Saturday, April 05, 2008

The King assassination: the aftermath

Martin Luther King, Jr. with, uh, Malcolm X: how we will explain this to Bobo?

The endless fount of Republican hackery that we know as Big Pundit David "Bobo" Brooks gives us a good white Republican conservative's view of Martin Luther King, Jr., in his column The View From Room 306 New York Times 04/04/08:

Progress has been slow. Nearly a third of American high school students don’t graduate (half in the cities). Seventy percent of African-American kids are born out of wedlock. Poverty rates in Memphis have scarcely dropped.

Martin Luther King Jr. at least left behind a model of how to repair the social fabric. He was scholarly, formal, assertive and meticulously self-controlled in public. If Barack Obama’s presidential campaign represents anything, it is the triumph of King’s early-60s style of activism over the angry and reckless late-60s style. King was in crisis when he was gunned down. But his inspiration is outlasting his critics. (my emphasis)
Martin was one of those good Negroes, you see, not one of the bad scary ones. At least in Bobo's World, where Dick Cheney and George Bush count as responsible statesmen, though perhaps misled on those WMDs by the CIA and Hillary Clinton. How happy Bobo must be to have encountered, at least in the history books, an example of a black person who's "meticulously self-controlled in public". Unlike the funky brothers Bobo normally hangs with, I'm sure.

Good Lord! Have we really sunk to the level that crap like this from Bobo is taken seriously by literate human beings?

What do Republican "culture warriors" picture when they think of the "bad" kind? Before giving an example, I should mention that the Bobos of 1968 thought King was a kind of cross between Ho Chi Minh, Mao Zedong and Patrice Lumumba. They hated and feared him. Really, really hated and feared him.

The truth is that many white Americans, both conservative and liberal, failed to understand the depth of anger and alienation (a popular word in those days) among so many African-Americans in those days. David Brooks won't tell it like this. But it's worth it for the reality-based community to recall the immediate aftermath of King's assassination 40 years ago.

The Vietnam War had reached a major crisis point in 1968, when the Tet Offensive ripped the mask off the happy-talk from the Johnson administration and the infallible generals of the day about how great the war in Vietnam was going for the US and its allies. King himself had come out forcefully in opposition to the Vietnam War, and didn't draw back from pointing to the racial elements in American behavior toward Vietnam. Many Americans saw a very close connection between racial injustice in the US and the Vietnam War, more so than most accounts today give any hint of it having been.

In Vietnam and America: A Documented History (1985), Marvin Gettleman and his fellow editors give the following account of the period following King's murder on April 4, 1968:

The nationawide reaction to the murder of Dr. King in some ways rivaled the Tet Offensive, to which it bore similarities by no means purely conincidental. Between April 4 and April 11, 1968, rebellions broke out in 125 US cities and towns.

A month prior to the uprisings, worried decision-makers in the Pentagon and the White House had contemplated the possibile effects of their giving in to [Vietnam commanding general William] Westmoreland's demand for 206,000 additional troops: "We will have to mobilize reserves, increase our budget by billions. ... Our balance of payments will be worsened considerably, and we will need a larger tax increase. ..." They saw the consequent "growing unrest in the cities" posing "greate risks of provoking a domestic crisis of unprecedented proportions." (The Pentagon Papers, Gravel edition, vol. 4, p. 564) They expressed their anxiety about retaining both the financial and military "resources for the ghetto fight." (Ibid., p. 583)

The uprisings of early April realized their worst fears. In that cataclysmic week, 55,000 troops had to be mobilized alongside tens of thousands of police. Television viewers around the world saw Washington itself defended by federal combat troops, while columns of smoke from burning buildings towered above the Capitol. On April 11 came the biggest call-up of the reserves during the Vietnam War. (my emphasis)
Lyndon Johnson had resisted calling up the reserves for the Vietnam War because he didn't want to set off intense war fever in the country. (A very, very different approach than the Cheney-Rove-Bush-Ashcroft approach of all fear, all the time, as a conscious political strategy.) But the reserves had to be called up for this unprecedented wave of urban disorders, the likes of which have not been seen in the United States before or since. It's also important to remember that the generals were very upset about Johnson's refusal to call up the reserves because it forced them to rely on unwilling draftees much more than they would have preferred.

The account continues:

No sooner had the black rebellions been put down than the campuses eruptped. Between April 23 and May 6, militant protest demonstrations swept public and private universities and colleges across the country. Large numbers of police battled students even at such elite universities as Stanford and Columbia, while campus activists incresinly linked the antiwar movement to the struggles of black people, GIs, and those parts of the working class suffering the gravest economic consequences of the war.
Bruce Franklin, who was also one of the editors of Vietnam and America, wrote in his book Vietnam and Other American Fantasies (2000) about the effect of King's assassination and its aftermath on the most militant activists:

Even before the Tet offensive, much of the African American movement and parts of the antiwar movement had understood that the domestic conflagrations were fueled by the war and that they consumed the foundations of the government's ability to wage the war. As early as 1965 and 1966, key organizations in the African American movement were equating the war against the Vietnamese with the oppression of African Americans, and King's April 1967 speech at a huge antiwar rally in New York explained the inseparable fates of the two struggles. The Tet offensive then served as an inspiration to the most militant sectors of the African American movement, showing that revolutionary people of color could defeat the common enemy. For example, the March 16, 1968, issue of The Black Panther sandwiched a long article on the Tet offensive, titled "Ocean of People's War Engulfs South Viet Nam Cities and Villages Alike," between calls for armed black self-defense and this quotation from Huey Newton: "20,000,000 unarmed black people is one thing; but 20,000,000 black people armed to the gills cannot be denied." The next month brought those huge rebellions that followed King's assassination.
I'm not quoting things like this to give credence to the paranoia of the "culture warriors", which was extreme as it was in 1968 and has festered now for 40 years. The point is that stuff like this really happened. Huey Newton and the Black Panther Party never put 20 million together into a partisan militia, of course. But the anger and frustration to which he spoke were real.

And while Martin Luther King wasn't at all interested in helping Huey Newton to become the Muqtada al-Sadr of urban America in 1968, he was very much aware of the feelings in the black community across the country. And he was on the side of angry and alienated black people. David Brooks' toothless version of King as a mythical character who wouldn't ruffle the feathers of a Rush Limbaugh is about as ahistorical as any other piece of bogus history today's Republicans peddle. When the Bobos of our day try to make King sound like a Clarence Thomas, they're lying in your faces.

But I'm sure Bobo would just as soon we forget about the effects of the 1968 domestic movements on the culture warriors iconic conflict, the Vietnam War. As Franklin relates:

In late 1967 and early 1968, while the predominantly white organized antiwar movement saw itself moving from protest to resistance, its press was already seeking paths that would unite it in practical actions with the African American rebellions. Liberation News Service gave national circulation to an article from the East Village Other that lambasted the "middle class peace movement" for failing to recognize "its obligation to linkup" with "the black revolution." Ridiculing the common complaint among organizers of mass marches that "the blacks refuse to come into the peace movement," the article argued that the rioters had been doing "more all along to stop the war than the whole white middle class antiwar movement put together," that, in fact, "they are the antiwar movement."
Yes, there were enormous amounts of wishful thinking, foolishness and hustling going on in the name of "revolutionary" politics in those days.

But in 1968, with actual violent rebellion in 125 cities following by pitched battles on university campuses, you didn't have to be a romantic radical or a frightened conservative to wonder if "revolution" might be an appropriate word to describe what was beginning to happen.

By the end of 1968, Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew had been elected and they were carry forward the process of transforming the Party of Lincoln and Frederick Douglass into the Party of Tom DeLay and Strom Thurmond.

But that wasn't be any means the whole story of politics that year. Not even close.

Getting back to Bobo, his comment, "Progress has been slow", is perfect stodgy conservatism. Yes, "progress has been slow". Because those seeking the kinds of progress Martin Luther King was seeking have had to fight the Republican Party for which Bobo is a loyal mouthpiece ever since 1968! Yes, it's true. "Progress has been slow."

Bobo pretends not to notice who has been fighting that kind of progress. Instead, it was those bad people from the dreadful 60s who are to blame:

In both the white and black communities, the forces of order and reform vied with the forces of hatred and anarchy. The latter grabbed the upper hand. ...

... King walked out onto the balcony and the forces that were swirling outside intervened. James Earl Ray’s bullet sliced the knot of his tie. Riots commenced, and in the ensuing years, crime rates skyrocketed, cities decayed and the social fabric was torn. Dreams of economic opportunity and racial integration were swallowed up by the antinomian passions and social disorder. (my emphasis)
You see, it was those bad Negroes who are to blame for the slow progress. If they had just been nice and pleasant like Clarence Thomas and asked respectfully for their betters to help them out, we wouldn't have had all these problems we've had for years, as Trent Lott famously observed at Republican Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party.

No, it hasn't been characters like Dick Cheney, or Karl Rove, or Newt Gingrich who have caused that progress to be so slow. Oh, no, they didn't have anything to do with it. And, anyway, if black people aren't burning their neighborhoods down, they must be pretty happy with how things are, huh? It was the "antinomian passions" (whatever the heck those are) of disorderly black folks and scruffy white hippie dope-smokers who were the problem.

See how that works?

But just remember, Bobo is one of the nice, respectable, urbane, clean-shaven Republicans. We'll be hearing a lot from the other types between now and the November election.

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