The Black Elite and the Legacy of Martin Luther King
Glen Ford: Black upper class took advantage of legal victories won by MLK and the Civil Rights Movement and then helped to undermine the movement
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.
Martin Luther King, when he was alive, was a representative and leader of African Americans, but of the working class, the black working class in particular. Now he seems to have become an icon, a symbol for the elite in general, some symbol of giving service to your community, but also of the black elite in particular.
Now joining us to talk about Martin Luther King and his significance today and how his memory is dealt with is Glen Ford. He’s the cofounder and current executive editor of Black Agenda Report. He also colaunched, produced, and hosted America’s Black Forum, the first nationally syndicated black news interview program on commercial TV.
Thanks for joining us, Glen.
GLEN FORD, EXECUTIVE EDITOR, BLACKAGENDAREPORT.COM: Thanks for having me, Paul.
JAY: So what do you make of what’s been done with the memory of Martin Luther King, but particularly the role of the black elite in this?
FORD: You seem to be talking about the emergence of what we call the black misleadership class. And I think we have to go back to 1968, the year that Martin was assassinated.
By ’68, almost all of the civil rights legalâ€”narrow legal victories had been won. And in fact there was only one more major civil rights bill to pass, the Fair Housing Act, which would pass shortly after Martin’s death.
This demolition of legal Jim Crow was very useful to a class of black folks who could make use of this new mobility, that had certain educational and money resources, etc. They were equipped to use the civil rights revolution as a kind of launching board for their own careers and aspirations. And they did.
And although the civil rights movement or the broad black movement was certainly damaged by federal repression, the COINTEL program, and at state and local levels, in a sense the movement was also shut down from within by these elements of the upper classes of black folks who decided that it was their time, it was their time to enter the corporate world, it was their time to run for political office, it was their time to cash in on the death of legalized Jim Crow. And they didn’t want the continuation of a mass movement, the stirring up of stuff in the streets. Those who were going to run for political office, we know that the last thing that a mayor or an aspiring mayor wants is a people’s movement in his city. The only kind of movement that a local public official wants is people moving towards the ballot box once every two or four years, and they want them quiet the rest of the time.
So it was in the interestâ€”or they saw it in the interests of this upwardly mobile, very acquisitive class, to shut down the movement and to preach a kind of gospel of sophisticated politics, which basically ruled out the kind of mass political activity that Dr. King had led.
JAY: So talk a bit about the message of King, especially during the sort of last few years of his life, and the sort of things we’re hearing from this sort of what you’re calling black misleadership or black elite.
FORD: Well, if we’re going to describe King, I think he’s aptly described as a left social democrat. Some people, like Dr. Tony Monteiro, who I know you’ve had on your show recently, calls Dr. King a revolutionary Democrat. He wasâ€”he did not think of himself as a nationalist. But he did refer to himself as a socialist. His staff always discouraged him from using that word.
He differed from the social democrats that we know today in that he opposed U.S. imperialism, because he was a man of peace.
MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: Before long they must know that their government has sent them into a struggle upon Vietnamese, and the more sophisticated surely realize that we are on the side of the wealthy and the secure while we create a hell for the poor.
FORD: So he was an antiwar activist before 1967, when he made the formal break with his speech at Riverside Church and broke with the president, with whom the movement that Dr. King was a leader in had made a kind of alliance, the president who had introduced and then signed these civil rights bills. Martin Luther King felt that he had to break with this sometimes ally because of the Vietnam War, and not just because of the immorality of the war, but because of the way militarism affects domestic policy as well.
So, yeah, he was a left social democrat, a person who believed that politics should not be confined to the ballot box. He resisted all the entreaties from folks on the left who wanted him to run for office, because he saw politics as setting people in motion, and a ballot box is only one destination.
JAY: And the way they’re going to celebrate Martin Luther King is toâ€”you know, you should do service, I think, for oneâ€”particularly on the Saturday, you should do a day’s service for your community, or if you want to do more, that’s the way to remember Martin Luther King, sort of doing this volunteer work. But you mentioned that King considered himself a socialist. And there was quite an anticapitalist character to his speeches in the last while of his life.
FORD: Well, he talked about the triple evils of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism.
KING: I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
FORD: And by extreme materialism, I think he was talking about the rule of the rich. And he got pretty explicit in terms of the rule of the masses of people by one moneyed class of people. He advocated back in 1967 a guaranteed national minimum income. He certainly preached a kind ofsocial gospel. And I also believe that politically we should call him a socialist, yes. He called himself that.
JAY: So we’ve talked many times before about President Obama, and sort of some people have tried to give him the mantel of King. And I know you’ve been very critical of that. You wrote something recently about that. Do you think that’s still going on? And if so, what do you make of it?
FORD: It’s insane. And what we wrote in our current article was that if King were alive, he would be celebrating his birthday week by organizing a massive disruption of the inauguration. And we didn’t say that in fun. I really believe that would be the case. He would be appalled at this president, who has at one time bombed simultaneously five countries, has a kill list, and every Tuesday decides who’s going to be on it, introduced and shepherded through our legislature a bill for preventive detention. This is a warmonger who surpasses in his militarism even George Bush.
So how could anyone imagine that our prince of peace, as some folks refer to him, would not be dedicating all of his organizing efforts to disrupting this administration’s warlike strategies in the world?
FORD: In terms of people trying to say that there is some seamless line, a straight line between Dr. King and Barack Obama, that somehow Dr. King would think that his dream had truly been fulfilled if he could see this family in the White House today, it is so dishonest, especially for people who are public intellectuals, to encourage that kind of thinking.
Dr. King, of all of our great leadersâ€”I’m talking about great black leadersâ€”was probably the leader who explained to the people all the facets of his thinking. He wrote books. He gave speeches not just as a movement leader, but as a public intellectual and as a statesman. He was a public figure who was as well known in his day as Mandela is today. He also knew the art of speaking to the corporate media. He knew how to speak in soundbites as well.
So the workings of King’s mind through his writings and his speeches and his interviews is no secret. And nowhere is there any evidence in these hundreds of thousands, millions of words, that Dr. King would be anything other than an opponent of this regime, this president, in terms of his domestic policies and his foreign policies.
JAY: Alright. Thanks for joining us, Glen.
FORD: Thank you.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.