Civil Rights

April 2008 – Racial Dreams And Nightmares: 40 years Without Martin Luther King

By Jim Smith

If the Reverend Dr. King was alive today, he would weep at the lack of progress between races. It is hard to believe that we lost him 40 years ago. It was on April 4, 1968, that an assassin, or assassins, shot the great civil rights leader on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, where he had gone to support a strike by the city’s Black sanitation workers.

A Personal Comment: I heard the news that evening in Augusta, Georgia, where I was serving out the last six months of my two years of involuntary servitude (the draft) in the U.S. Army. I felt that night that the 1960s dream of a better world had also been assassinated. Although my job in the Signal Corps was to train recruits to operate advance communications devices in Vietnam, I didn’t do a lick of work after that night. And I wasn’t alone. The Army was teeming with soldiers on the verge of mutiny. King’s murder confirmed to many of us that this society was not worth fighting for.

In the days following the assassination, at least 125 American cities exploded in rebellion. In 1965, King had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his non-violent efforts to end segregation and racism. Throughout his life, King practiced non-violence, but the violence of his assassination was too much to bare for the millions who loved him. They struck out in anger and frustration at the death of their hero. Many more people died and more than 70,000 National Guard troops were deployed to restore order in the cities. 

At the time of his death, King had been planning a “Poor People’s Campaign” that would unite people of all colors in a march on Washington to win an Economic Bill of Rights that would include housing for the poor and a guaranteed annual income. The plan would have required a dramatic shift of income away from the wealthy. King’s assassination had averted the threat to the status quo. 

A Personal Comment: Sitting in the mess hall the day after King’s murder, I am surrounded by angry and sullen Black soldiers. As usual, I sit at a table with six or seven Black men. The other whites keep to themselves. Months ago I had begun making friends with draftees from the ghettos of Philadelphia, New York, Chicago and elsewhere. We found a common bond in music and in our attitude to the army (FTA). But that day we were united by the tears in our eyes. 

Today, segregation and racism is more subtle because Dr. King’s ministry made gross racism and discrimination socially unacceptable. But it is not eradicated. 

This year, King would have been 79 years old. Had he lived another 40 years to work for justice and equality, we might be living in a far better country today. No one since King has had his commanding presence and eloquence. Instead of progress in race relations, we have been sliding backwards.

• In 1978, the Supreme Court sided with Allan Bakke, a white medical student, who felt he was discriminated against in getting into UC Davis by a handful of Black applicants. It was the beginning of “reverse racism,” in which privileged whites made use of civil rights laws to protect their privilege. Years of scare tactics about Blacks taking jobs away from whites resulted in a majority of California voters endorsing Prop. 209 which eliminated affirmative action in public employment.

• Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, a large and vibrant city just three years ago. When the storm hit, many Black residents were locked in a stadium, concentration-camp style. Today, much of the predominately Black area has not been rebuilt, and it is estimated that as many as half the of the Black population will never return. Even in Venice, the homeless population has surged with refugees from New Orleans.

• In Jena, Louisiana, in 2006, a high school scuffle resulted in Black students being jailed, including charges of attempted murder, and white students going free. Meet the New South, same as the Old South.

• It’s not just the South. A recent study found that for every dollar of per capita income among white Americans, the average Black American had made about 55 cents in 1968; forty years later, it was 57 cents!

A Personal Comment: After being released from Ft. Gordon, Georgia, on June 14, 1968, I took a leisurely drive through the South en route to Venice. The practice of segregation and inequality was everywhere. In almost every area of social interaction, whites received undeserved deference from Blacks. I breathed a sigh of relief when I reached California. Venice seemed at the time to be a country apart, where Blacks, whites and Latinos fraternized and even became friends. Today, I’m no longer sure that Venice is different.

Is Venice integrated? Superficially, it is more integrated that it was 40 years ago. Today, a few Black residents live throughout Venice, as do many more Latinos. In Oakwood, gentrification has increased the number of whites living in what was a solidly Black community. Yet it is not an integrated community. Many of the new white homeowners immediately erected high fences, leading to resentment from their Black neighbors. Letters received by the Beachhead since last month’s issue from white Oakwood residents indicate little or no familiarity with their Black neighbors.

The attitude of police toward Black and white residents of Oakwood is markedly different. Aggressive policing has been a fact of life since Venice was taken over by Los Angeles. Elite LAPD units have been common in Oakwood. In the 60s, it was the Metro squad. Then came the CRASH units. 

In 1988, the LAPD created “The Oakwood Plan,” to pacify the community. It called for mass arrests, creation of local vigilante groups, and a focus on eight “criminal families” in Oakwood. The Plan had uncovered a conspiracy: “The more the families of Oakwood are studied, the more it becomes apparent and the more you understand that almost everyone is related through either marriage or out of wedlock births.” Clearly, something had to be done.

In 2006, when a Venice High School student was gunned down on campus, police – as if on auto pilot – headed for Oakwood, a mile away, and put the community under siege. Ultimately, the killer was found, not in Oakwood, but in jail on an unrelated charge.

On Feb. 19, as reported in last month’s Beachhead, 300 LAPD and federal officers kicked down doors throughout Oakwood, handcuffing grandmothers, while providing a photo opportunity for City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo. Not surprisingly, all of those accosted by police were Black.

A Personal Comment: I sat in a crowded meeting of outraged Black residents on the evening of Feb. 19 while two white cops tried to explain why a battalion of police had put guns to the heads of 70-year-old women a few hours earlier. Again, I seemed to be one of the few white residents who cared enough to lend his support to those who had been terrorized by men with guns. I thought back to the day I had been evicted from my off-base apartment in Georgia because my Black friends sometimes visited. It seemed like yesterday, but it had been 40 years ago. I thought back to the time when my ancestors had owned – actually owned – other human beings. For 200 years, men and women whose blood and genes I carry had gotten rich by working Black men and women nearly to death. The slaves were confined to small shacks on the plantation when they lived with the knowledge that their doors could be kicked down at any moment and they could be carried off. Was it years ago, or just yesterday?

On March 18, Barack Obama made a historic speech about race that sought to bridge the gap between whites and Blacks. The immediate motivation for the speech was the damage done to his campaign by the media’s repeated playing of selected parts of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s sermons. However, as the above partial list of examples about the condition of Black Americans shows, Obama was wrong when he said, “the profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made…”

Is it progress that we can glorify Dr. King but still consider his comments to be inflammatory or un-American, such as calling this country, “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” His words, of course, are still true today.

Some would point to Obama’s front runner status in the Democratic nomination for president as evidence of a profound improvement in race relations in the United States. But it is unclear at this time if the rich and powerful in this country will allow a Black man to become President of the country and ruler of the American Empire. 

If the race went to the swiftest, it would already be over. Obama has won most of the states and leads in delegates and popular votes. It is hard to imagine that if Hillary Clinton had won ten states in a row that the media would still accept Obama as a credible candidate. 

Should Obama ultimately win the Presidency this year, it would be one of the most positive events in the history of the country, regardless of his politics. Yet, as Obama stated on March 18, “I have never been so naïve as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy.”

What the flap around the Rev. Wright’s remarks shows is that many Americans are unwilling to criticize their country when such criticism is justified. 

The enslavement and subsequent abysmal treatment of Black people, the genocide of the Native Americans, the theft of half of Mexico’s land, the forced labor of Asian peoples, the conquest of the kingdom of Hawaii, and so on, and so on, up to the illegal invasion of Iraq are either ignored by most Americans, or else these transgressions are attributed to “policy mistakes.” 

And when someone like Rev. Wright makes it impossible to ignore the message, the response by “good Americans” is to angrily attack the messenger.

In this atmosphere, the assassination of Martin Luther King, the Kennedys, and hundreds of Black activists in the 60s as well as more than a million Blacks behind bars today can be seen as simply business as usual.

Categories: Civil Rights, Politics