In February 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King went to Memphis to lend support to the Black striking sanitation workers. Within weeks, he was assassinated, at which point many African Americans felt not just leaderless, but lost.
Since King’s murder in 1968, not just ordinary citizens, but historians and writers as well, have tried to assess the progress, or lack of progress, made in America in the area of race relations. They want to be able to say, “Since the death of Martin Luther King, this or that has been accomplished.” In that vein, we look back at three areas of his protest work – economics, voting rights, and civil rights.
Much of what Dr. King believed and fought for is summarized in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and three of his major addresses – “I Have a Dream” in 1963, “A Time to Break Silence” in 1967 and “Where Do We Go from Here” in 1967. Much of what his followers dealt with through the Poor People’s Campaign, their voter education and participation, and their marches in the streets can be traced back to that letter and those speeches.
Compared to the Spring of 1968, today there are fewer obvious Jim Crow policies on the books in the state of Mississippi and elsewhere. On the other hand, there are periodic reports of incidents of racial discrimination; of racist rhetoric from supervisors, colleagues, and clerks; and of racist police conduct. (Provincialism is strong.) This goes back to the reality that individuals often do not change in their hearts and minds, but that laws can prevent them from acting on their worst instincts.
One can begin with these individual cases because broader actions stem from such. As like-minded people mix and mingle, institutions and agencies develop and function or operate. It is these that can be traced from the days of King’s activities.
In the case of voting, based upon individual feelings, observations, and experiences, state legislatures, executives, and even courts make or change rules as the opportunities present themselves. In this arena or from that perspective, one can see how since the death of King, voting rights have been rolled-back and gerrymandering has increased. In terms of social conduct, one can see that as officials and others in higher places have looked the other way or given a wink and a nod, individuals in their local environments have stepped-up their racist conduct in other ways. Therefore, on the surface, it may seem as if there is no more Jim Crow. On the street level, however, many everyday African Americans can “sense” and “see” the difference. King understood racism as it operated on that level.
When it comes to being hired to positions of prestige and authority, Black people are subtly weeded out. On the jobs for which they are hired, there is usually strong opposition to their being paid a “living wage.” Additionally, ways and means are still found to keep their numbers down in colleges, as affirmative action is de-legitimized while wealthy and connected white families get their offspring into college by “hook or crook.” In these kinds of ways, wealth is racialized, keeping Black, Brown, and Indian people at the lowest levels. King understood and fought against this as well. It was a part of the thinking regarding the Poor People’s March.
Much of America’s opposition to low-cost medical care and prescription drugs is based upon race. The closing of many hospitals, Mississippi’s opposition to Medicaid Expansion, and Republican opposition to “entitlement” programs in general is aimed at or at least impacts Black people more than white people. Martin Luther King understood this and railed against these manifestations of capitalism as he fought for the poor and against racism.
Fifty-five years after the assassination of King, in terms of economics, Black people may have moved a bit on an absolute scale, but relative to the white population, they are still at the bottom. In political terms, 55 years after King there are clearly more Black people in offices of responsibility, but then there is the rub. This political rise has led to open hostility on the part of white nationalists. It rose dramatically with the election of Barack Obama. White nationalists are set doing whatever is necessary to gerrymander Black people in the north as well as the south, in urban areas as well as in small towns. Likewise, as in the days of Jim Crow, there is a dramatic rise in right-wing militia groups who will stop at nothing as we have seen across the country. They are as dangerous and terroristic as was the KKK.
On the one hand, it was almost unbelievable to see Barack Obama become president of the United States of America in 2009. Yes, he rode in on the back of the work of King and others. Such had been their effectiveness. On the other hand, it was almost equally unbelievable to witness how quickly white nationalists rose to a level of violence and election denial not witnessed since the end of Reconstruction. They were riding on the backs of Jefferson Davis and others. Such had been the strength of racism. While we realize that the parallel is not perfect, this is where we are 55 years after Martin Luther King.