Martin Luther King’s legacy

Well a spectacular win in South Carolina on Saturday for Barack Obama.. In his victory speech, Mr Obama called on his supporters to overcome racial divisions and work for what he called the politics of shared prosperity. Throughout his campaign Obama has reached for the legacy of Martin Luther King to the call for change. Martin Luther King had a dream.. 40+ years on is Barack Obama the realisation of that dream?

Not according to Jonathan Farley. He’s a former Martin Luther King Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He argues that to liken Barack Obama to Martin Luther King does him no favours because King, like the civil rights movement failed African Americans. In a recent article in the Guardian newspaper, Dr Farley wrote that “King built nothing, and taught us only how to take a beating’ He adds ’A Black King did not redeem us. And neither will a black president.’

Jonathan Farley is a guest on today’s programme and happy to debate his views with you all. If you want to come on post a comment here on the blog and well get back to you or email the programme at worldhaveyoursay@bbc.co.uk

 Dr Farley has given us permission to republish his article which you’ll see at the bottom of this post. Meanwhile here are some other stories that caught my eye this morning.

There’ve been more clashes in Kenya’s Rift Valley, where inter-communal fighting has been raging for the past five days. What will it take to stop the violence?

Police in India have put airports throughout the country on alert to stop the departure of a doctor alleged to be involved in an illegal organ trading scheme. Trade in human organs is banned in India, but many people are still selling their kidneys to wealthy Indians and international visitors desperate for a transplant. (They are allegedly paid up to two-and-a-half-thousand dollars.) Would you sell an organ if you were desperate for money?

And the cult of the rogue trader.. “Jerome Kerviel should be awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics” and “Jerome Kerviel FanClub” are the names of two of the seven Facebook groups dedicated to the 31-year-old that Societe Generale bank says lost it a fortune. When do anti-heroes become heroes?

Iran has warned of what it calls serious consequences if the United Nations Security Council goes ahead with a new resolution toughening sanctions on Iran over its nuclear programme. Do check out Akbar’s post on this blog https://worldhaveyoursay.wordpress.com/2008/01/22/god-help-us-if-a-third-round-of-sanctions-is-imposed/

Now here’s that article from Jonathan Farley:
To liken Barack Obama to Martin Luther King does him no favours.

As America prepares to celebrate Martin Luther King Day next week, black presidential candidate Barack Obama stands in a strong position to become the country’s 44th president. Some view Obama’s remarkable popularity as the realisation of King’s dream, the final victory of the civil rights movement. Others view it, their respect for Obama notwithstanding, as a testament to its remarkable failure.

Both the aims and the character of the civil rights movement were flawed. One aim was clearly desegregration. But the movement should never have been about integration. It should have been about demanding the respect that is due to free human beings; about ending the physical, spiritual and economic violence that had been perpetrated against African-Americans since the end of the American civil war. What’s the value in begging for the right to spend money in a store owned by a racist who would rather kill you than serve you?

Lest we forget, integration was the death knell for black teachers and principals. Thousands lost their jobs. “The movement” moved us from the back of the bus into the unemployment line.Almost 40 years after King’s death, we still haven’t reached the promised land. King lamented that, in 1963, only 9% of black students attended integrated schools. But, to give just one example, Atlanta’s Grove Park elementary school is now 99.99% black.

King complains in Why We Can’t Wait that “there were two and one-half times as many jobless Negroes as whites in 1963, and their median income was half that of the white man”. Black median income in 2003 was 62% that of whites, and the black unemployment rate in 2004 was 10.8%, 2.3 times the white rate. The numbers have barely changed.

Following Mahatma Gandhi, the chief characteristic of the civil rights movement was non-violence. In order to combat violent racists, King speaks of meeting “physical force with soul force”. One wonders how well it would work against, say, Hitler’s Panzer divisions. Civil rights marchers had to pledge to “observe with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy”, promising to “refrain from the violence of fist, tongue, or heart”. Said King: “Remember always that the non-violent movement in Birmingham seeks justice and reconciliation – not victory.” Not victory? Whose side was King on?

The riots that occurred in a hundred cities after King’s death were the ultimate testament to his failure. Black people never believed in non-violence after all. Despite our love affair with King, African-Americans are not a non-violent people. Black Americans kill 5,000 other black people every year. (Instead of urging us to love our enemies, King should have taught us to love ourselves.)

And despite our absolute hatred and fear of groups such as the Black Panther party because they refused to espouse non-violence, we have no problem honouring “heroes” such as General Colin Powell, who may have killed as many as 100,000 Iraqis during the Gulf war. Apparently it is evil to take up arms in defence of black people, as the Panthers did, but perfectly Christian behaviour to take up arms in defence of oil companies’ profits.

King’s many worshippers are fond of Gandhian quotes such as “If blood be shed, let it be our blood”. Which is fine if you are merely sacrificing yourself. But King was sending out women, children and old people to be beaten and blown up. Even at the time, as King notes, there were many who viewed this as monstrous. When those little girls were murdered in Birmingham, why should black people not have booted King out and hunted the killers down, like al-Qaida? As King himself said: “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it.”

King also needs a history lesson. He writes, in The Sword That Heals, that “non-violence in the form of boycotts and protests had confounded the British monarchy and laid the basis for freeing the colonies from unjust domination”. Yes, that, and colonial minutemen with rifles.

Which brings us to Obama, a black candidate who refuses even to say whether he supports reparations for slavery. One of the worst aspects of the King legacy is that, thanks to him, no African-American today is allowed to bring up racism, even in the most objective fashion, without severe repercussions. You will be instantly labelled a radical, a Black Panther (a bad thing), or a Mau Mau (a very bad thing) who wants to kill the white man. King has eliminated the possibility of other black people speaking out, people with other philosophies, who do not necessarily want to hug racists. Obama can succeed only insofar as he makes it plain that, like the British trade unionist Bill Morris, he is “not the black candidate”, that he can be counted on neither to be a champion for, nor to defend the rights of, black people.

Our love for King notwithstanding, if we are honest we will concede that King built nothing, and taught us only how to take a beating. As Gandhi said: “I have admitted my mistake. I thought our struggle was based on non-violence, whereas in reality it was no more than passive resistance, which is essentially a weapon of the weak.”

It is time we all admitted our mistake. A black King did not redeem us. And neither will a black president.

Jonathan David Farley is a former Martin Luther King Professor of Applied Mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

14 Responses to “Martin Luther King’s legacy”

  1. 1 Brett
    January 28, 2008 at 13:34

    “Which brings us to Obama, a black candidate who refuses even to say whether he supports reparations for slavery.”

    Obama would lose quite a large number of his white votes if he were to go after this subject. The whole topic of reparations is a moot point, which will likely never happen, regardless of how much people push for it. And the further in time we get from slavery, the less likely it is to happen. I for one do not support myself or other people having to pay money for something that someone did generations ago to other people. If anyone wants me to appologize for being born white, I can do that I suppose, but having to pay money because I was born white (albeit indirectly through the government, which is still paid for by my taxes)? I’m not too keen on that idea, and neither are many other people. There are plenty of better ways to spend ‘reparation’ money than handing people checks because of their skin color. Education? Public and Social infrastructure?

    Furthermore, while Mr. King may have ‘failed’ blacks in some peoples eyes, he did alot to bring together a cohesive movement not only for the blacks but also for the whites. How accepting would whites have been to the civil rights movement if violence would have been used? It would have solidified any negative preconcieved notions that whites had about blacks and the backlash would have been more severe than it was under Mr. King.

    “King lamented that, in 1963, only 9% of black students attended integrated schools. But, to give just one example, Atlanta’s Grove Park elementary school is now 99.99% black.”

    This has more to do with social and community issues than with blatant ‘racism’. Often these instances of accidental segregation stem directly from household income and education deficiencies. To give an average number quoted by Dr. King and then compare it with the most extreme opposing figure provides little credibility. Income disparity affecting education which in turn directly affects income is a vicious cycle and something certainly needs to be done about it. But to say Dr. King failed? Certainly not.

    “One of the worst aspects of the King legacy is that, thanks to him, no African-American today is allowed to bring up racism, even in the most objective fashion, without severe repercussions. You will be instantly labelled a radical, a Black Panther (a bad thing), or a Mau Mau (a very bad thing) who wants to kill the white man.”

    This statement is absurd and blown completely out of proportion. Whites and the rest of the US feel the need to walk on egg shells so as not to offend any other race, regardless of if its white, black, indian, take your pick. Racism is one of the first claims of injustice any time there is an incident where an opposing party, defendant, or plaintiff is of another race. I have not seen a case where someone pulled a racism card and was thus labeled a Black Panther, Mau Mau, or ‘wanting to kill the white man’.

    I applaud Dr. King and his non-violent stance. I do not support violence against anyone based on skin color, religion, creed, gender, etc. Racism make me sick, and the US still has a long way to go in the struggle for equal civil rights for all. Hopefully one day people will stop acting in such ignorant ways toward their fellow man/woman.

    PS. Great topic WHYS!

    Brett ~ Richmond, Va.

  2. 2 George in Georgia, USA
    January 28, 2008 at 13:45

    The Clinton Campaign is trying to make Obamah a black candidate rather than a candidate of hope.

    This thread helps promote that.

    Anyone labeled a black candidate cannot win the nomination or the election.

    Someone running on “hope” can win both.

  3. 3 George USA
    January 28, 2008 at 14:04

    The Clinton campaign is promoting the limitation of Obama to blacks.

    This discussion is aimed at that.

  4. January 28, 2008 at 15:12

    Unlike the bitter white whiner, Brett in Virginia, I support reparations. As a white person, I benefit in terms of privilege and power from what my slave-owning race did centuries ago, and now. Unlike many people of color, I can drive through white cities and neighborhoods without fear, I can get a bank loan and a job easily, and I will never face draconian imprisonment for the color of my skin. This race war dividend allows me and ALL other white people to accumulate more wealth, power, and physical security than people of color.

    Brett doesn’t grow his own food and is desperately dependent on the virtual slave labor (largely indigenous migrant) that DOES grow, process, and serve his food. At the very least, people of color should not have to pay ANY taxes whatsoever – not on food, not on income, not on land. They already pay a skin color tax in terms of exploitation and reduced freedoms. Sure, Barak Obama – or any crapitalist candidate – would really support lesser taxes!

    Martin Luther King’s way can only take the people so far. A reasonable balance between non-violent tactics and physical force is what is required to stop the rape and subjugation of people of color by whites and their quisling allies. We need another armed, slave-freeing, freedom fighter like Harriet Tubman, not a Barack Obama.

    Good for Jonathan Farley for questioning the legacy of King!

  5. 5 steve
    January 28, 2008 at 15:49

    Fire Witch, ummm, I don’t know what you’re smoking, but you’re crazy. Slavery ended in 1865. Who would get reparations? All the slaves are dead. There have b een other groups discriminated against here, and they ahve become successes, despite being obviously a racial minority. Think of asians on the west coast. They were here to build railroads and couldn’t get jobs after they were finished. They made it. I would like you to provide a single shred of evidence of any of your claims. Black people cannot drive through white cities? Are you nuts? People, you should take what this person said with a grain of salt, well, a pound of salt, this is absolute rubbish. The only factor bankers care about (and apparently not enough) is your credit score! I’ve driven through baltimore, and had basketballs thrown at my car because of the color of my skin. I’ve had friends that had rocks thrown at them for the color of their skin.

    Your “slave owning” race?? So ALL white people are now guilty? What about the caucasians that came from europe in the late 19th century? i should have to pay for reparations for something my ancestors never were involved in? That’s brilliant! You know what people like you are? You enablers. You enable people to have welfare mentalities, to be dependent on the state, so that you can feel better about yourself for being some kind of “Advcoate”. I know a woman who supports “ebonics” because she thinks it’s a diversity thing. I asked her, since she’s a lawyer, would she hire a lawyer or staff that spoke ebonics? She said no. Yet she wants it taught in schools so she can feel better about herself, but in the process, creating a permanent underclass, who will be stuck working at McDonalds. All so she can feel important. People like you and her should be ashamed of yourselves. You’re the actual racists because you think people cannot provide for themselves. Codependency is a mental illness.

  6. 6 Brett
    January 28, 2008 at 16:01

    I do grow some of my own food, I am not bitter, nor whining in the least. I have worked very hard to be where I am today and am proud of my hard work. But you are absolutely right, I should be obligated to pay reparations for crimes and attrocities that occurred generations ago, that I had no control over, and that I had no part in, simply because I was born white. Yea, I’ll get right on that. That is SURE to help the problem of racism, eh?

    Until someone can come up with a clear-cut plan on reparations, how they will be payed, to whom, what amount, where it will come from, and a solid framework to actually BENEFIT the community, I will stand divided on the issue, but more towards the ‘no’ side. How long are reparations to be paid for? A one time lump sum? decades of checks to be written to unborn non-whites?

    And in case you did not read my posting clearly, I support money being spent to help the ‘underprivileged’, but do not support a check being cut to people based on the color of their skin. There are plenty poor people of every color in the US, what money gets paid to them?

    So, instead of the personal attacks and discrediting, how about post on here a clearcut plan on what you would do and how you would handle the situation were you in a position to do so.

    Brett ~ Richmond, Va.

  7. 7 viola anderson
    January 28, 2008 at 16:19

    Mr. Farley is clearly not the visionary that Martin Luther King was, nor the tactician, nor a man with the good will necessary to accomplish what Martin Luther King did, which was make many Americans understand the issues in a non-threatening way. His message was so powerful that it led someone to kill him.


  8. 8 Brett
    January 28, 2008 at 16:37

    Steve brings an interesting point. What am I to be paid for the exploitation of ‘my people’? As a descendant of German and Irish immigrants who were exploited for decades by true ‘white Americans’, can I then demand money for the injustices that my people suffered while struggling to establish themselves here in America? Lets not forget that ‘white on white’ racism was equally as destructive and devastating between Americans and white-immigrants.
    And does not being a descendant of ‘slave-owning-Americans’ still make me obligated to pay money, even though my ancestors came after slavery existed and even fought to abolish it? Money speaks louder than actions and my ancestors lives, I suppose.

    Brett ~ Richmond, Va.

  9. 9 Felix
    January 28, 2008 at 18:57

    28 Jan 2008

    I tend to concur with Dr. Farley in terms of King’s legacy since despite an annual holiday, us whites and us blacks [and others of colour] do very little to bridge the racial gap. It is spent with family and friends and not addressing the systemic problem of race and class.

    Reparations are due Africans on a global scale from the continent proper to all of the lands where free African labour made the foundations of the economic well being of those continents. The French, British, Spanish and Dutch economies currently are the products of African/East Indian/and Native slave labour. Even the BBC there at one bush would not exist without those labours and the profits that bankers from the Barclays on made on free African labour.

    In the US, Martin’s legacy was more effective in death than in life since it took from 1865 to 1968 and the potential of black rioting in every urban area in this country to get the administration then to enact Civil Rights legislative with meaning. But what was this domesticated watered downed decree in the face of universal human rights and the respect of Human Rights extended to all Africans globally?

    In education, look at what western political institutions have spawned in Kenya here recently. Imagine 800 Africans dead due to the the machinations of attempting to apply western ideals of political processes into an African paradigm. This is silly.
    All the euro-american learning on the planet, is not and will not benefit peoples of colour who have losted their heritage roots and cultural frameworks. This is a problem with Blacks in the us a lost of cultural indigenous and having a foundation in order to transition from the western paradigms.

  10. 10 carlos King
    January 28, 2008 at 19:00

    What did Martin Luther King do for Black Americans?

    This is a very loaded questions. It is not as simple as it appears.
    Firstly, Martin Luther King did alot for the Whites- by advocating for the rights of the Blacks he restores the humanness of the Whites. Slavery/Segregation not only imprisoned the Blacks but the Whites as well. By perpetuating hate the Whites forget how to love impartially. The Agape love- the way God loves, unconditionaly love.

    Martin Luther King did a great thing for the Whites. He allowed them to change without loosing their “dignity”. If the Blacks had achieve “freedom” through revolution, the Whites would not have retained the economic status quo.

    Marting Luther King did nothing intrinsically tangle for Black people. Of what great value it is to ride in the front of the bus, use the same water fountain and toliet facilities as Whites. Does that put food on the table, send kids to school, providing housing?

    Black people did not need the Civil Rights movement to convince Whites that they are human being. White people knew that all along but it suited their purpose to pretend otherwise for the sake of the dollar!

    White people should be eternally grateful to Dr. Martin Luther King, it is because of him why the status quo is still in place, that is, they have the wealth and Black people have poverty.

    But what was the alternative- war, bloodshed and death. In spite of the fact that the Whites apparently won the fight, I believe it is in fact America that won becuase the alternative would have been nightmarish.

    Carlos King- Kingston, Jamaica

  11. 11 Asha
    January 28, 2008 at 23:07

    I am a black American woman, 25, whose grandparents lived their childhood and early adult years, from about 1929 to 1956, in east Texas under Jim Crow law. At 79, my grandmother still carries the trauma of the hateful and restricted environment that flourished before Dr. King.

    My grandmother has lived in California for nearly 50 years, but is emotionally unable to use public restrooms because of memories of the extreme filth and degradation she endured with Jim Crow “colored” bathrooms in the South. She is unable to eat at restaurants because of memories of being excluded from service or intimidated, and even on long periods of travel will pack a small suitcase of food and not stop to purchase anything anywhere. My grandmother is unable to go to a movie theater because of memories of “n*gger heaven” seating during segregation.

    A Canadian friend of mine who is new to the history of U.S. race relations, once asked my grandmother what she thought made a difference in the opportunities and overall welfare of black Americans. My grandmother answered, “Dr. King,” without hesitation. I consider her to be a far greater expert on the accomplishment of Dr. King’s campaign and dream than any academic, armchair opinion, or person who wasn’t there.

    My grandmother, a devotee to the civil rights dream, certainly wasn’t “begging to spend money in a store owned by a racist” who would rather kill her than serve her. She was sacrificing so that my mother, me, could access food whenever we were hungry. So that we could relieve ourselves in decent lavatory facilities, as opposed to squatting over piles of excrement in an outhouse. Just the same as everyone else in America.

    Dr. King’s portrait is up in the living room of my grandmother’s home, as well as the homes of all her same aged friends in the community who’ve also migrated from the South.

    And let’s keep in mind that Dr. King achieved a great deal of his dream, but got assassinated before he could take us all the way.

  12. 12 George USA
    January 29, 2008 at 08:16

    “Atlanta’s Grove Park elementary school is now 99.99% black.”

    My son drove me across the MLK neighborhood yesterday going home here in Atlanta, Georgia.

    The former black community buildings look like a small town where black stores, black doctors and lawyers, black business men, and a black community thrived with churches, moral fiber, a microcosm of the American Dream.

    It is no longer a thriving community, and no longer has the spectrum of businesses and professions, but looks like a cross between a ghost town and slum now.

    The down side to MLK’s achievement is his home community died.

    We noted the decline in passing.

    Absolutely there are ghettos here in Atlanta, the whole Central and South Atlanta are more or less a giant ghetto where children are segregated by poverty into communities you would not like to live in yourself.

    But what was lost in small tidy black communities segregated but highly functional like the MLK neighborhood, has been replaced by opportunities to teach at MIT, practice medicine in any neighborhood in America, practice law anywhere, and enter major corporations or start your own business that is not limited to a tidy functional black community.

    The balance to the large black ghetto area in South Atlanta are the students in the black universities here who strive for excellence to go on to function across the spectrum of American life and business.

    MLK opened the way to join the mainstream of the USA rather than live in small enclaves of functional segregation like the one he grew up in.

    To me, a white man, that looks like a pretty good achievement.

  13. 13 George USA
    January 29, 2008 at 08:23

    Oh, you might wonder-

    Where all those old MLK neighborhood business and professionals go here in Atlanta?

    They moved to the suburbs.

  14. 14 5ccpress
    January 29, 2008 at 14:11

    Jonathan Farley’s article is unnecessarily simplistic and inflammatory and it seems that he is himself caught up in the confines of his ‘race’ issue. If he supports violent agitation, why does he not come right out and say it? Or is he still trying to keep some academic pretensions? Martin Luther was a success in persuading like minds to think alike and work together for the cause of equality. It is the same use of reason that has made a relative success of South Africa today because they were favoured with a leader like Nelson Mandela who saw that peaceful coexistence of the races demanded that neither party felt defeated or overwhelmingly powerful. It is the same reason that keeps moderate hindu’s in India in a better position than the hate-promoting BJP radicals who would like to see the whole country through their religion-filtered lenses. Martin Luther King did not plan to build a brighter better ghetto for black people, no, he aimed for a world where the colour of ones skin meant next to nothing, and character was everything.
    MLK had something to teach both white and black people. To achieve your goals requires cooperation across racial, tribal, religious, political and whatever other lines people routinely erect in their little minds. Is it not perverse that he expects Obama to raise so called ‘black’ issues like reparations etc, a reverse racism. Why shouldn’t some other candidate do that, and why must we expect Obama to care about that issue, does he owe the ‘black’ community, represent them only. When Hilary Clinton was travelling across Africa promoting the USA’s interests and Bill Clinton was marshaling funds for his HIV/Malaria programmes in the less developed world, must we ask why they care since they are not black Africans or Asians? The battle for the future is about hearts and minds which is why MLK is highly regarded today because he won the moral argument, and took his stand at great personal cost. I would sincerely like to know what Jonathan Farley has done with his life other than become a 30 minute sensation on WHYS.

    from Lagos, Nigeria

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