King's agenda was tougher than we recall

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By the time the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, he had become deeply unpopular among many people both inside and outside the civil rights movement.

The lofty rhetoric of his "I Have a Dream" speech from five years earlier had been displaced by a far more critical and prophetic assessment of American society. Instead of appealing to our better angels, MLK unleashed unsparing critiques of capitalism, corporate power and our society's stubborn structural inequalities.

His opposition to the Vietnam War had alienated him from the Johnson administration, the Cold War-minded political establishment and those within the civil rights movement who considered the U.S. military one of the few institutions that treated blacks and whites equally.

The civil rights movement began splintering even before King was assassinated. There were those who believed he was too cautious given the challenges of the era. Others were frightened by what they considered radical, even "socialist," ideas.

His public rhetoric underwent a profound shift from one of accommodating the political expediency of the times to a more open and honest confrontation with the establishment. He was no longer "toning it down" by the time of his death.

Ironically, very little in King's thinking had changed since Aug. 28, 1963. He was just as much a radical when he addressed 250,000 marchers on that day, too, though the sharpness of his critique is unrecognized, thanks to the haze of sentimentality that covers that era like a fog.

MLK's much admired -- but misunderstood -- "I Have a Dream" speech has been so stripped of its revolutionary content that there are people who believe his primary concern in delivering it was to persuade Americans to subscribe to a gauzy "color blindness" so that kids of all colors could eventually play in sandboxes together.

Even the original name of the daylong protest -- the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom -- has been forgotten in the rush to distance it from any economic meaning.

The men who had been planning such a gathering in Washington for decades weren't sentimentalists. A. Philip Randolph, the president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and the Negro American Labor Council, had been ready to pull the trigger on a 100,000-person march to D.C. as early as 1941, but he was talked out of it by President Franklin Roosevelt, who issued Executive Order 8802 outlawing racial discrimination in employment in the national defense industry.

Randolph's partners were Bayard Rustin and A.J. Muste, two men with equally deep roots in the American labor movement and radical politics. By 1957, Randolph, Rustin and MLK had enough organizational savvy to mount the Prayer Pilgrimage for Civil Rights, an event that drew 30,000 black people to Washington -- a record crowd until it was eclipsed on Aug. 28, 1963.

The initial press releases announcing the 1963 march didn't mince words: "Massive, militant, monumental sit-ins on Congress." Also, "massive acts of civil disobedience all over this nation. We will tie up public transportation by laying our bodies prostrate on runways of airports, across railroad tracks, and in bus depots." What actually happened was a lot more polite than that, though.

Like any protest movement worth its salt, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom came with a list of demands that included: "Comprehensive and effective civil rights legislation from the [1963] Congress -- without compromise or filibuster -- to guarantee all Americans:

"Access to all public accommodations. Decent housing. Adequate and integrated education. The right to vote. Withholding of Federal funds from all programs in which discrimination exists.

"Desegregation of all school districts in 1963. Enforcement of the 14th Amendment -- reducing Congressional representation of states where citizens are disfranchised. A new Executive Order banning discrimination in all housing supported by federal funds. Authority for the Attorney General to institute injunctive suits when any Constitutional right is violated.

"A massive federal program to train and place all unemployed workers -- Negro and white -- on meaningful and dignified jobs at decent wages. A national minimum wage act that will give all Americans a decent standard of living. A federal Fair Employment Practices Act barring discrimination by federal, state, and municipal governments, and by employers, contractors, employment agencies, and trade unions."

Apparently, MLK's "dream" was a lot bigger than the sum total of its sound bites. There's a reason so many people who embrace his legacy today used to hate him.

tonynorman

Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1631 or on Twitter @TonyNormanPG.


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