Radical Lives: Coretta Scott King | Martin Luther King Jr

Radical Lives: Coretta Scott King | Martin Luther King Jr

‘For the last twelve years we have been in a reform movement. . .. After Selma and the Voting Rights Bill, we moved into a new era, which must be the era of revolution. We must recognize that we can’t solve our problem now until there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power.’
(Martin Luther King Jr, To Charter Our Course for the Future, Address delivered at Southern Christian Leadership Conference staff retreat, 22 May 1967)

25 November 2018 saw a gathering at St John the Baptist Church Hall in Newcastle upon Tyne for a jam-packed evening of educational talks, film, discussion and music. The event, titled Radical Lives: Coretta Scott King | Martin Luther King Jr, was hosted by the Migration & Asylum Justice Forum (MAJF)* and launched their latest campaign – one for decent education and against the barriers currently posed to this by legislative and institutional racism.

In 2017 Newcastle’s educational institutions teamed up with the great and the good of civil society to launch Freedom City, a programme of ‘cultural’ events marking the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr’s acceptance of an honorary degree from Newcastle University.

In the publicity for the MAJF event, the Forum made clear that they were committed to commemoration of a different sort and they were conscious of the fact that their meeting represented a political intervention into the North East’s official ‘Black History Month’ agenda:

‘From the outset, the MAJF has been committed to educating ourselves and others in order to better understand the challenges we face and to inform the action we take. It is our belief that not only are the lessons of the US Civil Rights Movement highly relevant to today’s struggles against racial injustice, but the radical example of its most important leaders is being purposefully obscured—or buried altogether. In 2017 Newcastle University unveiled a statue to Dr King, marking the 50th anniversary of his visit to accept an honorary degree. However, unlike other institutions, both Newcastle and Northumbria Universities have refused to offer a single tuition fee waiver for asylum seekers (who are denied, by law, access to student finance), thus barring them from higher education. This is one example of Britain’s everyday borders—an example that, we believe, Dr King would have had a thing or two to say about.

 ‘The Kings that we remember are not the comforting teddy-bears of modern fable, but the implacable enemies of a racist state—fearless opponents of the economic injustice and wars of occupation imposed on the oppressed in the US and around the word. They were radicals. They deserve to be remembered as such.’

On the night, the event was addressed by five members of the Forum speaking on the fight for civil rights and justice, past and present. Their call to action was preceded by the kind of history lesson that can only be delivered by those fighting their own oppression and thus making their own history. In anger, they spoke of how, in researching their presentations, they had applied for reference access to Newcastle University Library only to be swiftly rebuffed. Instead, they turned to a public library service ravaged by years of cuts and closures enacted by Newcastle’s Labour council – and, with more success, to the resources made available to them by our local Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! (FRFI) supporters’ group. Notwithstanding the barriers, the resulting presentations were a fiercely political vindication of the Kings’ legacy and an uncompromising critique of its latter-day appropriators.

Below we reproduce one of those presentations, an extended version of the speech delivered to the meeting by Mohaned Elnour on the radical example of Martin Luther King Jr.

A radical life

Martin Luther King the leader, the radical that we celebrate, was a product of a movement and of intellectual endeavour. His ideas developed in the course of the great struggles of the 1950s and 1960s, applied and tested in the US Civil Rights movement and beyond: in the anti-war movement, in his relationship to the global anti-colonial movement, in the fight against poverty – as he put it, the struggle for justice everywhere.

Martin Luther King Jr was himself a product of the college and university education that our local institutions deny those who cannot afford it, including those of us barred access to student finance on account of our immigration status – a racial injustice! And so, we begin with Dr King’s education, and there we can locate his ideological mainspring in liberation theology, transcendentalism and anti-fascism. At college, King discovered the work of Henry David Thoreau, opponent and resistor of the US’s expansionist war on Mexico (1846-48), waged in an atmosphere of jingoism – not unlike the defining war of King’s political life. Whilst many notable Whigs – and later, Republicans – would condemn the Mexican War in retrospect, Thoreau opposed it in practice and his Resistance to Civil Government (aka Civil Disobedience) originated in a series of lectures delivered while Mexican irregulars still fought on. ‘Fascinated by the idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system, I was so deeply moved that I reread the work several times,’ (MLK, My Pilgrimage to Nonviolence, 1 September 1958, The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. Volume IV: Symbol of the Movement, January 1957-December 1958)**.

At university King studied the rise of European fascism and – appalled by the role of the continent’s religious institutions, from acquiescence to eager collaboration – he identified with ‘the heroic, though unanticipated nonviolent resistance against the Nazis in Denmark and Norway . . . and by smaller groups in France, the Netherlands and in Germany itself,’ (MLK, Forward to The Power of Nonviolence).

It is here too, in these years of study, that we are introduced to Coretta Scott and the Spring of a fruitful relationship, romantic and intellectual. As they exchange books and letters, we glean something more of their burgeoning social vision. In the Summer of 1952, having read Looking Backwards by the US Populist Edward Bellamy – on Scott’s recommendation – King wrote back to her,

‘I welcomed the book because much of its content is in line with my basic ideas. I imagine you already know that I am much more socialistic in my economic theory than capitalistic. And yet I am not so opposed to capitalism that I have failed to see its relative merits. It started out with a noble and high motive, viz, to block the trade monopolies of nobles, but like most human systems it fell victim to the very thing it was revolting against. So today capitalism has outlived its usefulness. It has brought about a system that takes necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes.’ (MLK, To Coretta Scott, 18 July 1952, The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. Volume VI: Advocate of the Social Gospel, September 1948 – March 1963).

In the same letter he affirmed his commitment to a liberation theology,

‘I have learned from reading Marx and books like Bellamy’s . . . that religion can so easily become a tool of the middle class to keep the proletariat oppressed. Too often has the church talked about a future good “over yonder” totally forgetting the present over here. As a theologian and one deeply convinced that the way of Christ is the only ultimate way to man’s salvation, I will try to avoid making religion what Marx calls the “opiate of the people”.’

Alabama: baptism of fire

But political ideas – even those derived from histories of struggle – must be tested, honed and re-evaluated in the crucible of new struggles. Noting this, we must leave the relative comfort of the university library and travel south, to Montgomery, Alabama, 1955 and the bus boycott. Here we encounter another radical life, that of Rosa Parks. We can recall that when Ms Parks was told ‘move’, she stayed put. Why? She said she thought of the brutalised and murdered Emmett Till, of his bereaved mother who refused to have a closed casket at his funeral because she wanted the world to see what was done to her boy. Rosa Parks looked upon the racial violence inflicted on Emmett Till and she knew that it was no aberration. She knew that despicable deed was an act of violence against ‘Black America’, that it was a part of a whole system of racial violence, and that racial segregation was itself an act of violence – state violence, capitalist violence – committed against black people, against the oppressed: an injury to all. And so she stayed put.

‘I must remind you that starving a child is violence. Suppressing a culture is violence. Neglecting school children is violence. Punishing a mother and her family is violence. Discrimination against a working man is violence. Ghetto housing is violence. Ignoring medical need is violence. Contempt for poverty is violence.’ (Coretta Scott King, Speech to Mother's Day March for Welfare Rights, 12 May 1968)

‘Many white Americans of good will have never connected bigotry with economic exploitation. They have deplored prejudice but tolerated or ignored economic injustice. But the Negro knows that these two evils have a malignant kinship.’ (MLK, The Summer of Our Discontent, Speech at The New School, 6 February 1964, later published in Why We Can’t Wait)

A rebellious heritage

A new political movement was born then in the United States in which the Kings emerged amongst its most outstanding leaders. But into what political surrounds did they emerge? And to what extent was their movement a continuation of the struggles that came before it? Throughout their lives, the Kings were engaged in great battles of ideas, waged against the political orthodoxies and prejudices of US society, including those within their own movement. In the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) Dr King spoke (behind closed doors) to a receptive audience about the excesses and contradictions, as he saw them, of anti-communist prejudice. Why did King feel the need to speak on such a topic? Because anti-communism was, after all, the US state-religion. Dr King’s religion was the gospel of liberation. Here, through word and image, we must evoke the memory of a preceding generation of black struggle. The giant figure of Paul Robeson strides forth. Robeson that world-renowned artistic colossus; a man who could travel the world, perform to vast crowds and great acclaim but who, in ‘his own country’, was a second-class citizen because he was black, and a national pariah because he was a communist. We recall that the communist movement – of which black revolutionaries like Robeson, Harry Haywood, Claud McKay and Claudia Jones were leaders – had been at the forefront and instrumental in the leadership of that earlier phase of struggle for civil rights and freedom. McCarthyism and its terrible predecessors weren’t, after all, born of stupid prejudice; the ‘Red Scares’ weren’t born of bad dreams, Bolsheviks under the bed. As much as McCarthyism and earlier manifestations of US anti-communism were anti-Jewish, they were fundamentally anti-black.

The revival of black struggle for justice – the new phase of struggle which produced the leadership of the Kings, of Malcolm X and of Kwame Ture (formerly Stokely Carmichael) – arose in the political void left by the destruction of the communist movement in the US. Why is this important? Why is this important to understand if we want to comprehend fully the lives of Dr King and Coretta Scott King? The answer is the role of the capitalist state, the great purveyor of racism and violence. The US state had had to isolate and destroy the communist movement precisely because again and again it had become fused with the militancy of a black population refusing to live in the old way; in the post-Reconstruction, counter-revolutionary, Jim Crow consensus that had been imposed on the country – and especially the South – ever since those years of reaction that followed the end of the US Civil War and the snuffing out of its radical content. The following decades saw the US announce itself on the world stage as a new imperialist goliath. Any movement of blacks in the direction of a socialist alternative threatened the very existence of the US as a global power. Time and again, it moved to isolate the socialist movement, destroy it, break and divide the leadership of black struggle in the US and head-off insurrection. And it did the same thing to Martin Luther King! To Malcolm X! To the Black Panther Party that followed. When black leaders and leading parties radicalised, when they confronted the racist state – that state moved to assassinate them; to assassinate their personality, their reputation and to eliminate them physically. Before he was shot down in Memphis, the US ruling class and its agents attempted to turn Dr King, like Robeson before him, into a pariah. They called King a demagogue and a communist sympathiser. It is hard to imagine now – since he has been canonised by those who, in his lifetime, were on the other side – the extent to which they turned Dr King into a demon. We’re not talking here about the right-wing. We’re not talking about the George Wallaces, the Southern Segregationists, the Klansmen in suits, the Dixiecrats and Nixonites – we’re talking about the liberals! About the Northern Democrats! About the other Civil Rights leaders who turned on Dr King at a crucial moment.

Vietnam

What was that crucial moment? What forced those false friends of the movement to pin their colours to the mast? In a word: Vietnam. Not ‘the war in Vietnam’. The war on Vietnam – on the Vietnamese people. The war waged by US imperialism (with active support from Britain and a ‘left-wing’ Labour government, lest we forget) against the Vietnamese nation, a people who were themselves risen up against oppression, against the racist system of colonialism and its offspring neo-colonialism, a people who had chosen the path of socialism. Like the struggle of the blacks in Memphis, Chicago and Detroit, the Vietnamese people’s pursuit of material justice, of their national rights, was also a threat to the very existence of US imperialism. Unlike the Democrats’ phoney ‘war on poverty’, this war was real, and the Kings condemned both. Here, Coretta led and Martin followed. ‘She educated me,’ he said.  April 1967: At the Riverside Church, New York, Martin Luther King stepped out and took his place alongside the Vietnamese people, standing against – as he put it – ‘the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism,’ (MLK, Beyond Vietnam – A Time to Break the Silence, Speech at the Riverside Church, New York, 4 April 1967).

‘For those who say to me, “stick to civil rights,” I have another answer.  That is that I’ve fought too long and too hard now against segregated public accommodations to end up segregating my moral concerns.  I’m not going to do that. Others can do what they want to do, that’s their business. If other Civil Rights leaders, for various reasons, refuse, or can’t take a stand, or have to go along with the administration, that’s their business! But I must say tonight, that I know that injustice is indivisible. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’ (https://www.wpafilmlibrary.com/exhibit/MLK_Speeches)

The Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) had already identified Dr King as a threat. Alongside Malcolm X and Kwame Ture, they viewed him as one of the potential leaders of a revolution – yes, a revolution – in which the oppressed black masses would be at the forefront (J Edgar Hoover, FBI Memorandum, Black Nationalist-Hate Groups, 04/03/68). That is, the FBI, this organ of the US state, of the US ruling class, whose business it was to know and understand movements and leaders, they concluded that King was a threat to national security. Were they wrong? No, they were not wrong! He was a threat. By the mid-1960s King was publicly saying that what the US needed – what the world needed – was revolution: in his words, ‘a radical revolution of values’.

‘A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, "This is not just." It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of South America and say, "This is not just." The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.’ (MLK, Beyond Vietnam)

A world on fire

‘The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jet-like speed toward the goal of political independence, and we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward the gaining of a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.’ (Letter from Birmingham Jail, aka The Negro Is Your Brother, 1963)

The Kings and the US Civil Rights Movement were products of a world on fire. What was happening in the world in the 1950s and 1960s? What was shaking the foundations of the US economy in those years? What were the radical examples that political movements were looking to? They were looking to Africa, to Congo and Lumumba, to Ghana and Nkrumah, to the anti-colonial movement. They were looking to Cuba; 1959 was the year that the Cuban Revolution took power and a year later Fidel Castro came to Harlem! The Cuban Revolution had a huge impact on the black working class in those years. Dr Antonio Monteiro speaks of three primary figures of moral authority and influence amongst the US’s black working class in the 1960s: Martin Luther King, Mohamed Ali and Fidel Castro.

‘These are revolutionary times. All over the globe men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression and out of the wombs of a frail world new systems of justice and equality are being born.’ (MLK, Beyond Vietnam)

Where else did the movement look? It looked to Vietnam – and the youth said, like Kwame Ture, ‘Hell no, we ain’t gonna go’, like Muhammad Ali, ‘My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother’, and like the Vietnamese Southern Resistance fighters who shouted out in English to the black soldiers in the US encampments – just as they had done to the African soldiers in the French colonial armies of occupation before them – ‘Black man, your fight is at home!’ With Martin Luther King, the black working class appeared as the natural leadership of an anti-war movement in which significant sections were making more or less open cause with the Vietnamese – that is, with a communist-led, anti-colonial movement fighting US imperialism. A revolutionary development indeed.

This is the Civil Rights Revolution. This is Martin Luther King the radical.

Lessons to be learned

What lessons does the real Dr King teach us?

Martin Luther King was politically intelligent, he wasn’t naïve, he was courageous but also cautious when he thought the situation required it. He was tactical. He would work with anyone who he thought could be convinced. But, ultimately, as his close friend and lawyer William F Pepper recalls, he was, in the final analysis, always bound by a high moral duty – self-imposed – to do what he saw to be right, not what was easy, respectable, opportune. In 1967 when he spoke at the Riverside he precipitated a great split in the Civil Right Movement. He spoke there knowing his words would not only bring a backlash from all the enemies of the people, but also from within ‘the people’, ‘his people’. He knew that it would drive a wedge between much of the movement’s leadership on the one hand, and, on the other, a significant swathe of the black working class, who – though not a part of what would have been recognised as the anti-war movement at that time – were nevertheless opposed to US imperialism’s war on the Vietnamese people.

A living memorial

In concluding, we acknowledge the work of those of academic and political integrity who uphold the Kings’ radical legacy. We are greatly indebted to them – and to the work of organisations in the US such as the Workers World Party, the Party for Socialism Liberation and others – for their efforts in making this history accessible to a new generation of struggle. Their work is invaluable in the face of renewed attempts to strip the Kings’ legacy – and the legacy of the movement that produced them – of all subversive content. We echo the words of Dr Antonio Monteiro that Martin Luther King was assassinated more than once. First, they set out to assassinate him politically and personally. And, in our time, long after they killed the man, they have sought to assassinate his legacy.

Here in this city, Dr King stands in stone on the grounds of Newcastle University. The inscription at the base of his likeness quotes the speech he delivered in this city, ‘There are three urgent and indeed great problems that we face – poverty, war, racism.’ But what of the institution that owns the statue, are they against poverty, war and racism? Is Newcastle University against poverty? Newcastle University pay their staff poverty wages! This year Newcastle University fought to break a strike by its workers who were seeking the ‘living wage’! Where do the University establishment think Dr King died? Do they think he died in his sleep? No, he died in Memphis, amongst the striking sanitation workers he had gone there to support. The Kings’ war on poverty was not the phoney ‘war on poverty’ of Lyndon B Johnson and the Democrats. In the last year of his life, Dr King was preparing the occupation of Washington DC – the construction of a tent city of the nation’s poor, on the threshold of government. With the Poor People’s Campaign King, in the year of his death, declared ‘eternal hostility to poverty.’ How do you think our local Universities will react when we occupy their campuses to demand access to education? Denial of education consigns us to poverty. Material poverty, that is. Not a poverty of ideas, for we are rich in those. For us, like for Martin Luther King, this, the struggle for justice, is our university too.

And those ‘giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism’. Martin Luther King was against militarism. We are against militarism. Are Newcastle University against militarism? Newcastle University is at the service of the British arms industry – a refugee-creation industry. Newcastle University is funded by the arms industry. Newcastle University invests over £500,000 in the arms trade. That monument of stone, which bears Dr King’s likeness, was paid for with blood money.

Were Martin Luther King here today, whose side do they think he would be on? What do they think Dr King would make of this city? A city where refugees are forced to live in destitution, packed into houses so overcrowded that they are forced to share bedrooms with strangers? A city where migrant workers are harassed at work by immigration enforcement, where the doors of asylum seekers are kicked-in in dawn raids. Do they think Dr King would look around these streets and call this city ‘Freedom City’? Would he declare it a ‘City of Sanctuary’ as Newcastle’s Labour Council does?

Martin Luther King does not belong to them. His memory marches with us because we are the radicals. We are the strugglers. We are the ones who are storming the mountaintop.

Mohaned Elnour and Patrick Casey


 

*The Migration & Asylum Justice Forum – known simply as ‘the Forum’ – was formed in response to the 2014 Immigration Act, bringing together local activists and academics with refugee and migrant groups from across the North East. Its primary aim has been to coordinate action against the everyday borders and hostile environment created by successive racist immigration laws. As such, it has helped lead campaigns against immigration checks on hospital wards, charter flight deportations and forced overcrowding in asylum seeker housing. The Revolutionary Communist Group is a founding member of the Forum and supporters of Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! have been centrally involved in initiating its new campaign for access to education.

**Much of Martin Luther King Jr’s writings, sermons and speeches from the 1950s and early 1960s are available to read online as part of the King Papers Project:

https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/publications/king-papers

 

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