King of the Great Mall
The dedication of the monument to Martin Luther King was unveiled on Sunday, October 16, 2011. Forty-three years after his assassination, every segment of American society can identify with Martin Luther King, Jr. Conservatives sing his praises and liberals honor his contributions to racial justice. There is a remarkable consensus on the historical significance of the civil rights movement and the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Social movements are unpredictable. Throughout American history, social movements have had a profound impact on American civilization. Social movements tend to propel the society forward yet there are instances when social movements have been regressive. The “Know Nothing” movement in the 1850s aimed at Catholics manifested a bigoted sense of who or what constituted America. The Know Nothing’s were vehemently opposed to immigration that would ethnically diversify America.
Another social movement that kept America backwards was the “Jim Crow Movement that captured the race interest of southern whites in a strange quest to preserve the privileges of the ante-bellum life that supposedly flourished prior to the 1860s Civil War. Jim Crow reigned supreme until the challenge of the civil rights movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Regressive social movements are usually born of fear. Progressive social movements are born of hope. Progressive social movements invariably deepen the democratic process.
Although there is a certain unpredictability about social movements, there are discernible forces that serve as a catalyst for mass uprisings. At the end of World War II, there had occurred a sizeable expansion of the black industrial workforce who were organized into unions. Many African Americans had fought in the war against the fascist undemocratic forces. Obviously, once they returned to American shores, they were quite strident about asserting their democratic rights.
Many from this burgeoning working class/middle class generation were sending their children to black colleges in the south and elsewhere. Church leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. were ready to throw off the yoke of racial subservience and take to the streets to demand fundamental changes in the cruel world of Jim Crow. The world was changing rapidly. The Third World was breaking the shackles of colonialism and marching towards self-determination.
The civil rights movement was inspired by the anti-colonial struggles and challenged the Jim Crow status quo. America’s political establishment unwillingly accommodated themselves to the demands for equal accommodations, the right to participate in the political process, and for the statutory elimination of employment and housing discrimination.
Martin Luther King’s mass movement had precipitated historical changes and pushed American civilization closer to becoming that city on the hill. But King’s vision of America took him beyond civil rights. He became increasingly critical of America’s involvement in the war in Viet-Nam and was incensed by the plight of the poor. He became pre-occupied with rampant economic injustice. He intervened in the strike of the sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. He made plans for putting together the poor people’s campaign in the nation’s capital. At that juncture in the midst of a new struggle that had yet to become a mass movement, Martin Luther King was assassinated!
The momentum for social justice was buried with Dr. King. Nonetheless, other social movements deepening the democratic process in America emerged. The feminist movement sought to transform male hegemony in the home and in the public sphere. Women sought to enter the workplace, equality, to shatter glass ceilings and to change the gender dynamic in American society.
The feminist movement changed the gender complexity of American society. Nowhere is that more manifested than in the sphere of higher education. Women are equally represented in undergraduate education, graduate education, and doctoral programs. In the case of black women, they have outdistanced the men. In the words of Julius Nyerere, while the men walk, the women run.
The gay and lesbian movement has made painstaking progress in recent decades. The struggle for sexual equality has been advanced but there is still great resistance in civil society, in religious circles, and in the political system. Those objectives are essential to deepening the democratic process.
The Occupy Wall Street Movement epitomizes the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. In an age of revolutionary technology, conventional political actors take the position that the jobless and powerless must wait for the magic of the marketplace. The Nero-like Congress plays the fiddle while the circumstance of the sixteen million unemployed workers and the multitude of underemployed continue to deteriorate.
Occupy Wall Street has not only gone national. It has gone global. Globalization as it took root bred a certain degree of mass paralysis. Now the communication revolution that is an integral part of globalization is also instrumental in fostering a culture of resistance. At the time of his death, Martin Luther King, Jr. had become a drum major for justice and his life had a remarkable impact on America and across the world.
The Occupy Wall Street Movement is a clamor for social and economic justice. At this juncture, the vision is not being projected by any one leader but by a grassroots mass uprising that has captured the imagination of what is left of Fanon’s wretched of the earth.
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By: Dr. Basil Wilson
Originally published in Carib News