'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Friday, April 04, 2008

Martin Luther King Remembered 

Although I was only just over 7 years old, I still remember the death of Martin Luther King. I lived in Macon, Georgia, and Macon was just 90 miles south of King's church in Atlanta. Macon, like most cities in the Deep South, was also racially polarized between large white and black populations. It was a town where one heard Motown much more often than the Beatles.

So, King's death there was analogous to the death of a President or a Pope, except that it had a much more intimate quality. King was the local African American minister writ large, he could have been the pastor across town in one of the churches in the black section. He was paradoxically larger than life, yet someone that people felt they knew personally.

By comparison, RFK was a distant, remote figure, a manifestation of Northern political power that southerners both respected and resented, a modern day Sherman. His death a couple of months later was traumatic, but had nowhere near the emotional consequences in the Deep South that King's did. RFK was someone that you would only ever expect to see on television, but you could imagine yourself bumping into King walking down the street.

But a lot of this was beyond me at the time. I could tell, however, from watching the television and hearing the radio that something very bad had happened, and that it involved white and black people very much like the ones that I lived around in Macon. You couldn't escape black and white there. My parents were divorced, and my mother worked evenings in the composing room of the Macon Telegraph.

For a long time, I suggested that my life during this time was poverty stricken, but it really wasn't. Her salary, as a unionized newspaper employee, was probably one of the best in Macon outside of the Brown and Williamson cigarette plant. A middle aged African American woman named Louise Walker took care of me while she was away. Back then, we called her a maid, as everyone else would have, but now she would be known as a nanny.

Every now and then, we would go over to visit Louise and her family, and it was a trip into a segregated world that a lot of people have never experienced. The roads in her neighborhood were not paved, and the drainage lines were above ground. In that respect, it was not so very different from the peripheral squatters' neighborhoods adjacent to Venezuelan cities like Caracas and Barquisimento that I encountered in 2005. Unlike these neighborhoods in Venezuela, though, they did have utilities such as water and power, and the homes were far superior.

It was incomprehensible that I would go to the same school as Louise's children. I attended an elementary school on the outskirts of town that was virtually entirely white. There may have been an African American or two, but I have no recollection of them. By 1972, my mother had remarried and moved us across the country to midtown in Sacramento, California, where I was enrolled in fifth grade at Fremont Elementary at 24th and N Street.

Today, midtown is a gentrified part of the central city, with some of the highest property values, but, back then, it was a neighborhood significantly abandoned by whites who had fled to surburbia. My classmates were the children of the remaining lower middle income ones, along with many Latinos and Asians, most of them from immigrant families. It was about as different from Macon, Georgia as one could imagine. It was a privilege to go through the educational system with them.

But it is hard for me to think of King without remembering Louise Walker. At first, King seems to have believed that he could open the door to opportunities for people like her by changing the law. But, as Michael Eric Dyson observes in today's Los Angeles Times, King recognized that something more was required. Although he was scrupulous about never publicly using the term, he decided that it would be necessary for the country to adopt socialist practices in order to overcome the poverty that afflicted millions of Americans of all kinds.

Hence, King was killed in Memphis while championing the cause of sanitation workers laboring under embarassingly demeaning conditions. He was just about to launch the Poor People's Campaign, which aspired to shut down the government unless it confronted poverty. Of course, he had already condemned the Vietnam War in stark terms in a 1967 speech at the Riverside Church in Harlem.

King the civil rights advocate could be incorporated within the American social system, but King the closet socialist and anti-imperialist could not. James Earl Ray, and possibly others, eliminated the threat he posed to the established order. Afterwards, millions of African American entered the middle class while millions of other lower middle income and lower income ones struggled to survive, as many of their children were warehoused in the prison system through increasingly draconian sentencing laws.

One rarely hears King described in relation to anarchism. Certainly, he did not espouse an overtly anarchist vision of society. And yet, as a religious figure, his vision transcended the boundaries of the nation state. He did not believe that the war in Vietnam was immoral just because of its baleful consequences for Americans, as many liberals today believe about the war in Iraq, but rather because the recourse to such violence itself was immoral, and that the victims of this violence were the peoples of the world subjected to American militarism.

Indeed, one can interpret King's references to American militarism in his 1967 Riverside Church speech as references to the inherent militarism of the nation state itself. It is doubtful that King actually went this far in his thought, but he must have certainly been aware that nation states find the use of this kind of violence extremely seductive. Had King lived, would he have emphasized the notion that nation states manipulate violence to justify their existence and control others? It's not at all implausible.

King also brushes against anarchism in his recognition that we had to confront poverty as a global phenomenon. For him, a woman like Louise Walker stood with millions of others around the world. His covert socialism was not for just one country, a nationalistic kind, but, ultimately, for everyone. His death casts a shadow that remains to this day.

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