Mar 31, 2008
Forty years ago, on April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.
This political murder came at the height of the black movement which developed after World War II. It marked a turning point for that movement.
Dr. King’s assassination laid to rest the false hope that segregation and racism could be overcome by “non-violence.” In the endless chain of murders inflicted on the black population by a racist system, ready to maintain its power by any degree of violence necessary, the murder of this apostle of “non-violence” was the final straw.
The black population gave their immediate answer to King’s murder. Revolts erupted in more than 125 cities across the country.
The ruling class gave their answer as well – their usual answer. Seventy-five thousand National Guard were called out against the rebellions. Forty-six people were killed, 3500 injured, 20,000 arrested. In Oakland on April 7, police attacked the Black Panthers and murdered Bobby Hutton as he surrendered.
The revolts showed that the mobilization of the black population at that point was already well beyond what Dr. King and his associates had intended. When the young black militants moved on to the slogan of “Black Power,” they expressed the understanding that force had to be met with force.
Too many martyrs, by the hundreds, had been laid in graves through the years. Most often known only in their own towns or neighborhoods, or perhaps only in their family, these martyrs had been black men and women who had led local struggles, or simply stood up for themselves against arrogant racists – or who had done nothing at all, but been random victims of racist terror.
The urban explosions after Dr. King’s assassination showed that the black population would not peacefully accept one more victim. With their fists raised, young black people were expressing their desire to be free of the existing power and to build up a new power independent of the American ruling class, a class both bourgeois and white.
It seemed as though social revolution might shake the U.S., the citadel of imperialism. Black – and white – soldiers in Viet Nam were already rebelling, fragging officers, refusing missions, sabotaging naval vessels. Black veterans returned home ready to put their training to use in the movement.
With black fighters in the lead, young people in 1968 saw themselves as a new generation, ready to put aside personal ambition, in exchange for the chance to fight for the welfare of humanity.
It was a sign of the times that Dr. King was murdered while supporting a strike of sanitation workers. The black population’s struggles were generating a new consciousness of the power of masses of ordinary people, even beginning to extend into the white working class.
1968 might have been the year when the working class began the final struggle to toss capitalism itself on the scrap heap of history, forever. 1968 could have been the year which ushered in the work to organize a socialist society.
Instead, it became a high point of another struggle destined for the history books. The chance for revolution was turned aside.
But it was not only turned aside by repression. People were learning fast about how to overcome repression.
Nor was it diverted just by reforms – although the U.S. bourgeoisie began to grant a number of concessions to the black population. One week after King’s murder, Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of l968 against discrimination in housing. Jobs in major industries previously closed to black workers were suddenly made available.
What really mattered is that the ruling class accepted – and even hurried to set up – a layer of black politicians, who could stand as a proof that the system was finally responding to the needs of black people. Behind this claim was the unspoken idea that the population could relax and let the new black political class handle its affairs. And gradually this new black political class, with a personal stake in the system, worked to contain the firestorm of the movement and let it harmlessly burn to embers. As one witness said of Jesse Jackson, “he preached the riot out of those kids.”
As its reward, this new black professional and political layer was allowed to get a new place in the bosses’ scheme of things. As long as they continue to keep their part of the bargain, these modern black politicians, who never once put their bodies and their lives on the line for anything except their own personal advancement and enrichment, would be supported in the lifestyles and privileges that generations of white politicians already enjoyed.
But dishing out crumbs to a few would not have stopped the popular mobilization of 1968 – if there had been an established leadership demanding not crumbs, but the whole loaf. There was no organization – no revolutionary workers’ organization – which could say to the black workers that unless they were ready to continue, to destroy the system and rebuild it in their own interests, they would not be able to get and keep what they needed.
Around the world, the situation was similar. In the midst of social upheavals in many countries in 1968, revolutionary workers’ organizations with sufficient weight had not been built.
But without such organizations, proposing to the workers and the oppressed in motion to go forward, to set up their own power, and to create their own society, a movement ultimately has no place to go.
Sooner or later we will see this same situation again. The ever increasing desperation of vast numbers of people, especially facing today’s economic downturn, generates a new social explosion, simmering below the surface. The outbreak of massive social struggles evens the odds of the oppressed with their oppressors.
But the laboring people have to be conscious, aware of the possibilities, ready to take advantage of opportunities that appear. There have to be revolutionary workers’ organizations built up ahead of time.
Getting there requires working-class militants to point the way past the politicians who make themselves best buddies to the bosses.
Of course, today, the numbers of such militants are much fewer than needed – and in fewer countries than needed. But the work they do today can open the door tomorrow.
What will be decisive when the next upheaval comes is whether enough people have done this preparation work.