Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights, social justice and peace activist who was martyred on April 4, 1968, was born 82 years ago on Jan. 15. Since 1986 Dr. King’s birthday has been commemorated by a federal holiday on the third Monday of January. This year the holiday falls on Jan. 17.
in Grosse Pointe Farms,
Mich., on March 14, 1968,
a few weeks before his
assassination. King was
targeted by a racist gang
opposed to open housing
in that affluent suburb
of Detroit. " border="0">
The recognition of Dr. King’s birthday as a federal holiday was the result of a nearly two-decade struggle waged by African-American political leaders and artists. They held mass demonstrations on this day every year and sponsored legislation in the U.S. Congress that eventually was passed, even under the right-wing administration of Ronald Reagan. Today federal, state and local offices as well as banks and many educational institutions are closed, and literally thousands of commemorations are held throughout the United States.
In 2011 the MLK federal holiday comes at a time when everything Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement fought for during the 1950s and 1960s is under attack by Wall Street and its surrogates in the administration and Congress. Ruling-class propaganda that is relayed daily through the corporate and government-sanctioned media is specifically designed to reinforce the existing conditions of exploitation and oppression against the working class in general.
A renewed round of attacks is taking place that seeks to blame the growing budget deficits facing numerous states and cities on the hard-won benefits of public sector employees, the unemployed and the poor. The 2010 elections were ideologically rigged to make a reactionary social agenda the first order of business for the current Congress and state legislatures throughout the country.
For at least two and a half decades, massive layoffs, wage cuts and slashing of employee benefits have ravaged workers in the private sector. Utilizing the same methodology, the ruling class has now targeted the public sector. Leading spokespeople for the ruling class, both inside and outside of government, are openly calling for the elimination of the right to strike for school teachers and other public employees, drastic reductions in salaries and benefits, the seizure of municipal and state pension funds by Wall Street, and the complete eradication of collective bargaining rights for civil servants, where they still exist.
Memphis sanitation workers, 1968. " border="0">
The working class must face this challenge politically and build broader alliances to advance its own program for jobs, job security and employee benefits; moratoriums on foreclosures, evictions and utility shutoffs; and an end to the Pentagon budget and the bailout of the banks, which together drain trillions of dollars from the national treasury every year.
Lessons of 1968: King & the struggle against poverty, war, racism
Every year the corporate media deliberately overlook or distort the pivotal role of the civil rights and Black power movements during the period leading up to and after the assassination of Dr. King. Although King and other charismatic leaders were important in the struggles to break down legalized segregation and win universal suffrage and affirmative action programs, it was the involvement of millions of African Americans, Latinos/as, women, youth and workers of conscience that constituted the decisive factor in winning the gains of that period.
In the spring of 1967, Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference came out decisively against the U.S. military occupation of Vietnam. In taking this anti-war position, the SCLC linked the war in Vietnam with the failure of the U.S. to adequately address the problems of poverty, unemployment, national discrimination and oppression.
The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee had taken a clear position against the Vietnam War in January of 1966. In June, during the “March Against Fear” through Mississippi, the “Black Power” slogan was advanced. These developments coincided with growing rebellions in African-American and Puerto Rican communities throughout the country.
King’s position on the war in Vietnam provided the basis for even greater unity among the Black power, civil rights and anti-war movements of the period. In addition to King’s anti-war stance, the SCLC had identified the necessity of eradicating poverty in the United States as prerequisite for the creation of a genuinely democratic and egalitarian society.
In February of 1968, the Memphis, Tenn., sanitation workers, who were almost all Black, went on strike to demand recognition and collective bargaining rights through the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. The racist city administration of Mayor Henry Loeb refused to negotiate with the workers, and a citywide strike support committee was established, headed by James Lawson, a long-time civil rights organizer.
King was invited to Memphis to address a community rally on March 18, where 13,000 people gathered to hear him speak. He called for a general strike in Memphis to force the city administration to recognize the sanitation workers.
On March 28, the day of the general strike, the police rioted and attacked a mass demonstration in downtown Memphis. The city administration shot dead a 14-year-old African-American youth and declared an emergency, calling in the National Guard to suppress the demonstrations and the sanitation strike.
Three days later, on March 31, Dr. King delivered a major address at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. He said: “There can be no gainsaying of the fact that a great revolution is taking place in the world today. In a sense it is a triple revolution: that is, a technological revolution, with the impact of automation and cybernation; then there is a revolution in weaponry, with the emergence of atomic and nuclear weapons of warfare.” (“Testament of Hope,” 1991)
King continued: “Then there is a human rights revolution, with the freedom explosion that is taking place all over the world. Yes, we do live in a period where changes are taking place and there is still the voice crying through the vista of time saying, ‘Behold, I make all things new, former things are passed away.’”
King then stressed the need for a global view of developments during the period: “First, we are challenged to develop a world perspective. No individual can live alone, no nation can live alone, and anyone who feels that he can live alone is sleeping through a revolution. The world in which we live is geographically one. The challenge that we face today is to make it one in terms of brotherhood.” To which we would add today “and sisterhood.”
After the assassination of Dr. King, rebellions and mass demonstrations erupted throughout the United States. In Washington, D.C., thousands of federal troops were dispatched to guard the White House and the Capitol.
Although the Poor People’s Campaign launched by the SCLC did take place a few weeks later and hundreds of marginalized workers of all nationalities camped out in Washington demanding immediate relief from the U.S. Congress, the effort was thwarted and eventually smashed by the federal government.
Rebellions continued in the cities and on the campuses during the summer and fall of 1968. In Detroit, African-American workers formed the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement which engaged in wildcat strikes against the racist bosses, over and above the union bureaucrats.
At San Francisco State College and other campuses around the country, African-American students and their allies shut them down, demanding Black Studies programs and other efforts to make higher education relevant to the plight of oppressed peoples in the United States. At Wayne State University in Detroit, African-American students took control of the South End campus newspaper, making it a revolutionary organ that was distributed to people in the community, at high schools and plant gates.
Challenges for working class & oppressed today
The ruling class took advantage of the economic crisis caused by capitalist overproduction, which has led to massive unemployment and growing poverty, to escalate political repression and attacks on workers’ wages and benefits. The strategic position of African-American workers within industry and the urban areas has been weakened with the further globalization of capital and the systematic lowering of wages and living standards among the oppressed and the working class in general.
Today the oppressed peoples and workers have been placed on the defensive. Further attacks are underway against all sectors of the working class, especially where workers were able to win public sector jobs, educational rights and other social benefits. The further restructuring of capital by the ruling class, absent of a monumental fightback, will inevitably lead to millions more being thrust into joblessness and poverty.
The workers and the oppressed have no choice but to form broader alliances to fight the system of low-wage capitalism. This is a critical period and the issue of low-wage workers must be specifically addressed to counter the ruling class propaganda that they have nothing in common with sectors of the proletariat who have health insurance, a few vacation days and pensions — all of which are threatened and up for seizure by the banks.
If the public sector unions were to be smashed, it would provide even greater openings for the ruling class to further exploit and repress all the workers and the oppressed. If the wars of occupation against the peoples of the world are allowed to continue, the ranks of working class and oppressed youth will be further condemned to the ravages of the Pentagon and the prison/industrial complex.
Articles copyright 1995-2011 Workers World. Verbatim copying and distribution of this entire article is permitted in any medium without royalty provided this notice is preserved.