (of the local NAACP and Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters) and others pushed King, the “new hoy” preacher of the prestigious Dexter Avenue Church into the leadership of the hoycott for reasons of security. As he himself confirmed in his hook, ,.,'(ride Toward Freedoll1, “I neither started the protest nor suggested it,” adding in messianic terms, “I simply responded to the call of the people for a spokesman.”
Rather than a spokesman for the people, in Montgomery King became the spokesman for the policy of reliance on the federal government with a new cover of Gandhian passive resistance. As religious philosophy it is claptrap, hut in the mouth of a Gandhi or King it was the bleating of the .I udas goat. King wrote in the mid-1950’s:
“I he Ncgro all ovcr the South must comc to the point that he can say to his \\hite hrother: ‘We will match your capacity to inflict suttering with’ our eapacit~ to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul lorcc. We will not hate vou, hut we will not ohey vour evil law~. We will soon wear y,iu’ down hy purc capacity to sutkr’.”
–quoted in David L. I.ewis, Aing. A Critical m()grall/7I’ 1(70)
While King preached that the nonviolent resister had “cosmic companionship” in his struggle for justice, it was clear that he saw as temporal political companions the liberal capitalist government and its courts. After a year of unyielding struggle by Montgomery’s blacks, it must have seemed to King part of the cosmic order of justice when the Supreme Court declared the local laws re4ulring segregated seating on buses unconstitutionaL A voice from the hack of the adjournment proceedings is reported to have cried out, “God Almighty has spoken from Washington, D.C.”
In Abby Mann’s King the Montgomcry hus boycott ends victoriously with the hero stepping aboard the newly integrated hus and the “New South” takes off. Coretta King’s voice is heard as the hus pulls away:
“When Martin hoarded that hus-the tirst integrated hus–hc felt as though he were Columhus discovering America. It seemcd to him then, anything was possihle.”
King was riding high with his sermons on “soul force” and t he “capacity to suffer,” but Montgomery blacks were left to face the racist flak-courageously, but tactically, politically and morally disarmed. Following the Supreme Court decision the racist terrorists crawled from their rat holes, put on their sheets and picked their black targets. The KKK staged a provocative nighttime torchlit procession into the black neighborhoods. Black churches were burned to the ground. Buses were attacked and burned in a campaign of terror. Even King’S house was dynamited; but angry blacks who rose to his defense (and their own) calling for protest action were told by King to love their enemies.
!t was in Birmingham in 1963 that the pacifism of King and the SCLC was exposed in blood and death. Mann’s King recreates the indelihle images of that time-Bull Connor and his stormtroopers; the police dogs set loose upon the crowd; the firehoses set at pressures sufficient to strip off tree bark, hurling children up against the walls. But these dramatic scenes are only part of the story. Mann glosses over the black population’s fighting response to Connor and the racist thugs. In Birmingham King’s nonviolent philosophy was junked by the black masses who with sticks, rocks, knives and bottles fought back against the racists in the streets. It was at that moment-and not before that Kennedy sent troops to bases outside the city and announced that he had taken steps to federalize the Alabama National Guard.
In Birmingham, pacifist persuasion was put away, but not before that tragic Sunday morning, 15 September 1963, when a bomb exploded in the Sixth Avenue Baptist Church that would put four little black girls into their graves. For his part, King remained loyal to his god and his saviors in the government. And the government recognized it had a loyal representative in the field. Even when his brother’s home was bombed, King continued to “marvel” at how blacks could express “hope and faith” in moments of such tragedy.
Just how loyal King was to the Democratic Party was proved that summer in the fabled March on Washington. In Mann’s King and all King mythology the March on Washington is taken as the victorious high point of “the movement.” In fact it was here that King helped engineer a “mass” political defeat for the cause of black liberation, treacherously tying it to the Democratic Party. The numbers were certainly impressive, and so was the participation of every important civil rights organization along with the liberal wing of the union bureaucracy, most notably Waiter Reuther’s United Auto Workers. Marxists call for mobilizing the power of the organized working class as key to winning democratic rights for the oppressed. But this was not what the March on Washington was about. Rather it was an attempt to channel the movement into pressure politics for the passing of the civil rights bill and to cement ties with the Democratic Party.
Even the most conservative civil rights leaders initially saw the march as a means to put the heat on the Kennedy administration, which was dragging its heels on the bill and other antidiserimination legislation. But when Kennedy called in the “representative leaders” for a conference, they quickly changed their minds. They changed their destination from the White House to the Lincoln Memorial, issued a new march handbook deleting a “statement to the president” and the call to confront the Congressmen. They specifically denied partIcIpation to “subversive” groups and censored all speeches. Although John Lewis of SNCC was invited to speak, he was pressured into deleting from his prepared text the following sentence: “We cannot depend on any political party for both Democrats and Republicans have betrayed the basic principles of the Declaration of Independence.”
Although the 1964 Civil Rights Act was a supportable declaration of minimal democratic rights, the march was meant to build support for precisely that party whose purpose was to sabotage any attempt by blacks to gain those rights. Characterizing the march as the “Farce on Washington,” Malcolm X wrote of the period which King came to see as the high point of his career:
“In ‘6.1 it was the march on Washington. In ’64, what was it” The civil rights bill. Right after they passed the civil-rights bill they murdered a Negro in Georgia and did nothing about it: murdered two whites and a Negro in Mississippi and did nothing about it. So that the civil-rights bill has produced nothing where we’re concerned. It was onlya valve, a vent, that was designed to enable us to let 011 our frustrations. But the bill itself was not designed to solve our problems.”
~George Breitman. ed.
Malcolm X Speaks (1965)
It was the felt need for a program to “solve our problems” which led to the emergence of a left wing in the civil rights movement which challenged King.
Civil Rights Movement Divided
One of the more pernicious aspects of the King myth is the treatment of the civil rights movement as a continuous parade of victories with little or no challenge to King’s leadership and philosophy of nonviolence. Here Abby Mann makes a most worshipful offering to that idol of liberalism at the expense of truth. ror Mann the entire political struggle against liberal pacifism is reduced to an anachronistic dialogue between King and Malcolm X in which the latter is portrayed as a charming demon of defeat while King is the inchby-inch realist. Basically, the liberals put into the mouth of Malcolm a strategy for race war and allow King to point out that such a strategy would amount to race suicide. In fact it was not race war. but collective self-defense that was the issue for Malcolm X, for Robert Williams, the Deacons for Defense and many others.
Through “creative editing,” King fails to show that not only was its hero opposed by more militant, courageous activists, but that he was also pushed by the left wing of the civil rights movement into many actions for which he is now given credit. Mann gives SNCC the most cursory mention, buried under a mountain of King rhetoric, as the militant wing of the civil rights movement. And the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). which organi7ed the first freedom rides, is not mentioned at all.
Hut history is different from “docudrama” and the developing split was to become all important to the fate of the civil rights movement. The fight was only partly generational, and at root ideological. Certainly at the beginning SNCC was a creature of the SCLC and (as its name clearly indicates) accepted its nonviolent strategy. But unlike King many of the SNCC. CORE and NAACP youth council members were not committed to nonviolence as an inviolable religious principle. They tended to accept King’s strategy as good coin. and while they had illusions in the federal government. their real commmitment was to the struggle for democratic rights for black people. Thus from the same events they learned different lessons from the preachers! When the social explosions of the mid-1960s occurred they identified with the aspirations of the black masses while King feared for the bourgeois order.
As early as the April 1960 Raleigh, North Carolina youth conference-out of which SNCC would emerge–King was already warning that “the tactics of nonviolence without the spirit of nonviolence may become a new kind of violence.” And by the following year during the confrontation in Albany, Georgia (“one of the meanest little towns” in Carter country) King had even more reason to be suspicious of the students–and they of him.
It was here that the students ~aw that despite King’s capacity to land thousands of activists in the jails, he was unable to dent the stone wall of racist reaction. I n midsummer 1961, after sustained and repeated racist attacks, with 3.000 Klansmen massed outside town, the protesters began to fight hack. As he did so often in the future. King called for a “moratorium” on -action. And the militant black youth began to refer to him derisively as “De Lawd.”
Hut it was at Selma, Alabama in 1965 that the tensions came to a head on the Pettus Hridge. In the face of King’s betrayal the song. “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round,” rang with painful irony for the returning marchers. Responding to Justice Department pressure, King stopped the Selma-toM ontgomery march, knelt in prayer and turned it around. With Selma there was open talk of King as sellout and coward. To the song “We Shall Overcome,” the young militants began to counterpose, “We Shall Overrun.”
King Goes North
It was in Chicago in 1966 that the premises of the liberal civil rights movement came most clearly into explosive collision with economic and social reality. Northern ghetto blacks had lived with “equality under the law” for years and it was abundantly clear that King had no program to fight the causes of racial discrimination rooted deep in the economic and social structure of capitalist society. And despite the reformists’ claim that King was moving left when death overtook him, what grew out of the Northern experience was not a turn toward the working class, but Jesse Jackson’s “Operation Breadbasket,” the quintessence of black capitalism.
By the time King arrived in Chicago the civil rights movement was already irreversibly divided, not the least over the ghetto upheavals which had burst upon the political scene. The emerging black nationalists were enraged by the support King and the preachers gave to the vicious police repression. As King said of Watts, “It was necessary that as powerful a police force as possible be brought in to check them” (Nell’ York Times, 16 August 1965).
While talking in vague terms about attacking economic problems, King simultaneously launched an attack against his left flank, striking out against “violence” in the black movement. He had already directed his fire at CORE’s stall-in at the 1964 New York World’s Fair and a trip to Harlem that year had resulted in his car being pelted with rotten eggs while the crowd chanted, “We Want Malcolm.” He knew he would not get much besides suspicion from CORE and SNCC in his Palmer House negotiations with Mayor Daley.
The most subtle apology for King’s liberalism comes from those who agree that the civil rights movement was finished in the North, but attribute the failure to the unbreachable divide between the ethnic white neighborhood and the black ghetto. Nationalism politically tied blacks into the ghetto, despairing of a successful struggle against the segregation of minorities at the bottom of the economic ladder. Yet in the North was also the integrated workplace, the integrated union, the possibility of an alliance with other exploited sectors against the common cnemy. But this fighting alliance did not mean the empty “unity” of black liberals with liberal labor bureaucrats. In Chicago the struggle for racial quality meant directly confronting the Daley machine. and the Reuthers, Rustins and Randolphs were not about to mount a campaign against this Democratic Party kingpin. What was needed was a proprogram of class struggle; what King offered was a program of class collaboration.
Chicago blacks were presented with the choice of two dead ends: the liberal pacifism of King or the no less defeatist ideology of Carmichael and the black nationalists. Both failed to see the need to mobilize the power of the unions, through challenging the racist, procapitalist labor bureaucracy: King and the SCL.C because they were committed to the Democratic Party; Carmichael and the black nationalists because with the defeats and sellouts of liberal pacifism, they had taken the road of black separatist militancy which ignored the “white working class.”
The situation came to a head with the projected march into the lily-white suburb of Cicero. King was under pressure to make a show of militancy; SNCC was anxious to show its mettle; the racists got ready. Nazi leader George Rockwell came to town amidst considerable fanfare to recruit among the Cicero residents. The white working class communities had already made clear that they would not allow blacks to march through their streets when King was stoned to the ground earlier in Marquette Park. No one doubted the racist terror that would meet the planned King-SNCC march. But two days before it was to occur King signed the Palmer House “Summit Agreement” and backed off in exchange for a formal agreement on housing.
For the militant wing of the civil rights movement it was Selma all over again. SNCC on its own led a march of 200 people into Cicero on September 4. There were triple that number of Chicago police and thousands of National Guardsmen. The marchers were courageous and sustained many injuries and arrests, but they had lost. It was all over long before it began. The racists had out-mobilized them in the streets. Nearly a decade later busing was defeated in Boston for much the same reason: the labor movement was not brought into the struggle on the side of integration. Responsible for these defeats were the labor bureaucrats, the black liberal leadership and the seudosocialistswho tail after them.
Class Power and Civil Rights
King and the coalition of black ministers of the SCLC had never intended to unleash a movement of the black masses. Their civil rights movement was meant as a gesture by the “talented tenth” to pressure the capitalist government for legal reform. They saw the Democratic Party as the natural political vehicle for legislative pressure and black political expression. They saw the courts as their main ally and ultimate battleground. But when the black, masses moved onto the stage of U.S. history, the SCLC’s role became one of fearful containment.
It was different for SNCC whose young activists identified with and encouraged the organization of black social power. An orientation toward different class forces began to show early, if only sociologically, as SNCC turned toward “grass roots” local organizing and King continued his reliance on the federal government. The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP)-which grew out of the SNCC voter registration campaigns-revealed all of the contradietions of a militant civil rights organization lacking revolutionary programmatic alternatives. The MFDP shared King’s illusions in the party of Kennedy and Humphrey, illusions it paid for at the 1964 Atlantic City convention when the Johnson/Humphrey machine crushed its attempt to unseat the Jim Crow Mississippi delegation. Out of this experience the Lowndes County (Alabama) Freedom Organization was formed with a political thrust independent of the capitalist parties.
In the end no sector of the civil rights movement was able to decisively break out of the confines of liberal politics. Yet throughout this period literally thousands of its left-wing militants were in rapid political motion. That this motion was not intersected by communists with a program to broaden the fight for democratic rights of blacks into a struggle for black equality through united class struggle was a major setback for the U.S. proletariat.
In the early 1960s the predecessor of the Spartacist League, the Revolutionary Tendency (RT) within the Socialist Workers Party (S WP), fought for just such an active intervention into SNCC and other components of the left wing of the civil rights movement. The RT saw the crucial opportunity for the crystallization of a black Trotskyist cadre. Its 1963 opposition document, “The Negro Struggle and the Crisis of Leadership,” read in part:
“The rising upsurge and militancy oft the black revolt and the contradictory and confused groping nature what is now the Ieft wing in the movement provide the revolutionary vanguard with fertile soil and many opportunities to plant the seeds or revolutionary socialism …. We must consider non-intervention in the crisis of leadership a crlme or the worst sort.”
In part it was for this fight that the RT was expelled from the SWP while that already degenerated party continued its criminal abstentionism. Within a few years the opportunity would be lost–with the hardening of the black nationalist mood, the terrain would be sealed off to communists for severaI years, with many thousand of black radicals lost to the revolutionary movement.
Far from being a transcendental leader of a united movement, King was one of the political poles against which the left wing of the civil rights movement was defined. Yet there are those on the left who still yearn for the “good old days” of a “united” civil rights movement, and toward that end they falsify the movement and the man who symbolized its liberal, religious wing.
It is ironic that the rehabilitation of King within the left was begun by the black nationalists on the basis that “no whites ought to criticize” any black. But the present reformist stance toward King is dictated by desires to once again get close to the liberals. Thus the SWP, for instance, in the most cynical fashion not only talks about a “New Civil Rights Movement” as it tails after the moribund hyper-legalist NAACP, but at the same time it continues to support the residues of the black nationalist wave. In fact, both movements are dead, but these shameless reformists continue to support all of their most treacherous aspects–calls for federal troops to “protect” black schoolchildren, reliance on “peaceful, legal” means to pressure the capitalist state, support for government union-busting “Affirmative Action” schemes in the name of civil rights.
Marxists must not disguise King’s liberal pacifism and the dead end it represented in the struggle against racial oppression. We must break through the myths of “passive resistance,” crack the mask of “King the Peaceful Warrior,” and present a revolutionary analysis of the failure of the civil rights movement to provide a program for fighting the social and economic oppression of blacks under American capitalism. It is not through liberal “docudrama” that the new generation of youth will discover the true story of that period. While the reformists cover for King to camouflage their own treacherous tracks, the task of creating a black communist cadre requires destroying politically the exalted symbols of passive defeatism and reliance on the bourgeois state which led to the death of the civil rights movement.