Fifty years ago on 4 April 1968, Atlanta-born King was murdered. To commemorate this massive loss to anti-racists and revolutionaries Yuri Prasad correctly argues that it is essential to rescue King from the hagiographers.
Even Donald Trump cites King as an inspiration, but the new generation of activists who stand on King’s shoulders in the many fights for justice and equality today, including Black Lives Matter, face the same brutal police violence that protestors did in the 1960s.
King’s assassination and the attacks by the state indicate the threat he was to them. He was a man of immense courage and, despite numerous attempts on his life, he never wavered in his constant and exhausting battle to end racism.
His struggle did not bring about the change he envisioned. It did, however, produce the black middle class which culminated in Barack Obama being elected the first US black president in 2008. Despite the many limitations of his time in office, it felt like a significant achievement for black people who remembered Jim Crow and segregation.
Many today still view King as the moderate figurehead of the Civil Rights Movement going cap in hand to the American government begging for reforms. He and Gandhi are the establishment’s go-to guys for peaceful protesting.
This is in stark contrast to how Malcolm X is portrayed as the fearless, uncompromising leader of black America, who preached a more militant and violent strategy to bring about change.
Both were sons of preachers and inspiring orators. Although at the beginning of their journey they held opposing views over strategy and end goals for the black movement, by the end of their lives they were in far more agreement then the history books show.
With the rise of the far-right and Trump retweeting the vile rhetoric of Britain First, King’s struggle is important for socialists in the UK today.
In 2018 London is the most racially mixed it has ever been yet the death of black men at the hands of the police is a constant fear for many families. The blackened coffin block of Grenfell Tower incites great swathes of people to demand justice for the dead and the living in overcrowded, unsafe and inhuman housing. Many migrants of colour end their lives sinking in European seas.
The rise of Islamophobia and fascism in Europe shows that the situation is critical and the forces of the left must analyse what is necessary to overthrow the capitalist system that needs to divide, using tools such as racism to survive.
This book honours the many courageous and exceptional women of the movement. Rosa Parks was not just some random individual “who was too tired to stand up” but a veteran of civil rights and had been involved in the US Communist Party. Coretta Scott King is also given respect as a seasoned campaigner (like her husband) who gave up a promising career as a classically trained singer to concentrate the family’s effort in the struggle.
Less well known is Fannie Lou Hamer, an outstanding campaigner who helped register 63,000 black people to vote. She recounts her brutal beating while in the custody of the state police, inflicted on her by victimised black male prisoners. This attack left her near death, yet she continued to organise.
King coming out against the Vietnam War created a wedge between him, white liberals and many in the Civil Rights Movement who had previously supported him. He recognised that the imperialist war was a macro version of the war in the ghettos, and implored the mainly black soldiers to see their brown foe fighting for the Viet Cong as brothers fighting a common enemy, the American state.
Prasad looks at what caused the American state the most fear — King starting to look at the power of US workers as a force for meaningful change. A strike by 1,300 refuse workers in Memphis encouraged him to start to look to broadening the struggle for equality in America with the Poor People’s Campaign, seeing that workers could and should organise themselves.
The FBI feared King was a “whole hearted Marxist” and went into overdrive when he started to organise around the Poor People’s Campaign.
Gil Scot Heron and Stevie Wonder worked together to make King’s birthday a national holiday. Listen to the playlist that accompanies this book, because out of these struggles some of the best soul and jazz was created. Prasad provides a soundtrack to engage readers in the feeling of the time and echoes Stormzy’s immediacy of lyrics that are a reportage of the movement.
The “I have a dream” speech is still one of the most important ever given and has been sampled hundreds of times. King’s oratory style has been copied by everyone from Obama to Corbyn.
Our duty today is to create a movement where we are all leaders, fighters, great orators and political strategists so that King’s dream can be realised.
A Rebel’s Guide to Martin Luther King goes a long way to helping us do that.
To end on Stevie Wonder: “And we all know everything/ That he stood for time will bring.”