CORETTA SCOTT King, the esteemed widow of US civil rights leader Martin Luther King, died recently aged 78.
Mrs King continued her husband’s crusade against racism in the aftermath of his assassination in 1968. The year after his death, she founded the Martin Luther King Centre for Non-Violent Social Change in Atlanta. In 1986, President Reagan (who had once described King as a “near communist”) decreed that King’s birthday should become a national holiday.
In one of her last public pronouncements, on the 40th anniversary of her husband’s best-known speech (his “I have a dream” Washington address of August 1963), Mrs King urged the crowds to continue along the peaceful path he had advocated. But her message came at a time when many African-Americans still languished in poverty and exclusion.
We should remember the date of Martin Luther King’s assassination – 1968 – a turbulent and pivotal year in the Western World. That year also witnessed the assassination of Senator Robert Kennedy, widespread student unrest and mass demonstrations against the Vietnam War.
In America, Lyndon Johnson declined to seek a second term as President, followed by violent scenes at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago where anti-war protestors disrupted proceedings. There followed a conservative backlash against perceived anarchy, epitomised by the election of a Republican President, Richard Nixon, in November.
The term “silent majority”, which Nixon memorably coined to describe the law-abiding, non-demonstrating masses, entered the lexicon of political debate. Meanwhile, in Britain, Enoch Powell’s so-called ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech also signalled a right-wing reaction. Both events can now be seen as precursors of the Thatcherite/Reagan counter-revolution of the 1980s.
King’s death led to new era of militancy
Dr King had stood for non-violence and passive resistance along the lines of the Gandhi model, advocating reconciliation with whites. He drew a rainbow coalition of groups opposed to poverty and war as well as racial discrimination. In his March on Washington, he was joined by prominent Jewish leaders, so transcending the racial divide. His magnificent address has become one of the 20th century’s seminal moments – white liberals and African-Americans alike heralded it as the path to “the promised land” of racial equality.
Had he lived, it is not inconceivable that Dr King might have become President King. More importantly, the peaceful coalition in support of racial equality might never have collapsed. As it was, King’s death triggered a new militancy among disenfranchised black Americans, who felt that peaceful protest would no longer achieve their goals. Malcolm X, not King, became the role model to the radicals. Some black leaders even criticised King for being a naive idealist and America became more polarised than ever.
Today, African-Americans are split between those who view affirmative action as condescending and those who still demand reparations from the government. Racial segregation may have evaporated, but America remains split along racial lines. Many American inner cities are now predominantly black ghettoes, accompanied by a conspicuous white flight to affluent suburbs.
Sadly, some of the role models for black Americans are no longer peaceful conciliators. When African-Americans assembled in Washington in 1995 for the Million Man March, their standard bearer was Louis Farrakhan, the militant nationalist and anti-Semitic Nation of Islam leader. By then, the alliances between ethnic minorities had long since evaporated amid a welter of recriminations.
Other events of the 90s, such as the Rodney King beating and subsequent Los Angeles riots, as well as the OJ Simpson case, showed that black and white America had failed to converge.
Ten years on and America, post-Katrina, is more divided than ever. The Mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, recently delivered a blistering rejection of Bush and white America, declaring the hurricane to be a form of retribution for the war in Iraq. Ironically, speaking on Martin Luther King Day (before Coretta Scott King’s death), he also said he wanted New Orleans to be “chocolate” again because “it’s the way God wants it to be”. Dr King would have been rolling in his grave.
More ominously, Hurricane Katrina also fuelled a longstanding suspicion that white Americans don’t really care about their black brothers and sisters. Thirty-eight years after King’s assassination, America still has a long way to go before it achieves his goal of racial harmony and unity.