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Rolling Thunder: A Radical Unremembered

MLK's work and message have been sanitized, scrubbed clean of all threat -- and all promise.

by Chris Floyd
Friday, 04 April 2008

I. Paradigm Lost
MLK Forty years ago today, the last public figure to pose a serious, fundamental threat to the power structure that sustains the American elite in unmerited wealth and privilege was shot down in Memphis, Tennessee. Martin Luther King Jr. had gone there to help garbage workers win a living wage. He saw their struggle as part of an emerging campaign to give birth to a new paradigm for American society; in effect, to form a new union, based on economic justice, social equality -- and an adamant repudiation of state violence and empire.

He was killed for this. And his murder sent a shuddering fear throughout American society. It was a message as loud as thunder, and it still echoes and reverberates in the firmament: This is what happens to those who really threaten the golden thrones of the elite.

And for forty years now -- forty years in the wilderness -- no public figure has come even remotely close to marshalling such a coalition, such a potential for genuine reform, genuine renewal, genuine transformation of American society.

To be sure, there have been some advances in one element of King's campaign. There is less legal, institutional, official racism in America than there was in his lifetime. And sometimes -- sometimes -- less personal racism as well, as I have seen ("with my own eyes," as Mavis Staples sings in her marvelous new record on the civil rights struggle) in the rural South where I grew up. This is not a small thing.

But this incremental and woefully incomplete progress has been allowed to advance only within the confines of elite power, and only as long as it doesn't ally itself to any larger effort at fundamental change or a deeper critique of the imperial, oligarchal power structures. Any moves in that direction -- such as the recently publicized sermons of Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama's former pastor -- are ruthlessly slapped down, marginalized, ridiculed and denounced. Obama himself has led the way in this, with his craven condemnation of Wright's statements "disparaging our great country."

So this is how far we've come since King's day: a black man can now be a serious candidate for president -- just as long as he poses no serious threat to the powers-that-be.

For after the turbulence of the Civil Rights era, the American elite finally discovered that when it comes to public office, it is not the color of your skin that counts -- it's the degree of your servility to power. And Obama has thus far shown the "right stuff" in this regard.
For after the turbulence of the Civil Rights era, the American elite finally discovered that when it comes to public office, it is not the color of your skin that counts -- it's the degree of your servility to power. And Obama has thus far shown the "right stuff" in this regard.

And if he ever stops showing it, if he ever moves to capitalize on his newfound national prominence to renew King's campaign for a new paradigm, a new union of justice and peace ....well, that thunder is still rolling; the gunshot in Memphis still echoing down the years.

II. Sanitizing MLK

After his slaying on April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King died a second death. His work and message were sanitized, scrubbed clean of all threat -- and all promise. Mike Marqusee examines this process -- and rescues the genuine radicalness of King's life -- in an excellent piece in today's Guardian. Below are some extensive excerpts:

[At] the time of his death 40 years ago today, [King's] increasingly radical challenge to war and poverty had made him deeply controversial, spied on and harassed by his government, feared and loathed by millions of Americans.....

In January 1968, King launched an inter-racial Poor People's Campaign. The idea was to bring black, white and brown poor people to Washington, where they would establish a tent city and camp out in front of Congress until either a job or a living income was guaranteed for all.

Increasingly, King identified the war in Vietnam as part of a global struggle against colonialism, and black inequality as a function of class inequalities that also affected many whites. Though he opposed the separatism espoused by black nationalists, he had his own view of what "integration" meant: "We are not interested in being integrated into this value structure." A "radical redistribution of economic power" was needed. "So often in America," he observed, "we have socialism for the rich and ragged free enterprise capitalism for the poor."....

On March 18, he journeyed to the city of Memphis, on the Mississippi river, where for five weeks 1,300 black sanitation workers had been on strike for union recognition and a living wage. King was excited by the sometimes tense but creative coalition that had emerged in support of the strikers. Black churches, white-led trade unions, students and ghetto youth had kept up a succession of marches and protests, despite assaults and arrests by local police.... "All labour has dignity," King told the strikers in Memphis. "It is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages." He urged them to stay out till their demands were met. "Never forget that freedom is not something that is voluntarily given by the oppressor. It is something that must be demanded by the oppressed."

In the US in recent weeks the sermons of Barack Obama's pastor, Jeremiah Wright - notably his "God damn America" speech - have been denounced by all and sundry. Wright's anger and "divisiveness" has been contrasted with King's gentle and unifying approach. But I doubt many of Wright's critics would be much more satisfied with "the indictment of America" pronounced by King on that night in Memphis in 1968: "If America does not use her vast wealth to end poverty and make it possible for all of God's children to have the basic necessities of life, she too is going to hell."

...The immediate impact of the King assassination was to deprive the US anti-war and black freedom movements of their most effective leader, perhaps the only one who could have united the disparate constituencies of dissent. Long-term, it deprived the world of a voice for social justice that was to be desperately needed in the decades that followed.

Who knows how King would have evolved? After the first flush of fame, leading the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955-56, and winning a Nobel peace prize in 1963, it would have been easy for him to rise above the fray and enjoy his prestige. He chose to do the opposite. He chose to take the hardest course, confronting the realities of power, the scale of change necessary and the obstacles to that change. He not only talked; he listened. King had something precious and rare among leaders: a capacity for self-criticism and growth. The real Dr King was an altogether more demanding and inspiring figure than the emollient angel we are asked to revere.

photo of Chris FloydChris Floyd has been a writer and editor for more than 25 years, working in the United States, Great Britain and Russia for various newspapers, magazines, the U.S. government and Oxford University. Floyd co-founded the blog Empire Burlesque, and is also chief editor of Atlantic Free Press. He can be reached at

This column is republished here with the permission of the author.

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This story was published on April 4, 2008.