Saturday, April 07, 2007

The Last Supper of Martin Luther King


I went to a Passover seder with friends last night. There was matza, and wine, and good food, cinamon balls and song, though along with traditional elements someone spoke about slavery in the modern world, and someone else about the treatment of "illegals" and other migrant workers, and Debbie sang a new version of "Let My People Go" starting "When Israel was in Palestinian land..."

Such topicality is also traditional, and similar seders will have been held by radical and progressive Jews in many places. Of course many others, more conservative, may just have mumbled through the rituals with their families, and if they thought at all of the Pesach injunction to regard the Exodus as though they personally had been liberated, might not have remembered the Biblical admonition to "oppress not the stranger, for you were strangers in Egypt".

Then again, my Christian neighbours, if aware of ought beyond hot cross buns and chocolate eggs (did you know much of the world's cocoa crop is gathered by child slave labour?) may be celebrating the resurrection of Christ (surely a spring-time ritual?) without considering that his last supper was a Passover meal, a seder with his disciples. Those who blame the Jews for his crucifixion, thereby exonerating the Roman occupiers, have continued to crucify his people over centuries. Others identify in truth not with Yehoshua/Issa of Nazareth, a poor carpenter, but with Pontius Pilate, an imperial governor who thought he could wash his hands clean.

But some have taken their Christianity seriously enough to side with the poor and oppressed, and speak out against injustice. On April 4, America officially commemorates the life of Reverend Dr.Martin Luther King, who had a dream of peace and goodwill on this earth, and was martyred. Or does it really remember him? Two Americans here suggest not:

The Martin Luther King You Don't See on TV
by Norman Solomon and Jeff Cohen, AlterNet. Posted April 4, 2007.

Every year on April 4, as Americans commemorate Martin Luther King's death, we get perfunctory network news reports about "the slain civil rights leader." The remarkable thing about these reviews of King's life is that several years -- his last years -- are totally missing, as if flushed down a memory hole. What TV viewers see is a closed loop of familiar file footage: King battling desegregation in Birmingham (1963); reciting his dream of racial harmony at the rally in Washington (1963); marching for voting rights in Selma, Alabama (1965); and finally, lying dead on the motel balcony in Memphis (1968).

An alert viewer might notice that the chronology jumps from 1965 to 1968. Yet King didn't take a sabbatical near the end of his life. In fact, he was speaking and organizing as diligently as ever. Almost all of those speeches were filmed or taped. But they're not shown today on TV. Why? It's because national news media have never come to terms with what Martin Luther King Jr. stood for during his final years.

In the early 1960s, when King focused his challenge on legalized racial discrimination in the South, most major media were his allies. Network TV and national publications graphically showed the police dogs and bullwhips and cattle prods used against Southern blacks who sought the right to vote or to eat at a public lunch counter. But after passage of civil rights acts in 1964 and 1965, King began challenging the nation's fundamental priorities. He maintained that civil rights laws were empty without "human rights" -- including economic rights. For people too poor to eat at a restaurant or afford a decent home, King said, anti-discrimination laws were hollow.

Noting that a majority of Americans below the poverty line were white, King developed a class perspective. He decried the huge income gaps between rich and poor, and called for "radical changes in the structure of our society" to redistribute wealth and power. "True compassion," King declared, "is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring."

By 1967, King had also become the country's most prominent opponent of the Vietnam War, and a staunch critic of overall U.S. foreign policy, which he deemed militaristic. In his "Beyond Vietnam" speech delivered at New York's Riverside Church on April 4, 1967 -- a year to the day before he was murdered -- King called the United States "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today." From Vietnam to South Africa to Latin America, King said, the U.S. was "on the wrong side of a world revolution."

King questioned "our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America," and asked why the U.S. was suppressing revolutions "of the shirtless and barefoot people" in the Third World, instead of supporting them. In foreign policy, King also offered an economic critique, complaining about "capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries."

You haven't heard the "Beyond Vietnam" speech on network news retrospectives, but national media heard it loud and clear back in 1967 -- and loudly denounced it. Time magazine called it "demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi." The Washington Post patronized that "King has diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people."

In his last months, King was organizing the most militant project of his life: the Poor People's Campaign. He crisscrossed the country to assemble "a multiracial army of the poor" that would descend on Washington -- engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience at the Capitol, if need be -- until Congress enacted a poor people's bill of rights. Reader's Digest warned of an "insurrection."

King's economic bill of rights called for massive government jobs programs to rebuild America's cities. He saw a crying need to confront a Congress that had demonstrated its "hostility to the poor" -- appropriating "military funds with alacrity and generosity," but providing "poverty funds with miserliness." How familiar that sounds today, nearly 40 years after King's efforts on behalf of the poor people's mobilization were cut short by an assassin's bullet.

In 2007, in this nation of immense wealth, the White House and most in Congress continue to accept the perpetuation of poverty. They fund foreign wars with "alacrity and generosity," while being miserly in dispensing funds for education and healthcare and environmental cleanup. And those priorities are largely unquestioned by mainstream media. No surprise that they tell us so little about the last years of Martin Luther King's life.


Strike in Memphis

MAYBE it's overdoing the poetic irony or something, but as Moses's first political act was to strike down a taskmaster in Egypt, Martin Luther King's last act was played out in a city called after a place in ancient Egypt. In February 1968 the city sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee came out on strike over pay and conditions, and discrepancies in treatment between black and white amounting to racial discrimination.

The black sewage workers, garbage collectors and others who handled the city's dirt were organised in Memphis Local 1733 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFL-CIO). But the mayor Henry Loeb refused to recognise their union or negotiate with it, and the local newspaper spoke of a "Threat of Anarchy".

A march by union members was attacked and broken up by cops using Mace gas after marchers rocked a police car that had run over a woman's foot. Witnesses said the cops went wild spraying just about everybody. A newspaper praised the police for their restraint.

Negro ministers called a boycott of businesses linked with Mayor Loeb, and high school students came on boycott pickets. The police patrolled with shotgun muzzless poking from their cars, and the National Guard was mobilised for riot control exercises in Memphis, and in other Tennessee cities.

Then on March 4, something new happened. Led by Tom Powell, head of Memphis' AFL-CIO Central Labor Council, and Dan Powell of the AFL-CIO Committee on Political Education, five hundred white trade unionists joined Negro ministers and sanitation workers in the daily downtown march. "It was a red-letter day for the strikers", says the AFSCME account. It must also have been a red danger signal for reactionaries, racists, and defenders of corporate America.

The following day, as strikers were arrested after staging a sit in at City Hall, it was announded that Martin Luther King had been invited to Memphis. The civil rights leader paid two visits, leading a march during which people cashed with police, and returning on April 3, when he spoke to a massive rally, delivering his "I've been to the Mountaintop" speech. The following day Dr. Luther King was gunned down by a sniper as he stood on his hotel balcony.

The gunman, James Earl Ray, fled to England with the help of a mysterious network of supporters. Captured and convicted, he later sought a trial in which he could give evidence of a conspiracy, but this was never conceded.

Meanwhile, with Federal troops and Attorney General Ramsay Clark in Memphis, and the FBI searching for the assassin, President Lyndon Johnson instructed Labour under-secretary James Reynolds to take charge of mediation to settle the strike.

On April 8, Mrs.Coretta King, accompanied by various well-known figures, led a peaceful march through Memphis in honour of her murdered husband and in support of the strikers. On April 16, after lengthy negotiation, AFSCME leaders announced that agreement had been reached.The strikers voteed to accept it, and the strike was over.

Politics, race and labour relations in the South would never be the same. But the struggle for equality and justice goes on. We should not forget its martyrs, nor let their memory be selectively misused by those who resisted everything for which they fought.

For full story and chronology of the Memphis strike, and Martin Luther King's intervention, visit AFSCME site and read:

see also words for strikers at:

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At 6:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Brilliant Post! Thanks for sharing in Charlie.
Can you please email me the words to the new version of Let My People Go... or post it here. It would be most appreciated.
Thanks and Happy Passover... may we see ALL people enjoy a Festival of Freedom real soon.


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