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MLK’s legacy and the renewed assaults on the working class and oppressed

January 15, 2011

Amid the worsening economic crisis the ruling class escalates attacks on the public sector

by Abayomi Azikiwe

Considering the price city workers - here, the sanitation workers of Memphis in 1968 - paid for their dignity, we must not abuse their memory by giving away the gains they made.
Jan. 15 marks the 82nd anniversary of the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights, social justice and peace activist who was martyred on April 4, 1968. Since 1986, Dr. King’s birthday has been commemorated by a federal holiday on the third Monday of January. This year the holiday will fall on Jan. 17.

The recognition of Dr. King’s birthday as a federal holiday was the result of a nearly two-decade struggle waged by African American political leaders and artists, who held mass demonstrations on this day every year as well as sponsoring legislation in the U.S. Congress that eventually passed under the right-wing administration of Ronald Reagan. On this day, federal offices, state and local offices, banks and many educational institutions are closed and there are literally thousands of commemorations held throughout the United States.

In 2011 the MLK federal holiday comes at a time where everything Dr. King and the civil rights movement fought for during the 1950s and 1960s is under attack by Wall Street and their surrogates in the administration and Congress. Ruling class propaganda that is relayed daily through the corporate and government-sanctioned media is specifically designed to reinforce the existing conditions of exploitation and oppression against the working class in general.

In 2011 the MLK federal holiday comes at a time where everything Dr. King and the civil rights movement fought for during the 1950s and 1960s is under attack by Wall Street and their surrogates in the administration and Congress.

A renewed round of attacks is taking place which seeks to blame the growing budget deficits facing numerous states and cities throughout the U.S. on the hard-won benefits of public sector employees and those who are unemployed and poor. The 2010 elections were ideologically rigged to place a reactionary social agenda as the first order of business for the current Congress and before state legislatures throughout the country.

Utilizing the same methodology carried out for at least the last two and a half decades, where in the private sector there have been massive layoffs, the reduction of real wages and the slashing of employee benefits, the ruling class now has targeted the public sector. Leading spokespersons for the ruling class both inside and outside of government are openly calling for the elimination of the right to strike for school teachers and other public employees, the drastic reduction in salaries and benefits, the seizure of municipal and state pension funds by Wall Street as well as the complete eradication of collective bargaining rights for civil servants where they still exist.

The working class must face this challenge politically and build broader alliances to advance its own program for jobs, job security, employee benefits, moratoriums on foreclosures, evictions and utility shut-offs and an end to the Pentagon budget and the bailout of the banks which drains trillions of dollars from the national treasury every year.

Lessons from 1968: King and the struggle against poverty, war and racism

What is deliberately overlooked and distorted by the corporate media in the United States every year is the pivotal role of the civil rights and Black power movements during the period leading up to and after the assassination of Dr. King. Although King and other charismatic leaders were important in the struggles that were waged to break down legalized segregation, to win universal suffrage and affirmative action programs, it was the millions of African Americans, Latinos, women, youth and workers of conscience who were in motion that constituted the real decisive factor in winning the gains of the time period.

As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to a capacity crowd in Grosse Pointe Farms, Mich., on March 14, 1968, a few weeks before his assassination, he was picketed by the white supremacist organization Breakthrough that opposed open housing in that affluent suburb of Detroit.
In the spring of 1967, Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) came out decisively against the U.S. military occupation of Vietnam. In taking this anti-war position, the SCLC linked the war in Vietnam with the failure of the U.S. to adequately address the problems of poverty, unemployment, national discrimination and oppression.

The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) had taken a clear position against the war in Vietnam in January of 1966. Later that year the Black Power slogan was advanced during the “March Against Fear” through Mississippi in June. These developments coincided with the growing rebellions by African American and Puerto Rican communities throughout the country.

King’s position on the war in Vietnam provided the basis for even greater unity between the Black power, civil rights and anti-war movements of the period. In addition to King’s anti-war stance, the SCLC had identified the necessity of eradicating poverty in the United States as prerequisite to the creation of a genuinely democratic and egalitarian society.

In February of 1968, the Memphis sanitation workers, who were almost all Black, went on strike in this Southern city demanding recognition and collective bargaining rights through the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). The racist city administration of Henry Loeb refused to negotiate with the workers and a citywide strike support committee was established and headed by James Lawson, a longtime civil rights organizer.

King was invited to come to Memphis to address a community rally on March 18, where 13,000 people gathered to hear him speak. He called for a general strike in Memphis to force the city administration to recognize the sanitation workers.

On March 28, the day of the general strike, the police rioted and attacked a mass demonstration in downtown Memphis. The city administration shot dead a 14-year-old African American youth and declared an emergency, calling in the National Guard to suppress the demonstrations and the sanitation strike.

Three days later, on March 31, Dr. King delivered a major address at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. In this speech he stated: “There can be no gainsaying of the fact that a great revolution is taking place in the world today. In a sense it is a triple revolution: that is a technological revolution, with the impact of automation and cybernation; then there is a revolution in weaponry, with the emergence of atomic and nuclear weapons of warfare” (“Testament of Hope,” 1991, p. 269).

King continues, saying: “Then there is a human rights revolution, with the freedom explosion that is taking place all over the world. Yes, we do live in a period where changes are taking place and there is still the voice crying through the vista of time saying, ‘Behold, I make all things new, former things are passed away.’”

Police kept a tight rein on Resurrection City, the encampment erected in 1968 by the Poor People’s Campaign that carried forward after his assassination his plan to fight for an “economic bill of rights.” – Photo: Jill Freeman
King then stresses the need for a global view of developments during the period saying: “First, we are challenged to develop a world perspective. No individual can live alone, no nation can live alone, and anyone who feels that he can live alone is sleeping through a revolution. The world in which we live is geographically one. The challenge that we face today is to make it one in terms of brotherhood (and sisterhood).”

After the assassination of Dr. King, rebellions and mass demonstrations erupted throughout the United States. In Washington, D.C., thousands of federal troops were dispatched to guard the White House and the Capital.

Although the Poor People’s Campaign launched by the SCLC did take place, where hundreds of marginalized workers of all nationalities camped out in Washington, D.C., demanding immediate relief from the U.S. Congress, the effort was thwarted and eventually smashed by the federal government.

Rebellions continued in the cities and on the campuses during the summer and fall of 1968. In Detroit, African American workers formed the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM), which engaged in wildcat strikes against the racist bosses over and above the union bureaucrats.

At San Francisco State College and other campuses around the country, African American students and their allies shut them down demanding Black Studies programs and other efforts to make higher education relevant to the plight of oppressed peoples in the United States. At Wayne State University in Detroit, African American students took control of the South End campus newspaper, making it a revolutionary organ that was distributed to people in the community, at the high schools and the plant gates.

Challenges for the working class and oppressed today

The current crisis of massive unemployment, growing poverty, escalating political repression and attacks on workers by the ruling class is in part a response to gains made during the upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s in the United States and around the world. The strategic position of African American workers within industry and the urban areas has been weakened with the further globalization of capital and the systematic lowering of wages and living standards among the oppressed and the working class in general.

The current crisis of massive unemployment, growing poverty, escalating political repression and attacks on workers by the ruling class is in part a response to gains made during the upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s in the United States and around the world.

Built in the shadow of the Washington Monument on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., Resurrection City looked something like the post-earthquake camps in Haiti today – one in the shadow of Haiti’s National Palace. Both then and now, poor people are bringing their demands front and center so that they cannot be ignored.
Today the oppressed peoples and workers have been placed on the defensive and further attacks are under way against all sectors of the working class where people were able to win public sector jobs, educational rights and other social benefits. The further restructuring of capital by the ruling class, absent a monumental fight back, will inevitably lead to millions more being thrust into joblessness and poverty.

The workers and the oppressed have no choice but to form broader alliances to fight the system of low-wage capitalism. This is a critical period and low-wage workers must be specifically addressed to counter the ruling class propaganda that says they have nothing in common with sectors of the proletariat which have health insurance, a few vacation days and threatened pension systems that are also up for seizure by the banks.

The workers and the oppressed have no choice but to form broader alliances to fight the system of low-wage capitalism.

If the public sector unions are smashed, it will provide even greater openings for the ruling class to further exploit and repress the workers and the oppressed. If the wars of occupation against the peoples of the world are allowed to continue, the ranks of working class and oppressed youth will be further condemned to the ravages of the Pentagon and the prison industrial complex.

Abayomi Azikiwe, editor of the Pan-African News Wire, speaking at a national conference in New York City on Nov. 13, 2010.
Abayomi Azikiwe, editor of Pan-African News Wire, where this story first appeared, can be reached at panafnewswire@gmail.com. Pan-African News Wire, the world’s only international daily pan-African news source, is designed to foster intelligent discussion on the affairs of African people throughout the continent and the world.

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