Dreams and Recurring Nightmares – 50 years after Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ Speech

Professor Gus John

 We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

These famous words, the second sentence of the American Declaration of Independence on 4th July 1776, were the cornerstone of Dr Martin Luther King’s speech on 28 August 1963. That speech is rarely remembered in its entirety and consequently over time the last part which is most frequently quoted has come to represent a rallying cry for black and white integration rather than a ‘call to arms’ in the struggle for equal rights and justice.

Why is that important and what is its relevance for Britain?

It is important because while desegregation was high on the political and social agenda of the civil rights movement, it is the denial of access to opportunities for self advancement and to justice under the law for ‘coloured Americans’ that segregation represented that so preoccupied King. Racial segregation was, after all, imprisonment with hard labour in what that great novelist of the African Diaspora, George Lamming, described as ‘the castle of my skin’. And while racial segregation has never been stated policy and state-sanctioned practice in Britain, the ethnic penalty that is carried by descendants of enslaved Africans in the British Isles is nevertheless a benign form of racial segregation within a nation state with a veneer of ‘tolerance, fairness and justice’.

The first paragraph of the Independence Declaration reads:

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

Leaving to one side for a moment ‘the separate and equal station’ issue which was so conveniently usurped and manipulated by the architects of apartheid, the 13 states of the Federation that had broken the shackles of the British King, George III, wanted to make clear to the world chapter and verse of the oppressiveness of the regime that they had to overthrow in order to win their freedom.

After affirming that ‘we hold these truths to be evident.., the Declaration goes on to say:

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

In November 1863, at the Dedication of the Cemetery at Gettysburg to the fallen dead in the war of independence, Abraham Lincoln paid tribute to the sacrifice of those who laid down their lives defending the political and moral principles enshrined in the independence declaration and implored the nation to embrace their legacy and fulfil the American Dream:

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us —- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

The significance of King’s speech is that against the background of a powerful civil rights movement that had gained momentum as a result of collective action on a number of fronts, he was holding a mirror to the United States government, reminding them of the independence declaration, reminding them of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg speech and holding them and the entire nation to account for the continuing structural and systemic denial to people of colour of equal rights and justice. Congress had done the same in 1776, saying of George III:

The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

The declaration goes on to list no less than 26 ‘Facts’ as evidence of the oppression of the British Crown and justification for removing themselves from the ‘tyranny’ of George III in order to ‘effect their safety and happiness’.

That is why the first part of King’s speech is so very important.  King started by reminding the 250,000 people gathered in Washington as to what brought them there:

One hundred years (after Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address), the coloured American lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the coloured American is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition. We have also come to his hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is not time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy.

So, how are ‘people of colour’ living the American Dream 50 years after King’s Washington speech?

Desegregation has been achieved ‘de facto’ and ‘de jure’ in most American states. Civil rights legislation, equal employment opportunity legislation and laws governing access to accommodation and to voting rights have all had a major impact on the material conditions of ‘people of colour’ in the USA. However, desegregation has also been accompanied by processes of incorporation and assimilation.

There are now people of colour in all walks of life in the USA.  Indeed, on 4 November 2008, forty five years after the march on Washington, a similar number of people as were on that march gathered at Grant Park in Chicago to hear President Obama, an African-American, deliver his victory speech on becoming the 44th President of the United States. There are African-American representatives in the Senate and in Congress and a growing number of black governors across the Federation; there are African-American staff and students in all the Ivy League universities and across the tertiary education sector in the United States; there is an impressive body of African-Americans in corporate America.

But, that level of change and transformation in the last 50 years has taken place in the same country where James Byrd Jr was lynched by whites in Texas, not in the manner of ‘strange fruit hanging from southern trees’, but by having his ankles tied and being dragged behind a pick-up truck for three miles along an asphalt road, becoming decapitated and losing his right arm in the process of his ordeal. In fact, among the Acts Barack Obama signed into law in the first year of his Presidency was the federal Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr Hate Crimes Prevention Act (28 October 2009). It is the same country where, like Britain, African heritage young people carry an ethnic penalty whereby, in the words of King, ‘our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity’ in the schooling system, at the hands of the police, in the service of drug lords, as pawns of decadent, money-grabbing and exploitative popular culture; where African heritage males continue to be over-represented in the prison population and among young people with mental health needs. The same country where Obama’s health reforms were stubbornly resisted, including by African-Americans who have no problems buying health insurance and who ever eager to condemn those colored persons whose ‘basic mobility’, to quote King again, ‘is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one’.

I need not labour the point. Suffice it to say that despite King’s dream, the American state, its domestic policy and its systems, institutions and apparatuses under an African heritage President 50 years later sustains the oppression, the institutional denial of opportunity and the marginalisation of huge sections of African-America…, and that is even before one begins to address all of those complex foreign policy issues, not least the USA’s relationship with Cuba, with Haiti and with Africa and its Global Diaspora, policies and practices which themselves fly in the face of the letter and spirit of the US Independence Declaration and Constitution.

King’s words placed against the wider canvass of American foreign policy, let alone its domestic policy, are as applicable now as they were 50 years ago:

No, we are not satisfied and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

So, what is the relevance of all this to Britain?

King’s Washington Speech had an electrifying effect upon the fledgling civil rights/anti-discrimination movement in Britain.  A number of organisations and individuals within Britain’s African-Caribbean, Indian and Pakistani communities, including workers organisations that were independent of the trade unions, as well as other libertarian and church-based organisations had been active in promoting race equality and against racist immigration laws, oppressive policing and discrimination in housing, employment and the supply of goods and services.

On his way to Stockholm to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, King was invited by Marion Glean, an African-Caribbean Quaker and Peace News writer, to stop off in London and address a gathering of such organisations and individuals. That meeting led to the formation of the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination (CARD), a campaign which involved African-Caribbean, Indian, Pakistani and white British people, the latter mainly belonging to the Labour and Liberal parties.

CARD systematically collected evidence of racial discrimination in employment, in housing, rented and hotel accommodation, in the provision of goods and services and presented that evidence to influential people in the political parties, Labour especially, in order to get ant-discrimination laws passed in Parliament. Within CARD, however, were those who felt that the organisation was encouraging the Labour Party to feel it was entitled to ‘the Black Vote’ and could rest assured of the loyalty of the black electorate, come what may, while that same Labour Party was speaking with a forked tongue and passing draconian anti-black immigration legislation even as it preached ‘tolerance’ and ‘integration’.  ‘Race relations’ was wedded to ‘immigration’ and a concern to promote and sustain good race relations between ‘immigrants already here’ and the ‘host’ population was posited as a key justification for immigration control, once such control was targeted at black immigrants and not ‘our kith and kin’ from Australia, New Zealand, Rhodesia/Zimbabwe and South Africa.

The issue of whether racial equality and social justice was to be attained by black people inserting themselves within the apparatuses of the State and even becoming members of parliament and lords, irrespective of what the state continued to do through its legislation and its policies and practices, or whether the black population needed to organise itself independently, identify and deal with its internal contradictions (of class, caste, gender and the distribution of power, wealth, education and social and cultural capital) and empower itself to hold systems and institutions to account was the source of not just debate but schisms and fracturing within CARD that led in the end to the collapse of the organisation.

In the ensuing decades, one saw the emergence of Black Sections within the Labour Party and the various trade unions, black staff networks in the Home Office, Police, Crown Prosecution Service, Probation Service, Department of Work and Pensions and elsewhere in the institutions of state.

As members of the National Black Police Association, the Crown Prosecution Service, the Probation Service, the Network (Home Office) and other such black staff networks will tell you, the existence of such networks has hardly cushioned the blows meted out by institutionally racist practices and through the individual acts of managers who have no competence in dealing with the discrimination that runs within the very sinews of the organisation and remains an ever so benign part of its cultural fabric.

In 1963, Paul Stephenson, Roy Hackett, Owen Henry, Audley Evans and Prince Brown, led a boycott of the Bristol Omnibus Company which had refused to employ African or Asian heritage workers as bus crew. Led by Paul Stephenson, the boycott lasted four months and was widely supported by the African, Asian and white community in Bristol, college and university students included. The bus company backed down under growing pressure even though the legislation outlawing such discrimination came only two years later in 1965. There was much to exchange with Dr Martin Luther King during his visit in 1964.

Much has changed since then, undoubtedly. But, the central issue CARD grappled with and that led to the atomisation of that brief combined struggle against racial discrimination and for racial equality and social justice remains. Given the persistent failure of the state and its party structure to tackle many of the injustices and the structural displacement of African and Asian heritage people from opportunity and from the benefits in civil society which the rest of the population take for granted; given the ease with which the state, irrespective of the political party in power, seizes upon events such as 9/11 to curtail the freedom of movement of thousands of ordinary British citizens under the guise of preventing terrorism; given the treatment to which that section of the population that has systematically been rendered ‘surplus to requirements’, i.e, African heritage young people, is subjected year on year (school exclusion, low attainment, compromised life chances, police ‘Stops and Searches’, early criminalisation and imprisonment, labelling and marginalisation, high unemployment), the question remains as to whether ‘inclusion’ within these state systems is ever a substitute for the self-organisation and self empowerment of the masses of the population that is perennially failed by those same systems.

There is a growing African and Asian middle class in Britain as in the post-civil rights United States. That middle class is increasingly buying access into the schooling and education system at a level it believes will equip its young with the qualifications and the cultural and social capital with which to compete in what they hope will be a ‘level playing field’. But, that middle class is also increasingly sceptical of the reasons for the persistence of the injustices faced by the ethnic group of which they are a part and of the need for independent, self-organised, collective, action. They therefore embrace willingly what the state itself valorises as evidence of openness and equality of opportunity, i.e., privatised and individualistic solutions to public ills.

Martin Luther King in 1963 harboured a dream of a brighter future for a historically oppressed people. It is what they collectively did in resistance and in building a movement for well over a century before his speech that impelled 250,000 to march on Washington and send the most powerful of messages to the US administration in its very seat of power.

If his ‘I have a dream’ speech is to mean anything to us today, it must make us ask ourselves:  what concept we have of a ‘black community’ in Britain?  What is its condition? How have the political parties contributed to that condition or to the betterment of it? What have we done for ourselves these last 50 years?  How have we measured our advances and the reasons for our defeats?  What tools for analysis, for understanding and for action have we enabled our children to adopt?  Where are they going?  What would get them there?  What vision of the society do they have for themselves and for their children? What must they do and whom must they work with in order to share that vision and make it a reality?

It is only in that way we avoid making King and his famous speech into fossilised icons, to be dusted off and contemplated on major anniversaries such as this one, or during ‘Black History Month’, before it is put back into its box to await scrutiny in another decade or quarter century.  This, surely, is the stuff that generates recurring nightmares.

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