The Fire This Time: Martin Luther King, the precariat, and the new civil rights movements on Blog#42

This weekend has been full of symbolism of the times we live in. It started with an ad, posted on the ad board of a local coffee shop, and then stopping at various haunts near a neighborhood we used to live in and seeing the same haggard, harried faces that cropped up at the start of the recession. All still obviously out of work, and probably still homeless.

DogHome

I pondered why this dog owner needs such help. Were they losing their home? What happened to them? I snapped a picture and continued on my errands.

At my next stop, a lady approached me as I was shopping. While I recognized her, I couldn’t place her. So she reminded me she used to work at another Walmart that I shopped at regularly. She’s a former teacher who lost her job at the start of the Great Recession. She was never rehired. She worked at Walmart until five years ago and then moved up to work as a receptionist at a medical spa. She was dismissed from her job there over a year ago after the doctor’s dog bit her ankle for the fifth time and tore her achilles tendon. She was in the middle of chemotherapy. When I asked if she’s suing, she said she can’t because she has a previous workman’s comp claim. She had previously suffered a repetitive motion injury. She was thinner than I remembered and her face far more aged and emaciated.

I ran into one of the couples we lived next door to. I wrote about them around this time last year. They’re still sharing a two-bedroom apartment with another couple and two single friends. Each couple has one toddler. It’s the only way they can afford the rent on their service industry pay.

Readers often email me to tell me their stories. The distance and impersonal nature of the electronic interaction takes the edge off the emotional shock of seeing such human misery. It is encounters like these that make me wish I could write for a real newspaper. I am still sad beyond words to have been pushed away, cast aside and called a white progressive racist. It still stings. It pains me to see another lost generational opportunity in the making; one where, finally, semi-conscious whites join America’s Blacks in exactly as James Baldwin exhorts in the final paragraph of “The Fire Next Time:”

 “And here we are at the center of the arc, trapped in the gaudiest, most valuable, and most improbably water wheel the world has ever seen. Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise. If we–and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on or create, the consciousness of the others– do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, recreated from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!”

People like the woman I met, millions of them, are the progressives who flock to see Bernie Sanders. This new social class, called precariat, fell from three generations of middle class. While they may not be as progressive or as knowledgeable about American history, and the history of race and class in particular, they are more open to joining the struggle of BLM than any other generation of whites. They know they are part of a new permanent underclass and that their kids won’t do better than their generation. They know they won’t see the kind of rebound America saw after the Great Depression.

These progressives are educated and understand the political underpinnings of the new normal. But as educated as they are, they are semi conscious precisely because they are not educated enough. They, their children and their children’s children need Black civil rights movements to awaken and “stay woke.” Our patrimony, including its history, has been kept hidden to keep us separate. These white progressives are precisely the group Martin Luther King would have wanted to reach out to and unite with the nation’s Blacks for a real political revolution. They are ready to be awakened.

Neoliberalism and neoconservatism are exactly what King described in this portion of his speech:

Toward the end of the Reconstruction era, something very significant happened. (Listen to him) That is what was known as the Populist Movement. (Speak, sir) The leaders of this movement began awakening the poor white masses (Yes, sir) and the former Negro slaves to the fact that they were being fleeced by the emerging Bourbon interests. Not only that, but they began uniting the Negro and white masses (Yeah) into a voting bloc that threatened to drive the Bourbon interests from the command posts of political power in the South.

To meet this threat, the southern aristocracy began immediately to engineer this development of a segregated society. (Right) I want you to follow me through here because this is very important to see the roots of racism and the denial of the right to vote. Through their control of mass media, they revised the doctrine of white supremacy. They saturated the thinking of the poor white masses with it, (Yes) thus clouding their minds to the real issue involved in the Populist Movement. They then directed the placement on the books of the South of laws that made it a crime for Negroes and whites to come together as equals at any level. (Yes, sir) And that did it. That crippled and eventually destroyed the Populist Movement of the nineteenth century.

It doesn’t take much imagination to transpose today’s political forces and movements for those of what we think of an age gone by. We know who the neoconservatives are. Who are the neoliberals? Whose interests do they represent? How deep are their commitments to fundamental change? Remember, what we live today is as much a class struggle as it is a fight for racial justice, and all of the players, no exceptions, have some skin in the economic game, whether for personal gain or merely to maintain current status.

I wrote about unity and today’s movements for social and economic justice in my riff on Martin Luther King’s “Three Evils of Society” speech.

Now is the perfect time for today’s rising movements to unite for fundamental change. Let us not waste yet another opportunity for the kind of societal change Martin Luther King worked to realize. Let us reform all of those things that are the root causes of the behaviors and relationships James Baldwin described as America’s relationship with race. Those changes, which may take generations will only start if we stop staring at each other like a prospective couple observing each other across a crowded room, and actually work together identifying, and then tackling the needed change in each and every single one of our institutions.

Let’s stop calling each other names and pushing each other away. My good friend, Matthew, posted the following on his wall the other day. While he wasn’t referring to politics or relations between the races, that’s what it evoked in me:

“I’ve mentioned before how I hate the word “ally” when it comes to civil rights. Unless we’re storming the beaches of Normandy, I’m nobody’s “ally.” I try to do and say what I think is right — I don’t want to be patronized for it with some figurative tin star.”

“Ally,” and “white progressive,” are just shade for pushing me away. Please don’t.


Transcript of Martin Luther King’s speech excerpt:

“Our whole campaign in Alabama has been centered around the right to vote. In focusing the attention of the nation and the world today on the flagrant denial of the right to vote, we are exposing the very origin, the root cause, of racial segregation in the Southland. Racial segregation as a way of life did not come about as a natural result of hatred between the races immediately after the Civil War. There were no laws segregating the races then. And as the noted historian, C. Vann Woodward, in his book, The Strange Career of Jim Crow, clearly points out, the segregation of the races was really a political stratagem employed by the emerging Bourbon interests in the South to keep the southern masses divided and southern labor the cheapest in the land. You see, it was a simple thing to keep the poor white masses working for near-starvation wages in the years that followed the Civil War. Why, if the poor white plantation or mill worker became dissatisfied with his low wages, the plantation or mill owner would merely threaten to fire him and hire former Negro slaves and pay him even less. Thus, the southern wage level was kept almost unbearably low.

Toward the end of the Reconstruction era, something very significant happened. (Listen to him) That is what was known as the Populist Movement. (Speak, sir) The leaders of this movement began awakening the poor white masses (Yes, sir) and the former Negro slaves to the fact that they were being fleeced by the emerging Bourbon interests. Not only that, but they began uniting the Negro and white masses (Yeah) into a voting bloc that threatened to drive the Bourbon interests from the command posts of political power in the South.

To meet this threat, the southern aristocracy began immediately to engineer this development of a segregated society. (Right) I want you to follow me through here because this is very important to see the roots of racism and the denial of the right to vote. Through their control of mass media, they revised the doctrine of white supremacy. They saturated the thinking of the poor white masses with it, (Yes) thus clouding their minds to the real issue involved in the Populist Movement. They then directed the placement on the books of the South of laws that made it a crime for Negroes and whites to come together as equals at any level. (Yes, sir) And that did it. That crippled and eventually destroyed the Populist Movement of the nineteenth century.

If it may be said of the slavery era that the white man took the world and gave the Negro Jesus, then it may be said of the Reconstruction era that the southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow. (Yes, sir) He gave him Jim Crow. (Uh huh) And when his wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide, (Yes, sir) he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than the black man. (Right sir) And he ate Jim Crow. (Uh huh) And when his undernourished children cried out for the necessities that his low wages could not provide, he showed them the Jim Crow signs on the buses and in the stores, on the streets and in the public buildings. (Yes, sir) And his children, too, learned to feed upon Jim Crow, (Speak) their last outpost of psychological oblivion. (Yes, sir)

Thus, the threat of the free exercise of the ballot by the Negro and the white masses alike (Uh huh) resulted in the establishment of a segregated society. They segregated southern money from the poor whites; they segregated southern mores from the rich whites; (Yes, sir) they segregated southern churches from Christianity (Yes, sir); they segregated southern minds from honest thinking; (Yes, sir) and they segregated the Negro from everything. (Yes, sir) That’s what happened when the Negro and white masses of the South threatened to unite and build a great society: a society of justice where none would pray upon the weakness of others; a society of plenty where greed and poverty would be done away; a society of brotherhood where every man would respect the dignity and worth of human personality.” (mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/enc…_selma_march/)

  • brunssd

    Brava!

  • Lallen56

    Beautifully expressed. Thank you. We do need another populist movement right now. I hope Bernie can keep the momentum going. Thank you for your contribution, too. I believe that one voice can make a difference.

    • Thank you so much!

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  • Glenn Jerome

    I’ve heard the complaint at length about the use of the word “ally” and I don’t get it. It sort of reminds me of the how one of my friends told me they felt odd when they’re the only white person when they would hang out in S.W. Atlanta. I told him to get over it. I have to deal with that all the time when I’m the only black person at gatherings we attend. That’s kind of how interpret these rants about “ally.” As an African American I’m often in situations where I’m the only Black person and it doesn’t bother me at all if they’re decent people. I believe if you’re not used to being around people from different cultures it’s going to show up in your affect. To blame other for the use of word that denotes “solidarity” with connotations of personal victimization or rejection by African Americans is specious to me. I understand the sentiment but it’s something we all have to work through to work together. We are Different but Equal http://bit.ly/1Tv2l2j