40 Years since the March on Washington

Socialist Worker, [9 September 2003]

King's dream and the American nightmare, by Kevin Ovenden

IT WAS a miracle of oratory. Martin Luther King's “I have a dream” speech 40 years ago projected the struggle for black civil rights in the US to the whole world.

King's words bit deeply into the racism that has characterised the US from its inception.

The biggest and most advanced capitalist state on earth has at every stage of its history fostered new forms of racism while refashioning old ones.

King delivered his speech on the steps of the memorial to president Abraham Lincoln.

It was Lincoln who, in Washington 100 years before, in 1863, had issued the “Emancipation Proclamation” in the middle of the American Civil War. It declared the end of slavery.

Black people had arrived in America as slaves. Their labour underpinned economic expansion.

By the 1860s the industrialised Northern states feared the strength of the Southern states, where the economy was based mainly on slave labour.

The civil war of 1861–5 was a consequence of this divide.

At the beginning of the war Abraham Lincoln did not even call for the freeing of the slaves. But it became clear he would have to promise to end slavery if the Northern states were to win.

Some 186,000 blacks, many of them from the South, enlisted in the Northern army.

That was despite racist restrictions that denied blacks the right to vote in some Northern states and placed them in separate army units on half the pay of whites.

The defeat of the South in 1865 brought hopes for radical social change. Northern troops occupied the South and began a process known as “Reconstruction”.

The US Congress passed a law granting the vote to Southern blacks and banning 200,000 supporters of the old slave system from holding office.

Black people began to vote. Six Southern states elected 14 blacks to the Congress in Washington. Mississippi elected two black senators and the speaker of its state assembly was black.

Between 1869 and 1901 a total of 816 black people were elected from the South to local state assemblies and to the federal congress in Washington.

Laws barring blacks from certain jobs were lifted. An incredible 1,200 black-owned newspapers were started.

The radical changes in the South, where 90 percent of blacks lived, brought moves against racism in the North too. After the Civil War the state of Illinois finally allowed blacks to testify in court.

Blacks in Washington, led by Sojourner Truth, boycotted segregated public transport. Her tactic was resurrected a century later in the movement led by Martin Luther King.

It is a measure of the level of discrimination that remained that no black person was elected from a Northern state to the Congress until the 1920s and there were no Northern black senators until the 1960s.

Despite these changes one area was left fundamentally unchanged-economic power.

There was no redistribution of land to the freed slaves. In most states the top 10 percent of white farmers owned between half and two thirds of farmland.

The great black anti-slavery campaigner Frederick Douglass said of the freed slave: “He was free of the individual master, but the slave of society. He had neither money, property, nor friends.”

The Northern capitalists feared demands for land redistribution would spill over into a general rising of the poor against the rich.

The “liberal” paper the Nation argued, “A division of rich man's lands would give a shock to our whole social-political system from which it would hardly recover.”

A Northern Republican told readers of the New York Tribune in 1871 that, if you add poor whites and blacks together: “So vast a mass of ignorance would be found that, if combined for any political purpose, it would sweep away all opposition the intelligent class might make.”

By the early 1870s the cost of occupying the Southern states was becoming too great for the industrialists in the north.

They withdrew their troops and struck a deal with the former slave-owners of the south. The racist thugs of the Ku Klux Klan went on the rampage.

Any black person, especially those who dared to own property or were politically active, could be lynched.

The Supreme Court reversed the civil rights introduced during Reconstruction.

When poor black and white farmers united to challenge the Southern rulers they were met by savage repression.

History of racism at the heart of the beast

BY THE beginning of the 20th century the South's rulers had denied blacks the right to vote and had re-established legal segregation.

This system of apartheid was known as the “Jim Crow” laws.

There were 181,000 blacks in Alabama eligible to vote in 1900. Two years later there were just 3,000.

All-pervasive racism encouraged poor whites to identify with the system and laws banned them from meeting blacks.

The period in which the US eclipsed Britain as the world's biggest economic power also saw the imposition of officially sponsored racism across the US.

Two of the most famous films from the period, Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind, extolled the racism of the south.

And where black people refused to accept segregation they faced racist violence.

Some 70 blacks were lynched in the summer of 1919, including ten soldiers who had fought in the First World War against “despotic” Germany.

The whiff of revolution in Europe led to a savage clampdown on organised labour and an intensification of racism and segregation by the US ruling class.

Revolutionaries and socialists had managed to organise some black and white workers and the poor. But the bulk of the small labour movement accommodated to racism to varying degrees.

But US economic growth was having wider effects on society.

Between 1900 and 1930 1.3 million black people left the rural south and headed for the cities.

The great migration continued even during the depression-hit decade of the 1930s.

And in the 1940s 1.6 million black people moved north.

The number of black industrial workers began to outstrip the number who worked as tenant farmers. They were part of a militant strike wave in the mid-1930s.

After the war the southern establishment propped up segregation. The US state unleashed a decade of witch-hunting against the left, which hit even moderate black lobbying organisations.

By the mid-1950s it seemed segregation in the South would last for decades.

Then the rising expectations of black people exploded in the civil rights movement, led by Martin Luther King.

Civil Rights

’Racism, exploitation and war tied together’

KING'S STRATEGY of mass mobilisation against segregation produced a violent reaction from the white supremacists.

King aimed to get the US government to end the international embarrassment of the apartheid system in the south.

The US was posing as the defender of democracy in its Cold War duel with Russia. US president John F Kennedy condemned Communist “tyranny” in a famous speech in Berlin in 1963.

But the world had just seen pictures of police dogs and water cannon turned on black teenage protesters in Birmingham, Alabama, the citadel of US segregation.

The US government was forced to intervene to end legal segregation, fearing growing militancy at home and loss of influence abroad.

Civil rights were finally granted 100 years after the civil war.

But again the levers of economic power remained in the same hands.

The US state crushed movements which went beyond calls for legal reform and which fought for economic and social transformation as well.

Ruling class figures moved to co-opt a layer of middle class blacks.

Forty years on, legal segregation is no more.

But racist discrimination against blacks, Latinos and other minorities marks every area of life in the US.

There are more black men in prison or on probation than there are in college.

Almost three decades of attacks on the living standards of workers, black and white, has gone hand in hand with divide and rule.

Segregation in housing and education has actually risen over the last 15 years in many areas of the US, despite the civil rights laws.

In the year before he was assassinated Martin Luther King began to recognise just how closely racism and capitalism were linked.

He also made a stand against the Vietnam War.

The US establishment spied on and murdered black leaders, and the FBI under J Edgar Hoover was heavily implicated in King's assassination.

In 1967 he gave a speech as compelling, but more profound, than his address to the march on Washington four years previously. “You begin to ask the question,” he said.

’Who owns the oil?’ You begin to ask the question, ‘Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that is two thirds water?’

When I say question the whole society, it means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation and the problem of war are tied together. “A nation that will keep people in slavery for 244 years will ‘thingify’ them, make them things.

Therefore they will exploit them, and poor people generally, economically.

And a nation that will exploit economically will have to have foreign investments and will have to use its military might to protect them.

All of these problems are tied together