Martin Luther King's Legacy May Yet Include the Rising Up of Urban, Black America
Howe, Darcus, New Statesman (1996)
In Memphis, Tennessee, where Martin Luther King was assassinated 30 years ago this month, 300,000 blacks gathered from all over the United States to commemorate him. By any measure it was a phenomenal political statement.
The Afro-American community is insisting on getting to the truth about King's assassination. James Earl Ray, according to King's wife, Coretta, is not the major culprit. As in the case of Malcolm X, black Americans have never bought the theory that these assassinations were carried out by vengeful individuals. Their demand for detailed investigations is a way of paying respect to one of the largest movements for change in America's history.
Mass protests have returned to US streets in recent years. There was the Million Man March, then the Million Woman demo. That these events can mobilise such numbers is all the more significant in a political climate where our focus is so tightly trained not on the masses but on political leaders. We are submerged in the cult of the personality, but this is a type of politics, even when the mayors and the senators are black, which leaves the grievances of black America mostly untouched.
The civil rights movement began in the South, where cotton was produced in plantations mainly using sharecropper labour, the American version of serfdom. Off the plantations there was a small black urban working class of janitors, truck drivers, cleaners, shop assistants and the rest. In Atlanta, home of the King family, a tiny middle class on a single street, Urban Avenue, engaged in a handful of small businesses. It was bolstered by a meagre collection of black teachers, doctors and lawyers.
The centre of civilisation for southern blacks was the church. The state, on the other hand, enforced segregation by force of arms, the Ku Klux Klan acting as its freelance subsidiary. …