Fifty years ago today the Reverend Dr Martin Luther King was assassinated. It was a murder that sent shockwaves around the world. King had come to personify the civil rights movement, the nonviolent campaign for racial justice that forced America to changes its laws. By 1968 Britain’s Black population was growing and with it a civil rights movement of our own. The Bristol bus boycott of 1963 followed in the footsteps of the more famous episode with Rosa Parks at the centre in Montgomery, Alabama. Black supplementary schools had begun to emerge marking the beginning of decades of campaigning to reform the racist school system. Anti-racist activism across all areas including housing and immigration was already in full swing. King himself visited the UK, going to London in 1964 and receiving and an honorary doctorate from Newcastle University in 1967, just a year before he was killed. Half a century later King is rightly one of the most revered figures in history and a symbol for Black communities worldwide, and no less so in Britain. But, in order to celebrate his legacy fully it is time to realise the politics that he most represents has run its course. As we struggle with racism in the present day, the last thing we need is a new civil rights movement.
Civil rights was one of the most successful movements for social change that ever existed, but also one the most futile. In order to gain racial equality, civil rights aimed to make legislative changes that would allow African Americans access to a system they were locked out of. Ending segregation and giving Black people voting rights was meant to allow the Black population into the seats of power and provide the opportunities for meaningful change. In terms of meeting their goals the movement was a resounding success, the 1964 Civil Rights Bill ended segregation and the 1965 Voting Rights Acts spread the franchise to many Africans who had been locked out. America even has affirmative action laws to allow for positive discrimination based on race, something that is a distant fantasy in Europe. In Britain, tireless campaigning was also largely successful. The 1965 Race Relations bill outlawed racial discrimination, legislation that was successively strengthened and by the 2000 Amendment Act was one of the most progressive anti-racist laws in the world. Britain formally accepted the idea of institutional racism and it is currently the law that institutions have a duty to ensure they consider the impact of their actions for race equality before they take them (you can stop laughing, this really is true). Society opened up enough for an emergent Black middle class and (more so in America), a raft of Black elected officials; the talented tenth necessary to drive the progress of the Black masses.
In 2008, the logical conclusion of the civil rights movement saw the election of Barack Obama to president of the United States, a “victory” that almost 70 percent of African Americans felt ‘was the fulfilment of Dr King’s dream’. If Obama was the dream, then King was really having a nightmare. Under the watch of the first Black president almost every indicator of Black oppression got worse. The poverty rate, wealth gap, food stamp usage, housing repossessions and the list goes on. Only the unemployment rate improved but given that half of all Black people with jobs in New York work in fast food restaurants, and Black households relying on food aid shot up, these jobs were clearly not enough to live on. Worse still, smartphones showed to the world the police carrying out legal lynchings of unarmed Black people in the twenty-first century. A Black man sat in the White House when Black Lives Matter, the biggest Black social movement of the 21st century arose because of how bad race relations have become. The problem with civil rights it that it succeeded in its tactics but could never reach its goals. Racism is in the DNA of society and cannot be wished away with legislation or a few Black representatives.
For movements like Black Lives Matter this is the important legacy of King. The realisation that here is no reforming a system that is built on racism. Even King was coming to this realisation before his death. He was hugely unpopular in the mainstream when he died for his stance on the Vietnam War and his increasing militancy. In 1963 he had a dream at a rally so stage managed for TV that Malcolm X dubbed it the ‘Farce on Washington…a picnic with clowns and all’. But before he died he was planning a Poor Peoples Campaign to March on Washington and shut the city down with civil disobedience. He even questioned the ability of America to live up to its stated ideals. Speaking to Harry Belafonte he remarked:
I have come to believe that we are integrating into a burning house. I’m afraid that America has lost the moral vision she may have had. And I’m afraid that even as we integrate, we are walking into a place that does not understand that this nation needs to be deeply concerned with the plight of the poor and disenfranchised.
Half a century after the assassination of Martin Luther King it is time to realise the truth. As Malcolm X said ‘this system can no more provide freedom justice and equality’ for Black people than ‘a chicken can lay a duck egg’. Confronted with schools in America that are more segregated than they were before desegregation we should realise the futility of campaigning for rights that can never be respected. In Britain we don’t even have the false hope of the Black middle class, with the elite remaining unapologetically White. King was a great man, who deserves his place in history. But he was wrong. Revolution and not reform is the only path to ending the system of racism that oppresses us.
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