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50 Years After Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Murder

April 3, 2018


I went to see the brilliant black comedy “The Death of Stalin” last weekend. It conjures up the fear-ridden society of the Soviet Union in 1953 where no one could trust anyone–even their most intimate family. Anyone could be thrown in jail, tortured, or shot for any reason, or for no reason at all. My first thought on leaving the theater was:  “Thank goodness, we never had to deal with anything like this in America!” My second thought was: “But that’s true only if you are white.”

Just consider American history from an African-American perspective. Start with two and a half centuries under a system of slavery more debasing than anything the Soviets ever devised. Slaves had literally no rights, and the fate of black people–including freedmen–was in the hands of white slave owners who could destroy their families, inflict punishment of any sort for any or no reason, or kill them with no thought of retribution, while reaping the rewards of their labor. Those same slave owners were terrified of a slave rebellion and created a system of repression and terror to forestall that possibility and responded with unmitigated brutality on the few occasions when it actually happened.

Then the Civil War brought emancipation and a brief moment when it seemed possible that African-Americans might have full rights as citizens. That was quickly dashed as Northern whites lost any interest they may have had in helping blacks overcome generations of deliberate impoverishment and lack of education, and Southern elites regained power throughout the former Confederacy and re-imposed a system of repression and terrorism almost as harsh and pervasive as that under slavery. Jim Crow ruled for another hundred years, and the achievements of African-Americans were made not because of the freedoms so proudly proclaimed by white Americans, but rather in defiance of the very different system that black people actually lived under.

Or consider the genocide and forced displacement perpetrated on Native Americans–the only people whose ancestors might legitimately claim non-immigrant status in this country. Native American people have always been treated as alien and irrelevant to the invading European-American society that sought either to kill them off or remove them to areas considered worthless, and whenever something of value was discovered on those lands, then to move them somewhere even less desirable. Again, effectively they had no rights.

The American Southwest from Texas to California was acquired by trumped-up wars of aggression against Mexico, and their existing Spanish-speaking populations reduced to second-class status by the flood of Anglo immigrants from the rest of the US. Migration from Mexico was essentially unrestricted until the 1950s and swelled after World War I because of civil wars in Mexico and again during World War II when Mexican laborers were in demand in the US. But their status in the US was always precarious, and there were massive roundups and repatriations of Mexicans during the Depression and most famously under Operation Wetback which began in 1954. The labor of Mexicans was welcome when Americans needed it, but the Mexicans themselves were not.  Until the Chicano movement began in the 1960s, the system under which most Mexican-Americans lived in Texas and rural California was not very different from that of African-Americans in the South, and migratory agricultural laborers were grossly exploited and lived (and today many still live) in appalling conditions.

Or consider the Japanese-Americans who were summarily rounded up and imprisoned in concentration camps after Pearl Harbor. No due process, no appeal, no rights.

The common thread here is that all of these people were not white. The constitutional rights which Americans are supposed to have were just words on paper that simply didn’t apply to them. Yes, there was discrimination against Irish and Italians and Jews, but I would argue that this was qualitatively different because those ethnicities were never systematically denied access to legal protections under the American constitution. The difference is the dehumanization engendered by systemic racism–America’s original and enduring sin.

Fifty years ago tomorrow, Martin Luther King, Jr. was martyred for exposing that corrupting lie in the American mythology–basically for rubbing white America’s nose in it so that the smell could no longer be ignored. At the time he was killed, he had expanded his campaign against legal discrimination to include economic discrimination and protests against the Vietnam War–into which our government still continued to throw vast resources and hundreds of thousands of young lives (disproportionately poor and black) even though it secretly acknowledged to itself that the conflict was unwinnable. He realized that these things were connected–something that is today called intersectionality.

So where are we a half a century later? Certainly, in many respects regarding race things have improved. That is undeniable.

But we still live in a country where police can kill unarmed black men and never even face a jury. Where black men and women can be stopped, harassed, and thrown in jail for trivial offenses or just suspicion. (They have a name for that in Cuba–the crime of peligrosidad or “dangerousness”, which can mean pretty much anything.)

We live in a country with the largest prison population in the world–far more than in 1968. The prison population–both current and released–is disproportionately black. A great proportion of that prison population are direct or indirect casualties of the misbegotten War on Drugs, which also disproportionately targets non-white Americans. We have privatized much of the state and federal prison system, so that their profitability depends on maintaining a steady stream of new prisoners. The mass incarceration of black men has devastated portions of the community and made it difficult or impossible for them to get decent jobs after their release, thereby creating a self-perpetuating cycle. And in many states, ex-convicts cannot vote even after completing their sentences–another method of denying citizenship rights to a selected population.

We live in a country where millions of people without immigration papers go to work every day, raise their families, and contribute to the country’s economy and the well-being of US citizens, but fear being arrested and deported at any time and have no hope of ever being able to legalize their status. Where DACA dreamers–brought here as children–live in a legal limbo as pawns in the game of national politics with no assurance that they can remain in the only country they know. Where ICE agents are arresting and deporting people who are productive and law-abiding, but are treated as criminals only because they fled to the US without proper papers.

These are some of the great moral issues of our time, and I am sure if Dr. King were still alive, he would be leading the movement to change all of this. But I wonder just how he would deal with this fraught moment in history.

He famously said that the arc of history bends towards justice. Perhaps it does, but someone has to bend it. We now have a president–and a Republican party that follows and enables him–who are doing everything possible to bend it the other way. We have been taught to think of American history as a steady and irreversible march toward widening the reach of the aspirational freedoms set forth in the constitution, but it ain’t necessarily so.

There has always been a mean racist core to the American psyche that can be beaten back but never really defeated. And it has been emboldened perhaps as never before because its naked id is ensconced in the White House. The forces of reaction are implacable and relentless and have plenty of money behind them. They could win.

A lot of white people who believe in the ideals of justice, equality, and democracy now feel personally threatened in ways we have never experienced before. We feel confused, rudderless, leaderless, and powerless to stop the destruction. I suspect that most Americans of color know those feelings of constant ambient anxiety far more deeply because they and their parents and grandparents have had to deal with this in one way or another all of their lives.



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