Reclaiming the Legacy on the 40th anniversary of the historic March on Washington

It was truly a sight to behold. On August 28, 1963 a quarter million people descended on the nation’s capital to demand that the politicians listen to their demand for jobs and freedom. Never before had the country seen that many people amassed at one point for any purpose let alone the fight against Jim Crow and the demand for racial justice.


Commemorations of that historic gathering are taking place this week around the globe and across the United States. But the true birthright from Martin Luther King, Jr. and his famous ‘I have a dream’ speech and the purposes of the racial justice forces that confronted discrimination in that era are in danger of getting lost in all the fanfare surrounding this year’s 40th anniversary celebrations.


Let us remember that Dr, King and the other black leaders in motion at the time were hated and maligned by the U.S. power structure while they lived. Today, that same power structure is working hard to portray him as a harmless reformist whose political vision consisted mainly of advocating the philosophy of non-violence. His name is even used by today’s racists, asserting that King would be against such modern anti- discrimination tools as affirmative action and would support those asserting the need for a ‘race-blind’ society and racist measures like California’s Prop 54.


This distortion of King and the civil rights movement cannot be permitted to stand, particularly since this impotent assessment of that era and its leaders has influenced some of the younger activists of today. In fact, King’s true legacy endures as a source of inspiration for radical social change and only by reclaiming our true history can we reclaim that transformative legacy for the struggles of the 21st century.


Rather than the passive philosopher that the ruling class presents, Martin Luther King, Jr. stood for mobilizing the broadest mass of people against racism and every form of social injustice. He stubbornly insisted on preaching that injustice, economic deprivation and militarism were inseparably related and that all are legitimate aspects of the struggle for liberation from racial oppression. And, his support for the liberation of the oppressed world wide was especially focused in his work in opposition to both the genocidal U.S. war against Vietnam and the complicity between the racist South African regime and the U.S. government.


King’s social consciousness was forged initially in response to the specific segregationist conditions facing Black southerners in the mid-20th century. But the experience of northern Black ghettos also drove home the fact that the formalities of Jim Crow were no longer required to sustain racist oppression. Black political power was minimal so the mobilization of the oppressed themselves, conscious of the task that had risen to the top of the liberation agenda and united in the determination to see that task through to the end, was the essential element required to compel the Dixiecrats (comfortably situated within the Democratic Party) to submit.


Indeed, King’s great contribution rests in the fact that he grasped the imperatives of that historic moment and placed himself wholeheartedly at the service of pressing his people’s freedom struggle on to a higher level. From the earliest days he understood Frederick Douglass’ famous dictum: ‘Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.’ And he understood that the demand had to be backed up with an irresistible force – the masses in motion. King combined tactical imagination and initiative with a reliance on the masses that was (and still is) unknown to the mainline civil rights groups.


It is in this context that King’s adherence to the principles of non-violence should be placed. His non- violence had nothing to do with passivity or accommodating the movement to the status quo. Its political thrust was to bring massive pressure to bear on the various levels of the state apparatus in order to extract concessions on specifically identified demands. It explicitly sanctioned the defiance of unjust laws through appeal to higher humanitarian and religious principles.


As a result, King and the civil rights movement in general were consistently prepared to question and challenge the political authority of the U.S. state in its capacity as enforcer of Jim Crow laws and issuer of injunctions to prevent peaceful protest. As for the moral authority of the U.S. government, King recognized that it had been fundamentally undermined by centuries- long perpetuation of racist oppression.


The 21st century racial justice movement has not fully understood that the attempts to sanitize Martin Luther King, Jr. and turn the man (and the movement he led) into a harmless icon are tactics that we need to resist today. Much more than an accurate reconstruction of history is at stake here: the lessons King learned and eloquently articulated in the course of his life are rich legacies for us as we struggle for a radical transformation of U.S. racial relations and economic justice.


As the commemorations of the 40th anniversary of the March on Washington abound, let us also work to reforge the anti-racist movement in 2003 on the basis of resurrecting the real lessons handed down from our heroes. To do so, we must strive for a clearheaded appraisal of their actual contribution to the fight against racism and for democracy, and not the distortions that are propagated by the foes of racial justice and democracy.


Frances M. Beal is a political columnist for the San Francisco Bayview newspaper and a contributing editor to Black Scholar magazine.

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