Martin, Malcolm and America

From Brandon Terry’s long review of The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. by Peniel Joseph:

. . . The extent to which King’s vision of justice exceeded the horizons of American nationalism is still perhaps the least appreciated element of his public philosophy.

For those used to seeing King situated in a progressive story of American liberalism, it can be surprising to learn that as early as the 1950s, he considered Black freedom struggles to be part of the wave of anti-imperialist revolt in Africa and Asia. “The determination of Negro Americans to win freedom from every form of oppression,” he proclaimed, “springs from the same profound longing for freedom that motivates oppressed peoples all over the world.” He strongly identified with anticolonial liberation movements, meeting veterans of Gandhi’s satyagraha movement in India in 1959 and traveling to Ghana for Kwame Nkrumah’s inauguration in 1960. Like many leftist figures navigating cold war politics, however, King’s criticisms of American foreign policy could often seem restrained, couched in the obligatory tropes of anticommunism or paeans to pacifism.

It was Vietnam that served as the inflection point for King’s radicalization on matters of global justice, but Joseph helps underscore Malcolm’s underappreciated influence on this shift. Malcolm was a prescient critic of the war from the outset, eviscerating its premises with a moral clarity that eluded most commentators, who were gaslighted by lies that US troops were acting as noncombatant “advisers” in Southeast Asia. “You’re not supposed to be so blind with patriotism that you can’t face reality,” Malcolm warned, charging that the war was a “criminal” act made palatable by racism and deception.

Malcolm’s antiwar critique and denunciation of the draft as “the most hypocritical governmental half-truth that has ever been invented since the world was the world” found its most important supporters among the student organizers in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the first civil rights group to dissent from the war and the draft. How, Malcolm asked, could one accept being drafted to fight on behalf of a supposed democracy, only to return home concerned about how you “can get a right to register and vote without being murdered”?

King, whose political ties to Lyndon Johnson and mainstream liberals made him more tentative in speaking out against the war, became openly critical of the administration after young activists pressed him on the hypocrisy of preaching nonviolence at home while remaining quiet about militarism abroad. Against the private advice and public chastisement of some of his closest advisers, he denounced both the war and the systemic injustices revealed or intensified by the effort to fight it. The war, he charged, represented a threat to free speech and legitimate dissent, and it bred cynicism concerning both the use of violence and the rights of nonwhite peoples for self-rule. Further, he charged the war effort with the “cruel manipulation of the poor,” lamenting its unethical waste of vital resources as well as how it sent

the black young men who had been crippled by our society…8,000 miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in Southwest Georgia and East Harlem.

In our era of perpetual warfare, with its boomerang effects on domestic liberties and civic trust, such insights remain unheeded.

The questions both men were converging on concerned the worth of citizenship in a society riven by economic domination, racial hierarchy, and belligerent militarism: What, if any, allegiance or sacrifice could such a society demand? The ideal of “radical black citizenship,” which Joseph most closely associates with King, contends that full, equal citizenship for African-Americans requires not just the formal recognition of equal rights but also the fair value of those rights. This means not only the ability to act on them as any other citizen might, but also the inability of a privileged class of citizens to unjustly enrich themselves at the expense of the least powerful.

In Why We Can’t Wait (1964), for example, King wrote that “Negroes must not only have the right to go into any establishment open to the public, but they must also be absorbed into our economic system in such a manner that they can afford to exercise that right.” As Joseph reminds us, his conception of civic equality extended to things like “a good job, living wage, decent housing, quality education, health care, and nourishment.” Or as King put it in 1967, true freedom in an affluent society cannot mean the “freedom to hunger, freedom to the winds and rains of heaven, freedom without roofs to cover [our] heads.”

. . . King’s view of the world that he hoped mass protest would bring into being went far beyond Malcolm’s populist appeals to the “downtrodden masses” left behind by civil rights legislation. For King, equal civic standing, at least in an ostensible democracy, also means that each of us participates in decision-making, determining the contours of our common life together through deliberation. Indeed, one of his principal arguments concerning the evil of segregation was its assault on freedom. Segregation, King said, imposes undue “restraint on my deliberation as to what I shall do, where I shall live, how much I shall earn, the kind of tasks I shall pursue.” Segregation destroys the vital human capacity to authentically “deliberate, decide, and respond” by imposing restrictions on when and where we may enter.

If democratic citizenship is to be free and equal, it must uproot habits, power arrangements, and resource distributions that leave us subject to the arbitrary impositions of others in the most vital domains of life. As Joseph notes, such demands extended to capitalism itself and partly explain King’s skepticism toward its basis in “cut-throat competition and selfish ambition.” In 1967, for instance, he wrote that “if democracy is to have breadth of meaning,” we must overcome the “contemporary tendency in our society” to “compress our abundance into the overfed mouths of the middle and upper classes until they gag with superfluity.”

. . . Malcolm’s criticisms of so-called integrationism never adequately grappled with the leftist tenor of King’s views, which could be better described as “reconstructionist” rather than “integrationist.” For King, authentic integration was “meaningless without the mutual sharing of power.” Kingian integration would involve the widespread redistribution of assets and real democratic participation in economic and political decision-making instead of allowing municipal borders, the dictates of private profit, and existing measures of “merit” to unfairly disadvantage the life chances of so many Americans.

A Few Words from Martin Luther King and Jamaal Bowman (Redux)

[Apologies for sending this again, but the video of King’s interview didn’t show up in the email that goes out to some of this blog’s vast public]

From an interview in May, 1967:

[The interview]

From Jamaal Bowman, who will now represent New York’s 16th District in Congress:

We can’t talk about the attacks against “Socialism” without talking about white backlash to demands for investment in communities of color.

Government programs, or what they call “Socialism,” is apparently fine for white people but no one else.

Was the GI Bill socialism?
Was the Works Progress Administration socialism?
Was the Homestead Act socialism?

These programs built the middle class and American wealth. But we’re letting ourselves get played by the GOP’s divide-and-conquer strategy if we don’t tell it like it is.

If we let Republicans and their billionaire friends on Fox News and corporate America divide us up, working people of all backgrounds can’t come together to fund our schools, demand millions of green jobs, and investment in ALL of our communities.

Let’s complete the work of our ancestors in this struggle.

For every step our nation takes forward on racial and economic justice, the forces of backlash will try to divide-and-conquer us all.

But we have to stay focused because I truly believe that we will win.

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Relevant Comments from the Last Century

Ken Makin of the Christian Science Monitor says that, at times like this, it’s too easy to quote the final words of Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, when King looked forward to the day “all of God’s children … will be able to join hands and sing … Free at last! Thank God almighty, we’re free at last!” Mr. Makin suggests we remember some of Dr. King’s other, more specific words.

From his last book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?:

Ever since the birth of our nation, white America has had a schizophrenic personality on the question of race. She has been torn between selves – a self in which she proudly professed the great principles of democracy and a self in which she sadly practiced the antithesis of democracy. This tragic duality has produced a strange indecisiveness and ambivalence toward the Negro, causing America to take a step backward simultaneously with every step forward on the question of racial justice, to be at once attracted to the Negro and repelled by him, to love and to hate him. There has never been a solid, unified, and determined thrust to make justice a reality for Afro-Americans.

From his final speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”, delivered in Memphis, Tennessee, the day before he was shot:

Let us keep the issues where they are. The issue is injustice. The issue is the refusal of Memphis to be fair and honest in its dealings with its public servants, who happen to be sanitation workers. Now, we’ve got to keep attention on that. That’s always the problem with a little violence. You know what happened the other day, and the press dealt only with the window-breaking. I read the articles. They very seldom got around to mentioning the fact that one thousand, three hundred sanitation workers were on strike, and that Memphis is not being fair to them, and that Mayor Loeb is in dire need of a doctor [the mayor being one of our “sick white brothers”]. They didn’t get around to that.

And from the “I Have a Dream” speech five years earlier:

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. And there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.

Democrats and Republicans

Today, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the leader of the Democrats in the House of Representatives, gave the longest speech in the history of the House, which goes back to 1789. After it was discovered that the House rules allow party leaders to speak as long as they want, Pelosi stood and spoke for a little over eight hours.

The longest speech in the history of the U.S. Senate lasted 24 hours. It was given in 1957 by a racist Southerner in opposition to that year’s Civil Rights Act. At the time, he was a Democrat (because most Southerners were), but he became a Republican after passage of the 1964 Civil Rights act (as most Southerners did). He remained a Republican for the next thirty-nine years.

That basically sums up our two political parties. A woman wants people illegally brought here as children to be protected against deportation and to have a chance to become American citizens. A man wanted to stop everyone from having equal rights, especially black people.

The New Deal and the Same Old Deal

For those of us under 80 or so, the New Deal was basically President Franklin Roosevelt using the federal government in creative ways to address the Great Depression, which wasn’t fully tamed until World War II began, government spending rose even further and lots of working-age men joined the armed forces (there were 450,000 Americans in the military in 1940 and 12.5 million in 1945).

A recent book, Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time, tells the story but leaves Roosevelt in the background. The New York Review of Books has a fairly long but excellent review by Nicholas Lemann, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, here. 

The author of Fear Itself is Ira Katznelson, a professor of political science and history, also at Columbia. According to the review, Katznelson considers the national legislature to be the most central political institution in a democracy. For that reason, he presents an account of the New Deal and its aftermath that pays little attention to Presidents Roosevelt and Truman:

Katznelson has no interest in their personal qualities or their methods of leadership. Instead his focus is on Congress and government agencies, and more broadly on political systems, voting, and interest groups. This gives Fear Itself the feeling of a fresh look at a familiar story.

In addition, Katznelson emphasizes the perilous situation the country faced in the 1930s. Germany and Italy had reacted to the Great Depression by turning to fascism. The diplomat George Kennan believed America’s government should become authoritarian. The respected journalist Walter Lippmann told President Roosevelt that he might have to become a dictator. New Deal policies were enacted in “an atmosphere of unremitting uncertainty about liberal democracy’s capacity and fate”.

Becase Katznelson focuses on Congress, the South has a major role in the story he tells. Since the Civil War, the South had been firmly Democratic. In the 1932 election, Democratic congressional candidates received 86% of the vote in the South. After that election, more than half of the committee chairmen were southern Democrats. As a result, Roosevelt needed southern support in order to get anything through Congress:

The South used its power to create de facto regional exceptions to many New Deal policies, either by exempting domestic and agricultural workers (meaning blacks) from them, or by placing administrative and policy control of them in the hands of state governments. To use the most obvious example, the 1935 law that created the Social Security system had both of these features...

It was specifically the South that blocked … the possibility of the New Deal’s moving further left in its policies. The New Deal wound up largely achieving one set of goals—an American welfare state, including retirement security and an empowered labor movement—but stopped far short of another, which would have involved creating, through democratic procedures, a more centrally planned economy….

It was Congress that blocked national planning, for reasons having to do with the southern bloc’s overriding concern with maintaining the regional racial order. The South, in Katznelson’s view, was willing to move left on economic issues as long as that didn’t threaten segregation. When economic policy and race began to seem intertwined, the South opted out on economic policy, and that defined the leftward boundary of the New Deal.

Reading this should remind us how little has changed since then. Much of our politics is the same old deal it’s always been. Since the compromise that resulted in slaves being counted as 3/5ths of a person in the Constitution, America has been politically divided between the North (now including western states like California) and the South (now including northern states like Idaho and Wyoming). 

Of course, after the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965, the South switched to voting Republican. But progressive federal policies are still being watered down in order to accommodate southern sensibilities. For example, the Affordable Care Act allowed individual states, especially in the South, to avoid expanding Medicaid, thereby limiting benefits to poor people and low-paid workers (including, of course, poor and low-paid blacks).

Professor Lehmann, the author of the review, highlights other ways in which southern “conservatives” have affected federal policy since the New Deal: by supporting our entry into World War II (Southern politicians tend to favor the military and military activity); by encouraging the creation of our national security state (internment of the Japanese, loyalty oaths, FBI surveillance, the creation of the CIA and the House Un-American Activities Committee); by voting for a “defense” budget that has continued to grow even in peacetime; and by making life difficult for labor unions and people who want to vote.

For example, given the Republicans’ recent attacks on voting rights, this passage from the review is especially striking:  

Katznelson also reminds us that whites as well as blacks were substantially disenfranchised in the South, because of poll taxes. Voter turnout was shockingly low in the South—below 20 percent of eligible (meaning mainly white) voters, for example, in Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, and South Carolina in the crucial presidential election of 1940. In the 1938 midterm elections, Mississippi, with a population of more than two million, had only 35,000 voters. 

There are few activities more troubling in a democracy than intentionally limiting the size of the electorate, although that’s now standard Republican policy, especially in the South.

Professor Lehmann thinks that the South described by Professor Katznelson is too homogeneous. Lehmann argues that there have been significant differences between Southern politicians regarding civil rights and economic issues. Nevertheless, if you want to understand where America is today, Lehmann’s review of Katznelson’s book is terrific reading. So, probably, is the book. 

(A personal note: when I was in college, I read something by a black author who claimed that the status of black people has been the central issue in the history of our country. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find the quotation or even identify the author. But I remember reading that statement some 40 years ago and being highly skeptical. The more I learn about American history, however, the more I’ve come to agree.)