August 2013 was the fiftieth anniversary of the now-celebrated March on Washington. In 1963, African Americans in their hundreds of thousands marched right up to the capital, as part of the growing antiracist civil rights movement. Thousands converged on Washington from around the country, organised by human rights groups, socialists, religious groups, the National Associated for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), union organisers and other social justice activists. The march was billed as a convergence for jobs and freedom, and one of the keynote speakers was a young Reverend, Dr. Martin Luther King.
Dr. King gave arguably his most famous speech, “I have a dream.” In it, he articulated the social, civil, political and economic grievances of the African American community, and explained his vision for a socially just system. In August this year, American President Barack Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder, and other keynote speakers, African American celebrities, politicians and ex-presidents gathered to speak at the Lincoln Memorial to commemorate the March on Washington and remember Dr King and the countless other who gave their lives for the cause of civil rights.
Dr King represented a social movement for equality, economic justice and political accountability. President Obama embodies the very opposite of these ideals. Norman Pollack, one of the participants in the 1963 March, wrote in an article in Counterpunch that:
It befouls the memory of Dr. King to have invited Obama to speak. He represents the antithesis of everything Dr. King dreamed of and worked for. Yes, I was there in 1963, where the air was filled with the spirit of justice, justice not as an abstraction, not as a catchword deceive about interventions abroad and entrenched poverty at home, but justice as the full democratization of America, in which racial segregation conveyed the salience of a structure and society grounded in wealth-inequality, ideological themes supporting aggression against the weak, veneration of wealth, and extreme loathing of dissent, and the arrogance of militaristic preeminence as the basis for global leadership.
Dr King spoke out against economic inequalities and racial discrimination; he opposed US militarism and war. He courageously challenged the systemic injustices of the American capitalist system. Dr King began as an opponent of racial segregation in the early 1960s, and evolved into a critic of US capitalism, the injustices of social exclusion, and vigorously opposed the American war in Vietnam. In 1967, Dr King labelled his country’s ruling elite as ‘the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.’ Just prior to his assassination in March 1968, Dr King met with sanitation workers in Memphis Tennessee, to support their struggle for a living wage. Today, fast food workers across the United States are undertaking strike action to demand a living wage.
Obama represents the forces of militarism, corporate welfare and domestic surveillance. His regime has escalated the use of drones and spy satellites for the purpose of monitoring dissidents and carrying out US wars overseas; has imprisoned people without charge or trial in secret prisons and failed to close Guantanamo Bay detention facility; has provided billions in welfare for the failing banks and financial institutions that brought the capitalist system to the brink of collapse, and has further eroded the living standards and wages of ordinary workers. Just a few days after the August 28 official commemoration of the March on Washington, Obama further dishonoured Dr King’s legacy by announcing plans for a purportedly ‘limited’ military intervention in Syria. This will be another overseas war begun by the violently militaristic Obama regime, totally repudiating the message of non-violence and peace advocated by Dr King.
Obama made the ridiculous claim that military action against Syria, will not constitute an act of war, but will consist of limited military strikes with ‘no boots on the ground.’ Yes, just like the following limited aerial strike with no soldiers on the ground;
One of the main achievements of the civil rights movement, and a goal for which Dr King fought ceaselessly, was the desegregation of the political system. African American communities in the deep South had been denied the right to vote by racist political systems and county chiefs. Since the 1870s, the efforts to racially integrate American economic and political life had been resisted by racist politicians, businesspeople and a counter-revolutionary system of ‘Jim Crow’ segregation had been in place for decades by the time of the civil rights movement. Segregation in public life had been normalised since the 1870s, and voting was also racially barred from the African American communities. To redress this imbalance, the civil rights movement fought for the removal of racially discriminatory laws, one of the results was the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act by the Johnson administration.
The 1965 Voting Rights Act contained a crucial clause which prohibited discrimination in matters of voting on the basis of race or colour. With federal jurisdiction over voting and elections administration, the states with a long history of racial exclusion, especially the South, were now required to submit any electoral changes they wished for ‘pre-clearance’ by the federal authorities. In this way, the previously racially discriminatory authorities in the southern were prohibited from deliberately excluding from the vote communities made up of African American populations. This legislation basically enforced the Fifteenth Amendment, which had previously remained a dead letter in the southern states.
Earlier this year, the US Supreme Court took the unprecedented step of deciding to strike down the crucial enforcement clause of the Voting Rights Act, thus removing the southern states from any need to submit any changes to their electoral laws without federal government pre-approval. This means that the Fifteenth Amendment, one of the greatest democratic gains of the US civil war, returns to being a dead letter. The US Supreme Court, with a 5-4 decision, struck down the heart of one of the most important achievements of civil rights legislation, under Obama’s tutelage
Dr King fought all his life to advance the democratic rights of the African American community; under Obama we are witnessing an all-out assault on the civil liberties of the wider working class community, and the striking down of the key portion of the Voting Rights Act is just another example of Obama’s deep commitment to extend corporate rule. Obama is the US president who asserts that he has the right to target any American citizen deemed to be a ‘security threat’ to the United States, so it is not surprising that a key plank of civil rights legislation has been gutted. The US Supreme Court may have acted boldly, but only because Obama has created a climate of ultra-right backlash in which reactionaries can lash out. The Democrat party has demonstrated either extreme complicity, or extreme cowardice, in failing to strongly challenge any of these moves attacking basic democratic rights.
The political writer and activist Eugene Puryear summed up the reaction to the official commemorations of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington thusly;
The original 1963 March represented a rising social movement, articulated the grievances of the dispossessed and disenfranchised, and sought to mobilise people in mass actions to challenge the political and economic injustices of the capitalist system. In contrast, the 2013 commemoration is being used by a reactionary political establishment to sully and denigrate the great legacy of Dr King and the civil rights movement. As Puryear elaborates in his article;
President Barack Obama is not a continuation of King’s legacy, he is its negation. The president seeks at every turn to accommodate the rich and powerful, to conciliate the right-wing obstructionists, who answers the murder of Black youth with statements about the solidity of the nation’s legal system. He has waged war and killed children, conducted a massive spying campaign and ordered his minions to lie about it before congress. The list could go on for hundreds of words, because just like the presidents before him he has managed the imperialist system that needs King’s three evils to survive.
As Puryear explained, Dr King regarded poverty, militarism and racism as the three evils which sustains the imperialist power structure. Dave Zirin, writing about the official 50th anniversary commemoration, noted the sharp disconnect between the official political speakers and the concerns and grievances of the attendees. For instance, one of the official speakers was Senator Cory Booker from New Jersey, a man who has been quite friendly to Wall Street interests. As Booker was speaking in front of the Lincoln Memorial, Zirin made the point that it was important to recall Dr King’s words that;
The profit motive, when it is the sole basis of an economic system, encourages a cutthroat competition and selfish ambition that inspires men to be more concerned about making a living than making a life.
To honour the legacy of Dr King, and the thousands of activists that participated in the March on Washington, we need to fight the three evils of poverty, endemic racism and imperialist militarism. It is appropriate to conclude this article with the closing words from Eugene Puryear’s scathing critique:
The real heirs to the March on Washington won’t be the warmongers on stage, but the activists fighting against war, poverty and mass incarceration: The workers making poverty wages striking across the country, the people putting their bodies on the line against environmental exploitation—all those who dare to stand-up to power in the face of injustice. Let’s honor Dr. King by continuing that fight.