Martin Luther King Jr has been reduced to a caricature by the ruling class. Everyone knows that he had a dream and not much else. There’s a Martin Luther King Jr Day in America where the US government pretends to honour his work, and yet the US government also most likely had him killed as part of their Cointelpro programme.
In the US today, if you are black you will find yourself on the receiving end of a state that has racism and discrimination baked into its system as an essential part of its class rule. There is a high chance you will end up in prison for the crime of trying to survive.
If you speak out you are liable to find yourself murdered like Darren Seals, a Black Lives Matter organiser, found shot dead in a burnt out car, or Antonio Sterling – also found shot dead in a burnt out car. What was Sterling’s crime? Being the brother of Alton Sterling, who had been executed by the cops for selling CDs on the street in 2016. We think that lynching is a thing of the past, but really lynchings have been replaced with executions.
King must then be placed in the historical context of a settler regime that ripped millions from their homes all across Africa to be made slaves on its plantations. Despite the ‘Emancipation Proclamation’ of President Abraham Lincoln, issued on 1 January 1863, King would say:
“One hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.
“One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatise a shameful condition.”
What is most often left out of the narrative surrounding King’s politics is its development over the course of his life. He is put forward in bourgeois history as a champion of civil rights, as pro-capitalist, and pro-middle class. That was certainly his thinking in 1963 when he gave the famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech at the March on Washington.
But over time his thinking became much more radical and he began to speak favourably of socialism as an economic system and to demonstrate his anti-capitalist thinking. When he was murdered he was preparing for a Poor People’s March on Washington, with the intention of shutting down Washington DC as in 1963, but with an explicitly socialist aim.
In February 1968 he spoke at a rally in Selma, Alabama, saying: “we’re dealing in a sense with class issues … with the problem of the gulf between the haves and have-nots”. Earlier in May 1967 he stated most explicitly that the dream of 1963 “had turned into a nightmare”.
The March on Washington in 1963 represented a turning point of the rebellions in the US. Many were fed up with the ‘movement’s’ inability to push for real radical change and with its compromised leadership.
Malcolm X stated in his ‘Message to the Grassroots’ in November 1963 that President Kennedy and the might of US capital had created and financed a Civil Rights Council with a comprador leadership, including King, opportunistically to subvert the black civil rights demands. We see the same thing with Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson today as the sanctified voices of reform and ‘black capitalism’.
With the leadership out of touch with so many of the people they were representing, and compromised by opportunism, a flare-up of black insurrectionists unhappy to leave their survival and liberation to opportunist leaders arose.
The so-called riots of 1964 to 1968 were uprisings against the US, led by armed groups, to defend communities against the cops; groups such as the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, the Black Liberation Army, Revolutionary Action Movement, Republic of New Afrika, and New Libya launched sporadic armed insurrections, many of them with an explicitly communist aim.
We must not forget the influence Mao Zedong, Maoism, and the heroic achievements of the Chinese people led by the Communist Party of China; they were the big thing at the time, with world-shaking impact. The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was launched in 1966 and had a major impact on revolutionaries in the US.
It was at this time that King and Malcolm X began to push explicitly for the complete change of the American capitalist system. Both were soon killed.
Against increasingly radical rebellions, the US ruling class changed its approach to dealing with serious insurrections and the building of revolutionary spirit within its own borders. Many leaders and dedicated revolutionaries were killed – assassinated, gunned down in ‘police shootouts’, executed – backed up with serious generalised police repression and a ramping up of social pacification to try and divert and suppress the consciousness of the angry masses in the US.
Huey P Newton described in detail in his autobiography, Revolutionary Suicide, the constant low-level harassment the Black Panthers were subjected to in attempting to carry out their work. Cointelpro, the ‘counter-intelligence’ (ie, counter-revolutionary) programme, was in full swing.
The threat of armed resistance in the US was understandably very worrying to the ruling class – the threat of the masses armed and in open rebellion against them and their government was its most terrifying spectre. Hence the extreme repression.
Kevin ‘Rashid’ Johnson, in his book Defying the Tomb, described the repression as “pure neocolonial strategy, adapted to the US”. Because that’s what it was: the US turned the lessons it had learnt fighting communists in Vietnam to fighting communists and other radicals in its own back yard.
While the US was using chemical weapons in Vietnam against peasants and communist fighters, the CIA used its Air America front airline to bring tons of heroin back to the US to flood the ghettos in an insidious chemical warfare programme.
We must not forget the radical thought even in King’s early words, in the early civil rights movement. Remember, this was a country with racial segregation, lynching, violent southern separatists, and terror squads like the KKK.
Today, this civil rights movement in the US seems tame and neutered – and so it is easy to forget how radical it was when it fought. New waves of violent rebellion against the US ruling class and its state structure of racist oppression have arisen in the past few years, and rebellions and uprisings like Ferguson – over extrajudicial murders by the police – are part of a new wave of resistance against the US ruling class.