Remembering Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Memphis Labor Strike

April 4, 1968, about 6:01pm. We should always remember that time. It has now been a half century years since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. He was moving conceptually and in his actions in a more radical direction combining antiracist, broader anticlass, and antiwar efforts—which efforts likely had much to do with his assassination.King (Photo: Wiki-images)

I remember the day vividly, like it was yesterday, and can still remember the time of day when one of my students at the University of California called me to tell of the terrible event, and I can still remember well my and his very distressed emotional labor and our cognitive labor (who did it? why did it happen? etc) as we talked about the shooting. (We did not know Dr. King had died at that time.) He was one of the few African American students then at that university and as one would expect was completely devastated by the event, as I was too.

In some ways, King’s assassination marked the apparent end of much of the black civil rights movement in the 1960s, not necessarily a coincidence. One does not have to be a conspiracy theorist to wonder about this historical timing — or to wonder where this country would be if thinker/leaders like Dr. King and Malcolm X had lived to lead an ever renewed rights and racism-change movement.

The events leading up to Dr. King’s assassination need to be taught everywhere. In late March 1968 Dr. King and other civil rights leaders participated in and supported the local Memphis sanitary works employees, black and white, who were striking for better wages and working condition.

Conditions in Memphis, as elsewhere, were very oppressive for workers, in both racial and class terms, as this brief summary makes clear:

In one incident, black street repairmen received pay for two hours when they were sent home because of bad weather, but white employees were paid for the full day.

King gave his last (“I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”) speech at a rally for the workers at the Mason Temple in Memphis.

This is the famous section near the end of his prophetic speech, where he reflects on death threats he had often received:

We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man.

Let us remember him well, and especially his prophetic antiracist, anti-capitalistic, and antiwar messages, and his commitment to long-term efforts against white racism, on this day, April 4, 2018.

Why We Need to Reclaim MLK








On this national holiday celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. many of us nationwide took to the streets in “reclaim MLK” protests.  Why a need to reclaim the legacy of Dr.King?  Part of it has to do with that speech.



(Photo from Sean Elias)

You know the one. The “I got a dream speech,” as someone referred to it recently. The speech that everyone half-remembers and selectively quotes every January. Based on a collective quoting-out-of-context from that speech, King has been elevated to a patriotic mascot praising America’s relentless and inevitable progress on racism. In his book, The Speech, Gary Younge lays out the story behind the speech which was, in fact, a searing indictment of American racism.  Younge describes our misremembering this way:

“Half a century after the March on Washington and the famous “I Have a Dream” speech, the event has been neatly folded into America’s patriotic mythology. Relatively few people know or recall that the Kennedy administration tried to get organizers to call it off; that the FBI tried to dissuade people from coming; that racist senators tried to discredit the leaders; that twice as many Americans had an unfavorable view of the march as a favorable one. Instead, it is hailed not as a dramatic moment of mass, multiracial dissidence, but as a jamboree in Benetton Technicolor, exemplifying the nation’s unrelenting progress toward its founding ideals.”

People forget, too, that King was very nearly a social pariah among most white Americans. In 1966, twice as many Americans had an unfavorable opinion of him as a favorable one.

Much less frequently quoted on this holiday is MLK’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, in which he writes that:

“the great stumbling block in [the] stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.”

Or, his 1967 speech at Riverside Church, in which he responds to the question “What about Vietnam?” by saying:

“I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government.”

Today, we have certainly made symbolic progress as a nation, and even some material progress. We have a black president of the US, who can say and do a very little to address racism. And, Oprah Winfrey is so fabulously wealthy she has an amphitheater in her backyard in which she can host a gospel brunch, because that was Dr. King’s dream. Or, so she says.

At the same time, we live in a nation in which more black people have been killed by police than were lynched during Jim Crow. Despite the passage of the Voting Rights Act, 1 in 13 African Americans are blocked from voting due to systematic disenfranchisement. And, the carceral machinery churns up black lives at a prodigious rate. Sixty years after Brown vs. the Board of Education, our schools are more racially segregated than ever. The black-white wealth gap has, at the end of 2014, reached at 24-year high.


(Photo by Marina Ortiz, East Harlem Preservation)

So, when people to the streets and to Twitter to #reclaimMLK, it was to remind us all of the radical tradition of a Dr. King who called out the stumbling block of white moderates who value order more than justice and the violence of our own government.

On MLK Holiday, Much Work to be Done as Structural Racism Persists

Today is the annual Martin Luther King Day celebration.  In the U.S., this is a federal holiday and means that government offices and many schools (including my own) are closed in honor of Dr. King.  Even this modest commemoration was a hard won victory over a racist resistance to the holiday by those who oppose civil rights.  As we reflect on Dr.King’s legacy, it’s important to recognize there is much unfinished business in achieving racial justice.  This infographic from the  Economic Policy Institute illustrates the work still to be done.

Structural Racism Infographic-final

(Source: Economic Policy Institute)

Martin Luther King: Speech about South Africa

Today, as we celebrate Martin Luther King’s birthday, I wanted to share one of King’s lesser known speeches, about South Africa.   In the speech, delivered at my institution Hunter College in 1965 (h/t colleague Larry Shore), King addresses media portrayals of Africa as ‘barbaric,’  the institution of white supremacy in South Africa, the connection between black Americans and Africa, and the hope of progressive political action between blacks and whites.


(Creative Commons Licensephoto credit: Dakota Blue Harper)

In the opening of his 1965 speech, given on Human Rights Day (December 10), King addresses the common stereotype about Africa and calls out the system of white supremacy:

“Africa has been depicted for more than a century as the home of black cannibals and ignorant primitives. Despite volumes of facts contraverting this picture, the stereotype persists in books, motion pictures, and other media of communication. Africa does have spectacular savages and brutes today, but they are not black. They are the sophisticated white rulers of South Africa who profess to be cultured, religious and civilized, but whose conduct and philosophy stamp them unmistakably as modern-day barbarians. We are in an era in which the issue of human rights is the central question confronting all nations. In this complex struggle an obvious but little appreciated fact has gained attention-the large majority of the human race is non-white-yet it is that large majority which lives in hideous poverty. While millions enjoy an unexampled opulence in developed nations, ten thousand people die of hunger each and every day of the year in the undeveloped world. To assert white supremacy, to invoke white economic and military power, to maintain the status quo is to foster the danger of international race war . . . What does the South African Government contribute to this tense situation? These are the incendiary words of the South African philosophy spoken by its Prime Minister, Dr. Verwoerd: “We want to keep South Africa white. Keeping it white can only mean one thing, namely, white domination, not ‘leadership’, not ‘guidance’, but control, supremacy.”

The South African Government to make the white supreme has had to reach into the past and revive the nightmarish ideology and practices of nazism. We are witnessing a recrudescence of the barbarism which murdered more humans than any war in history. In South Africa today, all opposition to white supremacy is condemned as communism, and in its name, due process is destroyed; a medieval segregation is organized with twentieth century efficiency and drive; a sophisticated form of slavery is imposed by a minority upon a majority which is kept in grinding poverty; the dignity of human personality is defiled; and world opinion is arrogantly defied.”

Few people celebrating King’s legacy today realize that in addition to being a civil right leader in the U.S., King also saw that struggle as connected to other struggles for human rights around the globe.  King was also presciently aware of the connection between white supremacy in the U.S. and the system in South Africa, several decades before anti-apartheid became a popular political movement here.     King goes on the speech to highlight a Pan-African sensibility, explicitly drawing connections between the continent of Africa and, in the language of his day, “the American Negro.”  He goes on to extend the struggle to include whites as well:

“For the American Negro there is a special relationship with Africa. It is the land of his origin. It was despoiled by invaders; its culture was arrested and concealed to justify white supremacy. The American Negro’s ancestors were not only driven into slavery, but their links with their past were severed so that their servitude might be psychological as well as physical. In this period when the American Negro is giving moral leadership and inspiration to his own nation, he must find the resources to aid his suffering brothers in his ancestral homeland. Nor is this aid a one-way street. The civil rights movement in the United States has derived immense inspiration from the successful struggles of those Africans who have attained freedom in their own nation’s. The fact that black men govern States, are building democratic institutions, sit in world tribunals, and participate in global decision-making gives every Negro a needed sense of dignity.

In this effort, the American Negro will not be alone. As this meeting testifies, there are many white people who know that liberty is indivisible. Even more inspiring is the fact that in South Africa itself incredibly brave white people are risking their careers, their homes and their lives in the cause of human justice. Nor is this a plea to Negroes to fight on two fronts. The struggle for freedom forms one long front crossing oceans and mountains. The brotherhood of man is not confined within a narrow, limited circle of select people. It is felt everywhere in the world; it is an international sentiment of surpassing strength. Because this is true, when men of good will finally unite, they will be invincible.”

On this day, on what would have been Dr. King’s 82nd birthday, we still need those of good will to finally unite in the cause of human justice.

If you’d like to know more about the connection between white supremacy in the U.S. and in South Africa, I recommend any of the books by George Frederickson on this subject, including the classic White Supremacy: A Comparative Study of American and South African History (Oxford University Press, 1982).    And, if you’d like to learn more about the connections between U.S. and South Africa, I encourage you to check out Larry Shore and Tami Gold’s documentary, RFK in the Land of Apartheid: Ripple of Hope.

Martin Luther King: Christmas Message of Hope

On Christmas Eve, 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered a five speeches in the prestigious Massey Lecture series. He titled the series “Conscience for Change.” These lectures are compiled in both text, as a book, and audio format, as a CD) [The book was re-released as “The Trumpet of Conscience.”] Although these lectures were recorded almost fifty years ago, King’s words still resonate as we continue to come to terms with many of the same issues.

You can also listen to the entire message here (about 1 hour in length and the site requires free registration). What many people forget (or never knew) about King is how radical he really was. In this lecture, he explains that part of the reason people are so upset about riots that had happened recently is that these were attacks on property, which he says, “is symbolic of the white power structure.” Not only is the content of what he says here compelling and contemporary, his oratory is unparalleled by anyone else.

Martin Luther King: I’ve been to the mountaintop

Today, the U.S. celebrates Martin Luther King Day as a national day of remembrance for Dr. King and the civil rights struggle. This is Dr. King’s last speech, given the night before he was assassinated, on April 3, 1968 at the Mason Temple (Church of God in Christ Headquarters), Memphis, Tennessee:

Martin Luther King, Jr: “Mountaintop” speech full length from Filip Goc on Vimeo.

The full text transcript of the speech is available here.

Honoring Dr. King’s Legacy with Anti-Racism

Today, we in the U.S. celebrate Martin Luther King Day, honoring the legacy of Dr. King.   Jesse Jackson, Sr. has an opinion piece in The New York Times reflecting on what this great civil rights leader might have thought about the inauguration of Barack Obama tomorrow.   Jackson writes:

What would Dr. King, who spent much of his life changing conditions so that African-Americans could vote without fear of death or intimidation, think of the rise of the nation’s 44th president? I can say without reservation that he would be beaming. I am equally confident that he would not let the euphoria of the moment blind us to the unfinished business that lies ahead. And he would spell out those challenges in biblical terms: feed the hungry, clothe the naked and study war no more.

While I know that some of my friends on the left (especially many of my queer friends) cringe at any reference to ‘biblical terms,’ but I think it’s important to remember that the civil rights movement was steeped in a progressive social gospel that interpreted the Bible as a text of liberation, not one of oppression.  And, I agree with Jackson’s assessment that King would have spelled out the challenges we face today in terms of a social gospel to feed those who are hungry, clothe (and house) those in need, and work for peace not war.   Increasingly, people are taking the MLK holiday as a day of service, and many of those efforts will get people involved in soup kitchens and food pantries, feeding the hungry and the homeless.  We should also recall that Dr. King was an ardent opponent of the Vietnam War, and reinvigorate our commitment to ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Ironically, one feature that often gets left out of the efforts on the national day of service is any discussion or push toward anti-racism.  This seems like a missed opportunity to me, and one that I’d like to see change.  In my view, MLK Day should be a time for those who are committed to anti-racism to talk about the strategies of the civil rights movement and address what’s left to be done.   And, make no mistake, there’s still plenty work to be done.  If you’re unsure about how to get started taking action against racism, I suggest Damali Ayo’s steps as a good beginning place:

Jesse Jackson closes his piece in The New York Times this way:

We should celebrate the election of our new president. And then we should get back to work to complete the unfinished business of making America a more perfect union.

This is what we must do about racism, as well, on this important holiday.  Celebrate the wonderful accomplishment of the election of the country’s first ever African American president.  And, then we must continue the work of dismantling all forms of racism.

Cloaked MLK Website Draws Millions This Time of Year

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution ran an article recently about the website about Martin Luther King that white supremacist Don Black publishes (h/t Charles Cameron).  The site is what I refer to as a cloaked site, that is, a website published by an individual or group who conceal authorship in order to deliberately disguise a hidden political agenda. In the case of Don Black’s website, the goal of the website is akin to what one scholar has called the discursive construction of uncertainty.  In other words, the site is intended to make visitors to the website question the contribution of Dr. King to civil rights, and indeed, to question the goal of civil rights as a worthy goal.  In my research with young people (ages 15-19), I’ve found that stumbling upon the site through a search engine frequently is confusing for novice web surfers.  (I’ve written about this in a number of publications and this research also appears in my forthcoming book, Cyber Racism.)

Part of what was intriguing to me about the Atlanta Journal-Constitution article is that the reporter, Ty Tagami, takes up the comparison of the cloaked site and the legitimate King Center site, a comparison that I address in my research.   What I found in comparing traffic to both websites using the web traffic site Alexa is that at this time of year, around Martin Luther King Day, there’s a big increase in the number of visitors to both sites.  Here, in a graph generated by me via Alexa, traffic to the legitimate site appears in blue, the traffic to the cloaked site appears in red.  The time period covered is the first six months of 2006; and, the website traffic is graphed here in terms of “Daily Reach (per million)” along the left, and the months across the bottom.

There are several things worth noting in this graph.  First, and perhaps most alarming, the traffic to both websites peaks in mid-to-late January, around the time of the national Martin Luther King holiday.  I interpret this to mean that people are interested in learning more about Dr. King around the time of the annual holiday, and log on to find more information.  Relying on a typical search engine, they find both sites and inadvertently end up at the cloaked site.   Second, what’s telling about this year in particular is that 2006 is the year that Coretta Scott King, Dr. King’s widow, passed away (January 30, 2006) and the traffic for the King Center reflects a rather dramatic jump around that time.   This is the only time that the traffic for both sites is noticeably different.  Mostly, the two sites have very similar patterns.

This suggests a rather profound shift in the terrain of racial politics.  Using a standard search engine and the search terms “Martin Luther King” this website regularly appears third or fourth in the results returned by Google.  Before even viewing the content of this site, the URL makes it appear to be legitimate, in part because the main web reference is made up of only the domain name “martinlutherking,” and the URL ends with the suffix “.org.” The decision to register the domain name “” relatively early in the evolution of the web, was a shrewd and opportune move for advocates of white supremacy; failure to do likewise was a lost opportunity for advocates of civil rights. Recognizing that domain name registration is now a political battleground, a number of civil rights organizations have begun to reserve domain names to prevent them from being used by opponents of racial justice.  For example, the NAACP has registered six domain names that include the word “nigger” and the ADL has registered a similar number of domain names with the word “kike.”    However, registering offensive epithets is only a small part of the struggle.  The move by opponents to equality to register the esteemed symbols of civil rights as domain names, such as Martin Luther King, and use them to undermine racial justice is one that was clearly unanticipated by civil rights organizations.

To be effective, cloaked sites with seemingly legitimate-sounding domain  rely on the naïveté of their target audience.   This naïveté is about both new media literacy and about a racial consciousness that recognizes and resists the white racial frame.   Cultivating both of these is important as we once again approach the national King Holiday and millions of web visitors look for information about Dr. King.