Wednesday 12 December 2018

King's vision of racial equality is still a dream

History: The Heavens Might Crack: The Death and Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr, Jason Sokol, Basic Books, €21.99

Martin Luther King Photo: AP Photo/file
Martin Luther King Photo: AP Photo/file

JP O'Malley

On April 4, 1968, James Earl Ray, a fugitive from the Missouri State Penitentiary, gunned down Martin Luther King Jr in a motel in Memphis. If King's life hadn't been cut short at just 39 years old, perhaps the course of American history might have taken a radically different path.

In August 1963, the Baptist minister and activist delivered his inspirational "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington DC.

It combined the language of the Bible with the US constitution: calling for Americans to unite together to create a just, egalitarian, and colour-blind nation.

King was exerting enormous influence on the White House during this period too: working closely with President Johnson for the passage of civil rights which were signed into law in July 1964. By October that same year King won the Nobel Peace Prize.

By the time of his death, however, King had become an albatross around the neck of the Washington establishment. As US historian Jason Sokol documents in, The Heavens Might Crack, the FBI was constantly surveying King, believing he was a communist conspiracist; President Johnson despised King too, mainly for his public opposition to the Vietnam War; while the mainstream American media all vilified King for speaking the truth about the violent industrial military machine that US state power attempted to masquerade as American exceptionalism.

Sokol's well-crafted and thoroughly-researched tome focuses most of its attention on King's death. Specifically, how it made the struggle towards a multi-racial America much more difficult. In the week of King's death, riots broke out in 125 cities across the United States. Afterwards, 39 people were dead, more than 2,600 were injured, and 21,000 were arrested.

Sokol's rigorous analysis of how differently both whites and blacks reacted to King's death tells us a great deal about the rampant divisions that firmly mark American society along racial lines: both historically, and in our present age.

Losing faith in pacifism in the wake of King's death, African Americans turned to more fiery-radical-militant-left wing organisations, such as The Black Panthers who advocated the use of physical force to implement social justice. As Eldridge Cleaver, the Black Panthers' minister of information, so aptly put it, just two days after King's death: "The war has begun. Now all black people in America have become Black Panthers in spirit."

Much of white America, meanwhile, turned to the iron fist of the state: calling for law and order by whatever means necessary to crush the violent reaction of African Americans. Sokol provides insightful archival material here from newspaper clippings and primary interviews. These clearly demonstrate the contempt many whites felt for King at the time of his death. We also hear accounts of white supremacists openly celebrating in the streets upon hearing the news of King's murder.

But contemptuous feelings for King's death wasn't just restricted to the United States. As Sokol notes, it stirred racial prejudice across the globe. Notably in Britain: where King's death helped to give rise to a more hostile, racist atmosphere. Just weeks after King's death, the Conservative MP, Enoch Powell, at a political meeting in Birmingham, delivered his infamous hate-fuelled "rivers of blood" speech. This warned against the dangers of allowing non-white immigrants - who had entered Britain in the post-war period in their millions - of destroying British values and civilisation.

Closer to home, Reverend Doctor Ian Paisley penned an article at the time in The Protestant Telegraph, a sectarian paper he co-founded. As Sokol explains, Paisley's piece praised white supremacist regimes in South Africa and Rhodesia, while claiming that King "loaded the gun of his own destruction, by making himself the symbol of resistance to law and order".

Today, King has become a unifying symbol of multi-racial American freedom and justice: with all 50 states marking a national holiday every January in his honour. But as we approach the 50th anniversary of King's death - as Sokol continually reminds us here - living conditions for African Americans have remained at best, stagnant, at worst, abysmal. And even for all its historic symbolism, President Obama's two terms did little to lift the majority of African Americans out of their economic and social struggle.

Poverty rates across the United States for African Americans in 2016, for instance, were more than twice that of white, non-Hispanic individuals. Blatant police brutality against innocent African Americans, meanwhile, is a constant problem, which has roots in state-sponsored institutionalised racism.

Sokol's concluding argument calls for all Americans "to make clear the substance of [King's] teachings". But the historian offers no solutions to how this might be best achieved.

The book also eschews any real dissection of King's pacifist Christ-like-ideology. Indeed, it's worth asking the question: is a path of non-violent resistance one that a marginalized group - such as African Americans - should still be following? Especially given the dismal results it has hitherto produced. But that, of course, is a subject worthy of another book entirely.

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