The Ugly Revolution

Michael Rogin

  • I May Not Get there with You: The True Martin Luther King Jr by Michael Eric Dyson
    Free Press, 404 pp, £15.99, May 2000, ISBN 0 684 86776 1
  • The Papers of Martin Luther King Jr. Vol. IV: Symbol of the Movement January 1957-December 1958 edited by Clayborne Carson et al
    California, 637 pp, £31.50, May 2000, ISBN 0 520 22231 8

Conceived in slavery and dedicated to the proposition that black men are created unequal, the United States has attempted to come to terms with its longue durée of white supremacy only twice in its history. The first effort, made by black and white abolitionists in the period of nationalist expansion, and caught up in the conflict between slave and free labour modes of production, brought hereditary legal servitude to an end. Its national hero, Abraham Lincoln, announced at Gettysburg that a nation ‘conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal’ had experienced ‘a new birth of freedom’ in civil war. But with the defeat of Reconstruction a decade after Lincoln’s assassination, the 14th Amendment that was supposed to guarantee former slave ‘persons’ equality before the law came instead to insulate corporations, designated ‘artificial persons’, from popular political control. Deprived of the right to vote throughout the former Confederacy, freedmen and women were forced to work in repressive systems of labour, on farms, in mines and in chain-gangs; subject to arbitrary arrest, imprisonment and debt peonage; terrorised, brutalised and murdered in the thousands of lynchings often advertised in advance as public entertainments; confined to Jim Crow schools, public accommodation, restaurants and hotels (where any were available at all); made involuntary participants in sterilisation and other medical experiments; and confronted with residential apartheid and job discrimination as they moved North. A falsification that held more universal sway among whites than did any Stalinist rewriting of history in the Soviet Union transformed black Americans in the post-bellum South from victims of re-subjugation into political and sexual predators.

A century after the Civil War, a massive, non-violent black revolution brought three centuries of legally enshrined, lethally enforced white supremacy to an end. Its national hero is Martin Luther King Jr. Far from giving way in the face of moral example and legal right, racial injustice rose to fever pitch during the 1960s. The third and deadliest Ku Klux Klan (succeeding the Southern Klan of the late 1860s and the national Klan of the 1920s) dynamited churches where members of the black freedom struggle met. Klansmen beat and murdered civil rights workers and Southern blacks who tried to register to vote; the identity of the bombers and killers was rarely a secret, but Southern juries were loath to convict. Southern law enforcement officers, even when they were not themselves Klan supporters, jailed and assaulted thousands of civil rights campaigners for exercising their Constitutional rights. Southern judges and elected officials harassed, outlawed and imprisoned those participating in the freedom struggle. The four political assassinations that define the 1960s – those of John and Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X and King – stand in for the very large numbers (almost all black and lost to national public memory) martyred to racial justice.

It is now a commonplace that, instead of protecting Southern civil rights workers, the FBI (with the collusion of the Kennedy brothers) conducted a campaign to discredit King. The organisation’s assistant director, William Sullivan, compiled from the Bureau’s wiretaps and bugs a tape of the noises of the civil rights leader’s extramarital activities. He sent it to King with a letter threatening to expose him; purporting to be a ‘Negro’, the letter-writer proposed suicide as King’s only way out.

It is also a commonplace that the hysterical brew of racist, anti-Communist and sexual fantasies which reached its climax in the King years drove not just the average, representative American psyche, but the politically untouchable figure who headed the national police for forty years. Nonetheless, in 1983 it was King, not J. Edgar Hoover, who became the third American to be honoured with his own national holiday. As Washington presided over the national birth of the United States and Lincoln over its rebirth in civil war, so the line from Lincoln to Martin Luther King Jr places slavery and racial equality at the centre of American national identity. Elevating King to the pantheon of founding fathers, however, has served as a ritual of national self-congratulation that obliterates the radical movement in which King lived, breathed and died. For the parallel between the 1860s and the 1960s extends beyond victory to counter-revolution. The assassinations of Lincoln and King transformed these figures in national memory from trouble-makers into healers, as Michael Eric Dyson puts it in I May Not Get there with You, an attempt to bring King back to political life. But while Lincoln turned in his last months from racial justice to national reconciliation, King had been moving in the opposite direction at the time of his death. Dyson’s book enters the fray over who gets to speak for the icon of Martin Luther King.

Ronald Reagan, who had opposed not only the civil rights movement but also the national legislation ending legal discrimination and guaranteeing the black right to vote, was the President who signed the Bill declaring King’s birthday a national holiday. There were two reasons for this historical irony. First, King was being celebrated as ‘poster boy’ (Dyson’s term) for the achievement of formal legal equality by those claiming that the struggle for racial justice had been won. Second, Reagan was paying back the debt he owed King, since the entry of racial conflict into national politics overthrew the FDR/Johnson New Deal coalition and put the former actor in the White House. Although Marx had written that labour in white skins could never be free so long as labour in black skins was enslaved, he more famously showed how the struggle for legal equality stigmatised the state as the source of coercion and apotheosised the marketplace as if it were free – an analysis now twice borne out by the history of the United States. When in the peroration to his ‘I have a dream’ address in 1963, King called for freedom to ring out even from Georgia’s Stone Mountain (the founding site of the second Ku Klux Klan – the national Klan of the 1920s), he did not expect that thirty years later the Congressman from Stone Mountain, Newt Gingrich, would promulgate his ‘contract with America’ and preside over the Republican take-over of Congress. No Democratic Presidential candidate since Lyndon Johnson has received a majority of the white vote, and the proportion of white male Republican voters typically reaches landslide proportions, as it did for George W. Bush. Before Johnson the only Southern Democrat to have been elected President since the Civil War was Woodrow Wilson, who had built his political career in New Jersey; since Johnson, no non-Southern Democrat has gone to the White House. Losing its virulent Jim Crow edge at home, the white South has acceded to national power.

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