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Should Obama have been a speaker at the March on Washington 50th Anniversary?

Posted on August 31st, 2013 in History,War by Robert Miller
Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr.

I was very ambivalent about seeing Obama as a speaker for the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington. He seemed a bit  uncomfortable, as if he felt eerily out of place, like he wore a suit that didn’t quite fit the occasion.  On the one hand, it was so right for him to speak because he, more than any other President before him, benefited from all the work that black leaders did, particularly Martin Luther King Jr (but also many others, including Malcolm X), to end the Jim Crow era of the post-Civil War enslavement of blacks in America. But what was not right about his position as a speaker was the fact that while he stood there at the podium, he was contemplating war against Syria and doing so without approval from the United Nations, as if he was heading a kind of rogue state, based on completely artificial, ad hoc explanations as to why we should punish Syria (the deadly gas that was used against Syrians could be captured and one day be used against Americans: if this is a problem, why not ban the production of these poisonous gases entirely?).

Obama  was shocked to learn that Great Britain would not be an ally in his pursuit of war on Syria and that must have been something of a rude awakening because Britain has for the most part been an American sycophant for our risky foreign adventures and invasions. Many British citizens still cringe when viewing their former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, sitting next to GW Bush, looking like a lapdog in heat.

The war against Syria is a bad idea and Obama’s presence at the anniversary raised a troubling juxtaposition of Obama the warrior and Martin Luther King the non-violent peacemaker. That is because Martin Luther King Jr was in the tradition of Mahatma Gandhi, as he advocated resolution of conflict through peaceful means and he approached the civil rights movement through non-violent, civil disobedience as a way of obtaining change and civil justice. But in many ways, King had greater insight than Gandhi, if only because he was living through a modern horror of warfare—the Vietnam War in which we used cancer-causing agents (agent orange) to defoliate the jungles of Vietnam and killed more than 2 million peasant farmers through our indiscriminate, saturation bombing.

Through his contemplative manner, King migrated to a position in which he felt that even war to produce a good negative was unnecessary and should be avoided at all costs. You might say that WW II was a “good negative” because it checked the evils of Hitler and fascism. But King would argue that if the close of WW I was accompanied by a “good peace,” without the onerous penalties imposed on Germany (as John Maynard Keynes had strongly advised against), that Hitler would never have come to power. Peaceful solutions will create peaceful resolutions of conflict.

Juan Cole has a thoughtful summary of King’s attitude about war: “In his Christmas Sermon, December 24, 1967, [Martin Luther] King made this point:

And the leaders of the world today talk eloquently about peace. Every time we drop our bombs in North Vietnam, President Johnson talks eloquently about peace.

What is the problem?

They are talking about peace as a distant goal, as an end we seek, but one day we must come to see that peace is not merely a distant goal we seek, but that it is a means by which we arrive at that goal.

We must pursue peaceful ends through peaceful means.All of this is saying that, in the final analysis, means and ends must cohere because the end is preexistent in the means, and ultimately destructive means cannot bring about constructive ends.’”

King saw the destruction of war, especially in its modern iteration and realized that with such horrific destructive capacity now in the hands of those who pursue war as a vocation, even if war achieved a negative good, such as preventing an aggressive tyrant from taking root, that achievement with modern warfare techniques would only generate a new wave of destruction and violence. We have only to look at the aftermath of our invasion of Iraq to know how true this is: how many died because of our invasion and how many lost meaningful lives? Before we invaded Iraq there were no car bombs exploded in Baghdad. Our invasion simply converted a Sunni state into a Shiite state with Iran as the more powerful victor from our efforts.




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Martin Luther King Jr meets Coleman Young and they talk about Detroit

Posted on August 28th, 2013 in History by Robert Miller
Plaque at Lincoln Memorial where Martin Luther King gave his "I have a Dream" speech on August 28, 1963

Plaque at Lincoln Memorial where Martin Luther King gave his “I have a Dream” speech on August 28, 1963

Today is the fifty year anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech he gave in front of the Lincoln Memorial at the apex of the March on Washington. His speech helped galvanize a movement that culminated in the passage of civil rights and voter rights legislation two years later. He did not intend to give the “dream version” until singer Mahalia Jackson shouted at the beginning of his speech “Tell ’em about the ‘Dream,’ Martin, tell ’em about the ‘Dream.’” The “Dream” remarks he had made earlier, as components of prior speeches. Stirred by Jackson’s intonation, Martin transitioned to give his famous dream speech, one of the most enduring aspects of his legacy. Even Martin’s critics on that day had to admit that his speech painted a vision that conveyed a sense of the possible, a sense that we were all closer to his vision than we thought. His lifelong mission for black America went beyond civil rights issues and included the economic plight of blacks in America. For King, peaceful, non-violent, civil disobedience was a tool to use for improvement in the lives of those who were invisible within the American culture. He was critical enough of America that he captured the attention of the FBI who investigated him for a good part of his life once he became well-known. Of course the FBI suspected him of being a Communist and justified their pursuit of him based on that theory. King’s trip to Memphis, where he was assassinated in 1968, was to support striking African American sanitation workers. He was also an effective critic of our involvement in the Vietnam War, and saw the conflict as another example of racial injustice.

Martin Luther King at March on Washington, August 28, 1963

Martin Luther King at March on Washington, August 28, 1963

If he were alive today, Martin Luther King Jr would very likely have more to talk about than he did during his short lifetime (he was 40 years old when he was assassinated). He would certainly be asking how many of the achievements he helped to accomplish had been chipped away by the Supreme Court, especially their most recent decision to whittle away at the Voter Rights Act of 1965, based on very specious reasoning. He would also have a lot to say about neoliberalism in America and how it has snuffed out progress on workers wages, as well as the complete indifference of this toxic economic system to the well-being of nation states. If anything, the bottom wrungs of our wealth distribution ladder have opened up to accept those falling out of the middle class, while compensation at the top continues to grow at an astonishing pace. He would talk about the overloading of our prison system with black inmates and how the drug laws in America had created another form of black enslavement: that leviathan has yet to drop its shoe on us. The financialization of America would be a suitable topic for King and we could certainly use his help in articulating the forces that prevent us from addressing our most pressing problems, like climate change. King was not a man of singular purpose and action: he addressed the full spectrum of racism in America and saw its pervasive impact on the people he cared most about.

There are many obvious issues in our culture today that would be suitable fodder for Martin Luther King’s oratorical skills; he had a broad moral compass and with black unemployment today at more than 13 percent, he would certainly be questioning the priorities of the current President: what has Obama done for those that elected him? But in my opinion, one of the areas that would receive his attention is Detroit—the dystopian American city. What’s happening in Detroit should alarm every American, because we all participated in creating the Detroit we see today—it was a national movement that began in the early days of the Cold War.

Coleman Young Mayor of Detroit from 1974 to 1994

Coleman Young Mayor of Detroit from 1974 to 1994

At the dawn of WW II, the population of Detroit was largely white, but the development of our wartime  economy and the increased wartime production in the city, led to a huge infusion of black workers who came from the South, seeking employment and improvements in their living conditions. In June 1941, FDR signed Executive Order 8802 to prevent job discrimination within defense contractors as a concession to black leaders who threatened a “March on Washington” if things weren’t done to improve the lot of migrant black workers (unfortunately he did not provide much in the way of enforcement funds, so the order was more symbolic than real). Detroit was once the fourth largest city in America, but today the image one has of the city is that of a failed dystopian, American relic.

The proportion of blacks now living in Detroit is about 83 percent and Detroit currently faces chapter 9 bankruptcy as a solution to the city’s insolvency, a condition that has not happened to any American city the size of Detroit in our entire history. Martin Luther King Jr would be asking today if the city were 83 percent white, would there not be greater support from the state of Michigan and the Federal government to prevent bankruptcy laws from determining the future of the city and denying black workers their pension rights? He would be right of course, that if the city was 83 percent white, it would face an entirely different future with state and Federal support to minimize the impact of the city’s economic collapse. Why doesn’t Obama see this and react accordingly? Go figure!

We committed $60 billion to repair damages from Hurricane Sandy last year, but we will not spend a dime to help Detroit in its darkest hour. The Detroit debt is estimated to be $18 to 20 billion. Detroit is all the more problematic for us because we as a nation helped to seal the fate of Detroit through policies that go back to the beginning of the Cold War. Detroit’s total population in 1950 reached 1,850,000 as the African American community more than doubled from its representation in 1930 at 120,000 to 300,000. At that time, most of the workers belonged to a union: by 1945 the CIO had 350,000 members while the AFL had 100,000.

With the infusion of blacks into the workforce of Detroit, racial tensions escalated and a race-riot took place in 1943, in Belle Isle, where a hundred thousand blacks and whites packed into a popular park on a hot summer day. Fights broke out, looting took place and by the time the riot ended thirty-four people had been killed, twenty-five of whom were blacks and more than 1800 has been arrested.

As the Cold War began to take hold and the Communist scare achieved its most outrageous level of public, paranoid hysteria, the white establishment of Detroit found a way to link black progressivism with Communism and one could argue that the Cold War actually began in Detroit where racial overtones and red-baiting made it impossible to discuss race without invoking the idea that those who brought the issue up must be “fellow travelers”, i.e. Communists. Thus one of the ways that blacks were denied a more vigorous thrust into American culture after the war was the linkage that allowed racism to continue because black leaders were “spreading Communism,” especially in Detroit. At one time Detroit had the third largest Communist party membership of any city in America, simply because there were many workers in that city who experienced the pain of the depression and wondered whether another system might serve their interests much better.  As WW II began to wind down, people began to fear communism in the lead up to McCarthyism in the 1950s. Many workers thought that labor gains had taken too big a bite out of the American economy and the notion of being free from the tyranny of big government and the New Deal began to take root as the conservatives and libertarians began to articulate a more cohesive set of objectives and complaints about too much government control. This movement would eventually destroy the New Deal with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. But the election of 1948 in which Henry Wallace ran against Harry Truman as a third party candidate, separated the “liberals” from the “progressives,” which eventually destroyed the New Deal and got us instead the Korean and Vietnam wars.

There were very few heroes in the dark days leading up to McCarthyism, but one of them was Coleman Young, a black activist who would eventually become the mayor of Detroit (1974-1994). Coleman was an activist who came from the left. He was the executive secretary of the leftist National Negro Labor Council (NNLC). At a time when many leaders were cowering and confused about how to address the onslaught of the red-scare, Coleman appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), which came to Detroit in 1952 to investigate Communism in the defense industries. It was common in those days to see the many witnesses who appeared before that committee shrink before the harsh lights and hostile questioning. But Coleman Young attacked the committee for targeting local black leaders and being led by a segregationist. He castigated HUAC chairman John Wood (from Georgia) for his bigoted pronunciation of the word “Negro” and forced Wood to apologize. Coleman aggressively said “in Georgia Negro people are prevented from voting by virtue of terror, intimidation and lynchings. It is my contention that you would not be in Congress today if it were not for the legal restrictions on voting on the part of my people.” When asked if he would serve in the armed forces if the Soviets were to attack the United States, Young replied that he had “fought in the last war and I would unhesitatingly take up arms against anybody that attacks this country (Young had served in the now prestigious Tuskegee Airman during WW II, when the armed forces were still segregated). In the same manner I am now in the process of fighting discrimination against my people. I am fighting against un-American activities such as lynchings and denial of the vote. I am dedicated to that fight and I don’t think I have to apologize or explain it to anybody.”

Young’s defiant statement made him a hero in Detroit, as he said “I felt like Joe Louis home from a title fight.” “People called out my name as I walked down the street and small crowds gathered when I stopped.” But despite Coleman’s heroics, the march against identifying Communists in labor unions continued. By the time Coleman spoke out, the hostility and deep suspicions about labor leaders and labor unions had created enough tension and fear that no paper, whether pro-black or otherwise printed his remarks for fear of a backlash and being listed as a “fellow traveler.” Things only got worse for Detroit because our own government began allowing imports of Japanese cars to compete against those manufactured in Detroit to put downward pressure on the power of labor unions. The strategy worked, but one can only wonder if the Japanese and Koreans realize how much they benefited because American officials wanted to crush labor unions, which has happened all over the country. But the state of Michigan, which recently adopted laws that make it a right to work state did so against the greatest labor force in the history of the United States.


The quotation from Coleman Young was from an article by Martin Halpern in the Journal of American Ethnic History, 1997, 17(I): 29-30

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A thought for today

Posted on August 26th, 2013 in Climage Change,General,Politics by Robert Miller

Ernest Callenbach “Ectopia”

I recommend reading the TomDispatch for today. It is the final written contribution from Ernest Callenbach, author of “Ectopia.”  The article, entitled “Epistle to the Ecotopians” was found on Callenbach’s computer after he died in 2012. It is written by someone who lived through the best and worst years of our fading empire and summarizes his lifelong experiences as a writer with a vision about the future we have carved out for ourselves if we continue on the same course, with the same forces in control of our destiny.  Admittedly, it is not a pretty picture of our future, but it is surely one that will come about if we do nothing to change the trajectory of the cultural glide-path we are currently on, which can only change if better planetary stewards are put in charge of our economy and our global future. At what point do we depopulate our cities and retreat from coastal regions that will be threatened by the rising sea waters? At what point do we need to become skilled at providing and growing food for ourselves as agribusiness begins to fail because of drought and monoculture growing? These are the things that Callenbach discusses in the last article he wrote before he died.


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