The conventional view about Martin Luther King’s speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. on 28 August 1963 is that its call for equal rights and justice ring out with the message of peace and non-violence.
King was definitely was a radical and not a moderate as so often describe by left commentators. He was not a revolutionary socialist but was definitely an American social democrat who adopted the language of the American Revolution and its constitution (1776-1787) as well as Lincoln speeches in the US Civil War or the 2nd American Revolution. The ‘Dream’ speech is a call to arms explicitly calling for the completion of unfinished tasks of the US Civil War which had been fought to end slavery and emancipate the slaves as seen by these key points:
- “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed”: “we hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal” (which quotes the constitutions)
- “Even in the state of Mississippi sweltering in the heat of oppression be transformed into an oasis of justice”
- “My four little children…will grow up in a nation where they will be judged not but the colour of their skin but by the content of their character”
- “Right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will hold hands with little white boys and white girl and live in brotherhood”
- “The rough places shall be made flat” (a biblical quote)
- “This stone of hope faith – to struggle together go to jail together to pray together – sweet land of liberty Let freedom ring from every mountainside, let it ring. from every state and every city and every hamlet (Let Freedom Ring is an anthem of the 1776 American Revolution, sung to the tune of God Save the Queen)
King always had an economic justice agenda citing inequalities. He mentions Segregation (i.e. in the South) and Discrimination (meaning racial inequality in the North) – ‘Justice’ is repeated again and again both in the legal sense (freedom from police oppression) but also economically – hence the reference to “Negroes living in an Island of poverty amidst an ocean of wealth”.
The promise of I Have a Dream was not the homage to individualistic advancement at the expense of the masses that it has historically been misrepresented as. It is a vision of true equality – the goal of economic and social justice based on human dignity and collective action.
His references to banking and bouncing cheques “marked insufficient funds” will have been recognised by many in the crowd at Lincoln Memorial.
“America has defaulted on its obligations” – “America has given the Negro a bad cheque – we refuse to believe the bank of justice is bankrupt – we promise to cash this cheque that gives us the riches of freedom and the security of justice”
“The Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of wealth”
But what was the significance of a March on Washington? Three previous civil rights Marches, though much smaller, had taken place in 1957, 1958 and 1960 to desegregate schools but the phrase was originally associated with white supremacists. ‘White’ Marches on Washington had definite menace – the largest previous having been the Ku Klan Klan rally of 30,000 in 1925. About 10,000 white war veteran and about 8,000 Suffragettes had also marched on DC. So the threat of 10,000, 50,000 or even 100,000 Black people in Washington was scary for the ruling class in America and for the southern white racists.
AFL-CIO Vice President and black union leader A Philip Randolph had originally intended to March on Washington in 1941 in protest at the segregation & exclusion of Black workers from war industries. He did not have to march because President FD Roosevelt granted executive order 7708 – the first meaningful US anti-racist legislation prohibiting segregation and discrimination in war industries.
King’s call for the March on Washington was therefore deliberately incendiary and anti-system despite the Kennedys’ attempts to control the movement. That is why right-wingers erected billboards across the South showing Dr. King and Rosa Parks attending the Highlander Folk School in 1957. To the white power structure, integration was a ‘Communist plot’ against the ‘Southern way of life’ and therefore, anyone attending an integrated event was by definition a ‘Communist’.
The Civil Rights movement was initially a black middle-class and church-led mass lobby organisations arguing for legal-based reform.s NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People) formed by WEB DuBois, CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) – sometimes supported by liberal Democrats in the North and the trade unions, in particular A Phillip Randolph’s Brotherhood of porters and sleeping car attendants.
SCLC formed 1957 out of the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott struggle bringing Martin Luther King (a Progressive Baptist minister) to prominence. SCLC formed initially by 30 or so groups; by the time Martin Luther King was in Birmingham Jail in 1963 only 80 or so organisational churches joined as members – it was not a mass organisation. The vast majority of Black churches and leaders stood aloof from the Civil Rights movement which was seen as too radical and too political for church leaders looking to their spiritual mission not active politics. King thought differently and was prepared to lobby political leaders in a dual strategy of moral suasion (i.e. convincing the authorities to concede) but mobilising mass Non-Violent Direct Action. MLK himself said being arrested in Montgomery quickly cured him of expecting rulers to give up civil rights without a fight.
The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was born in 1960 from a spontaneous outbreak of sit-in protests to desegregate lunch-counters, cafes and shops starts at Gainesville, North Carolina with the first protest with four Black students refusing to move when not served. By day two, 13 black students, by day three, 50 black students and three white students who show solidarity. Spreading to 30 locations across 17 states between April and June 1960, it showed two things: radical direct action by masses achieves results and that Black and White could unite and fight for equals rights.
SNCC is formed to link these student struggles but quickly became a vanguard of full-time activist militant students as local mass action quickly died down and was hard to sustain. By 1961 it sent full time Field Workers into the rural South to organise desegregation of Greyhound bus stations, lunch counters and voter registrations of Black voters. Dr Ella Baker, the full-timer at the SCLC, helps set up SNCC but vigorously defends its autonomy from SCLC even though King speaks and his non-violence message dominates the founding conference.
SNCC did not invent sit-ins (CORE had done this in the 1930s and 1940s but not generalised it as a tactic) but SNCC were the first to have a deliberate strategy of confrontation of the racist authorities in the South, to get arrested, clog up their jails and mobilise mass numbers of Field workers student volunteers (Black and White).
However, despite the successes and the power of the movement the legacy of King remains unfulfilled. Equality has still not been achieved despite having an African American President serving his second term. The US is still a brutally racist, unequal and unjust society. Trayvon Martin’s death in 2013 shows President Obama’s record little better than the Kennedys’ on Race. The influence of the Civil Rights movement today in Britain has been profound from the in the Stephen Lawrence campaign in the 1990s to the United Friends of Family Campaigns for Justice including for Mark Duggan, Christopher Alder, Azelle Rodney, Roger Sylvester and Smiley Culture. The impact of Direct Action and Non-violence have been a key influence.
The form of the United front against Racism & Fascism is very much shaped by the model of the US Civil rights movement – an alliance of trade unions, community groups, activists and church leaders. Ethnic Minority Civic Congress Scotland is modelled on the civil rights movement. There has always been tensions between calls for direct action protests and lobbying politicians for change. King showed that without the threat of revolt, reforms are never conceded. But of course there are mixed legacies. On violence and non-violence it is of course ironic that King had armed bodyguards, and now many Black organisations used self-defence (sometimes armed!) to carry struggle forward.
Although King’s radicalism is carefully coded to avoid misquotation, it meaning was clear to civil rights activists:
“They’ll have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual – There shall neither rest or tranquillity the whirlwind of revolt will continue to shake our foundations”
The threat of African American revolt against the system
“Let us not satisfy our lust for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred”
That racial hatred must be fought with love and brotherhood
“Conduct our struggle – not degenerate into physical force – the marvellous new militancy that has engulfed the Negro community, many of our white brothers have come to realisation that their destiny is tied to our destiny their freedom is inextricably linked to our freedom”
Non-violent direct action will unite black and white
“We can never be satisfied – with mobility from a smaller ghetto to a larger ghetto, robbed of our dignity – where the Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and the Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote”
Advances for a small black elite is not enough – the black masses must benefit
“Staggered by creative suffering, that suffering is redemptive – go back to Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and to our ghettos of the northern cities”
Show the oppressors as violent and uncivilised – not us
King was a radical social democrat who wanted a public service-based mixed economy, with strong state intervention and taxation of the wealthy, and who opposed the waste of life and resources on the Vietnam War. Today he would be considered a left wing extremist – well to the left of Obama, and most European Socialist and Labour Parties.
The promise of I Have a Dream was not the homage to individualistic advancement at the expense of the masses that it has historically been misrepresented as. It is a vision of true equality – the goal of economic and social justice based on human dignity and collective action. No Justice No Peace is as much Martin’s cry as it is Malcolm’s and we will go on hearing until the Mark Duggan, Trayvon Martin and countless others get justice.