Distance and democracy

Mural in Belfast, featuring campaigners including Martin Luther King

On 4 April, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King, Maurice looks at the US Civil Rights movement in this blogpost; and in a companion video piece, considers the legacy of Frederick Douglass, whose 200th anniversary also falls this year. 

How many bubbles are there in a bar of soap? Can’t answer? Then you are not allowed to register to vote. Or you wouldn’t have been, at any rate, were you an African American in the Southern USA in the 1950s.

That was just one of the questions asked by white Southern electoral officials of such applicant voters (Manning, 2007). Among all the other, more obviously outrageous things – lynchings, casual racist violence, police brutality, job discrimination and so on – it is little details such as this that seem, somehow, most telling.

The white officials didn’t even have to pretend to be fair. They knew the question was unanswerable; they knew that even if the applicant gave an answer it would be the ‘wrong’ one;  they knew that all this was going through the mind of the African American citizen standing in front of them; and they knew that he or she was, to all intents and purposes, utterly powerless to do anything about it.

That someone could be disenfranchised – and thus have no say in the laws to which they were subject – on such a transparently unfair, patently unanswerable pretext, shows how securely white domination was enshrined in the legal and political system of the South.

Yet it was in this context of apparent powerlessness that one of the most powerful political movements of the twentieth century reached its apogee.

As we mark the fiftieth anniversary of the murder of Martin Luther King on 4 April it is worth remembering that the movement preceded him and was much broader than him.  There were immensely significant African American campaigns and campaigners long before King (think, for instance, of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, A Philip Randolph, WEB Du Bois, Ella Baker and so on); there were countless others in his day, less famous but no less courageous or effective. Think of the Freedom Riders or the Greensboro Four. There have been countless others since – think Black Lives Matter.

But inevitably, and rightly, King will be celebrated this month. We may safely predict that much will be said about him as an icon of civil rights; much will be made of his charisma, his electrifying speeches, and his ‘dream’. Much will be made of his commitment to nonviolence. And again rightly so. There is no doubt that these are all of immense significance.

However, there is a danger that these very celebrations might obscure something still more significant about King: the forceful, radical, even revolutionary trajectory of his ethics and politics.

This was a man who marched many times in the face of violent, racist mobs; a man who was spied upon by US federal authorities, and lied about; who was confronted by institutionally racist law-enforcement officers; who was jailed 14 times; and who, after years of relentless activism, was finally shot dead, still in his thirties, thus cutting short a civil rights career that had lasted only 13 years. This was a campaigner whose views grew more radical as he learned from each experience. This was a man for whom nonviolence was anything but passive.

There is a temptation to absorb the image of King as the ‘dreamer’, and forget about this other side. In an article on King in the Observer of 25 March, for instance, Benjamin Zephaniah praises King’s legacy but says he himself leaned more toward Malcolm X because, as he puts it, “I think without people who were more militant we wouldn’t have the progress we have now. Look at the suffragettes: some of them had to die for what they believed. It was only when they started putting their lives on the line that real change was achieved”. Yet this comes in an article marking King’s assassination. King and others did, precisely, ‘put their lives on the line’.

And their achievements were immense: desegregation of transport, education, voting rights, equal housing legislation, among other breakthroughs, all achieved within the decade and a half of King’s active life.

Moreover, as King came to see the interconnections between the violence of the white supremacist system he battled in the Jim Crow era US south in the 1950s, and the systematic reproduction of economic deprivation in the cities of the north, he became ever more ‘militant’. He was shot, after all, on the eve of a march that formed part of his ‘Poor People’s Campaign’, an “explicitly class-based movement that questioned the verities of American capitalism” as Adam Fairclough puts it (Fairclough, 2001).

The one major failure in King’s vision, arguably, is his failure to make the connection to gender oppression. Whether King would eventually have learned from and accepted the feminist critique is a matter of speculation. It is certain that he should have done so, if only in order to be true to his own philosophy of democracy and nonviolence.

To be clear, there is nothing passive about an ethics of nonviolence. We have to take the full measure of what bell hooks calls ‘killing rage’, and let that justified fury drive today’s grassroots, democratic movements for justice and equality to connect the dots between the issues, and combine to overcome the systematic violence that allows the few to maintain dominance over the many.

There is, alas, still far too much to do – perhaps more than for many decades, given that white supremacists, patriarchs and the oil industry all currently have an ally in the White House.

But there are many movements flowing towards equality, democracy, sustainability, and countless numbers within those movements. We are many, to paraphrase Shelley, they are few.

More, in any case, than the bubbles in a bar of soap.

Maurice Macartney, 4 April 2018


Fairclough, Adam (2001), Better Day Coming: Blacks and Equality, 1890 – 2000, Penguin, New York.

Marable, Manning (2007), Race Reform and Rebellion: The Second Reconstruction and Beyond in Black America, University Press of Mississippi (Kindle edition) loc 380.