What is the legacy of Dr. King's vision of justice in 2018?
That house, of course, was full membership, as full human beings, in U.S. society. And the flames consuming it? What Dr. King called the triple evils of poverty, racism and militarism. If he were with us today, he would very likely add a fourth to this interlocking trio of systems -- the disastrous changes to the Earth's climate that result from an unfettered capitalism that creates great wealth for the few and poverty for the many, a poverty made differentially worse by the workings of racism, all of it enforced by military impositions abroad and police forces at home that in some places act more like an occupying army.
In many ways, things look pretty bleak in the United States of 2018. We are still fighting imperial wars. No longer against Vietnam, a war that Dr. King called out in his famous “A Time to Break Silence” speech, in which he said that the United States was at that time the greatest purveyor of violence in the world. That, unfortunately is even more true than it was in 1968. Today our wars extend throughout the Middle East, Central Asia, and Africa. Collaborating with Saudi Arabia, the U.S. is abetting a famine in Yemen. We have soldiers fighting in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, along with more-or-less secret deployments in Sudan, Mali, Djibouti, and Niger. We have almost four times as many military bases around the world as states in the union.
But there are signs of hope, movements growing that very much reflect Dr. King's vision of justice. When Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi, and thousands of other young leaders, insist that Black Lives Matter, you can hear the echoes of the sanitation workers striking in Selma, Alabama in 1968, carrying signs proclaiming, “I am a man.” One difference is that today our conception of humanity is no longer coextensive with manhood. A movement led by queer women can galvanize the nation. This is a change from the days when Bayard Rustin, who with A. Phillip Randolph organized the 1963 March on Washington, had to hide his gay humanity to claim his Black humanity.
Things have changed, but the message has only deepened: that a Black life is a human life, and that human lives -- and respect for those who live them -- matter.
While many of the most inspiring younger people of color who are leading my movements are conscious anti-capitalists, they are not pure materialists. Just as Dr. King's practice of nonviolent direct action was rooted in a radical Christianity that insisted on the full humanity of all of us, all of us made in the image of the divine, and just as the Black theologian James Cone insisted that the message of the gospel in 1968 was Black Power, so too, today's movements of young people of color are infused with spiritual power. Their spirituality may not be that of the Black evangelical churches, but it is an unashamed embrace of spiritual practices as central to their political work. This is the practice, for example, of the Movement Strategy Center in Oakland, whose projects like “Love with Power” promote the building of the beloved community through tenacious organizing and practices of spirit.
And there's a lot to do, if we are to build that community, because the house is still on fire, and if anything, the fire is burning brighter than ever in this country. Legal segregation, legal discrimination are dead. But institutional racism lives on, and in many ways is more difficult to combat, because the target is less clear. The Civil Rights movement won great legal victories in the 1950's and 60's -- Brown v. Board of Education, the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, but those victories have proved partial, largely because of a series of court actions that have weakened their effects.
Today's public schools are as segregated as ever -- in large part because of the decision in a 1971 case, Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education. The courts ruled that it was illegal to bus students across school district lines in order to achieve integration. This gave even more impetus to white families to leave the cities for suburbs where they could form separate districts to keep Black children out of their schools. Similarly courts have eviscerated the anti-discrimination provisions of the Civil Right Act by requiring plaintiffs to demonstrate not that there is a pattern of discrimination, say in employment or college admissions, but that the people doing the hiring or admitting demonstrate personal, intentional prejudice in their decisions. Despite the resurgence of white nationalist terror, most white people's racism still operates at the level of unconscious bias, which makes it very hard to prove discrimination. And I don't have to tell you what the Supreme Court has done to the Voting Rights Act, with Chief Justice Roberts proclaiming that the states that historically prevented Black people from voting have fixed their problems and no longer need oversight. Today's ID requirements in those states and intimidation are the new poll taxes and literacy tests.
Sadly, many of those who've argued in the courts -- or for anti-affirmative action ballot measures around the country -- have relied on a misinterpretation of a line from Dr. King's speech at the 1963 march on Washington -- his wish that his children might be judged “not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” This desire has been twisted to suggest that race doesn't matter, that people are simply lonely individuals, unconnected to the families and communities that help form us. The corollary, of course, is that racism can only be dismantled if we refuse to recognize race. But pretending that everyone has an equal chance doesn't make it so. And it doesn't begin to address the larger problem in that burning house -- the fact that capitalism forces all of us to want “chances” at very few gold rings that can only ever belong to the wealthiest few.
The house is still on fire.
The rest of the country is finally waking up to something that Black and brown communities have known for decades: this country imprisons a larger percentage of our population, and a larger number of human beings, than any other country in the world. And those prisons are sites of terror and torture -- beatings, electrical attacks, the horror of solitary confinement, and the insane cruelty of “botched” executions.
My own work for the last 16 years -- almost since September 11, 2001 -- has focused on torture and war crimes in the course of the so-called “war on terror.” From the very beginning, torture has been racialized. Only particular bodies are legitimate targets for torture. For this country, both in today's wars and historically, those bodies have been black and brown. The U.S. didn't start torturing people on September 12th. We'd already been at it for centuries, and the practice is among the armaments that keep Dr. King's triple evils alive. The more deeply I looked at the history of torture in this country, the clearer it became that torture and racism are tied at the root.
From before the United States existed, Black bodies have been legitimate targets for torture. Institutionalized abuses that were ordinary practice among slaveholders - whipping, shackling, branding and other mutilations - were both common and legal. Nor were such practices incidental to the institution of chattel slavery. Rather, they were central to slavery's fundamental rationale - the belief that enslaved African beings were not entirely human.
Edmund Morgan's American Slavery, American Freedom helped me to understand more deeply why slavery in this country became entwined with torture from the very beginning. The book takes the colony of Virginia as a case study for the role of slavery in the founding of the United States. Morgan explains the labor economics of Virginia's cash crop - tobacco. Farming it is a labor-intensive business, and in the early days of Virginia, labor was in short supply. The first human imports were indentured servants from England. Some came voluntarily, exchanging seven years' labor for the price of their passage. Others were swept from the streets of England's cities, or culled from her prisons, and brought against their will. In either case, they received the same deal - seven years of work, in return for freedom, and in many cases a piece of land to farm.
When the first enslaved Africans began to arrive, they were offered no such deal. They weren't going to get freedom and a plot of land after seven years, or seventeen. In fact, they and their children, and their children's children could expect only lives of enslavement. The Virginian farmers quickly discovered that without any incentive on offer, there was only one way to get these people to work - by causing them terrible pain. So torture became an everyday practice among slaveholders.
In The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, Edward E. Baptiste describes how cotton farmers used the “pushing system,” an organized technology of cruelty, to get the maximum labor possible from enslaved people. It was, he says, “a system that extracted more work by using oppressively direct supervision combined with torture." Baptiste continues,
In the context of the pushing system, the whip was as important to making cotton grow as sunshine and rain…. [I]n 1849 a migrating North Carolina planter hired a “Mississippi overseer” to ensure that his “hands” would be “followed up from day break until dark as is the custom here.” The overseer would drive each “fore row” in a vast and easily surveyed field, and he would “whip up” those who fell behind. All that pushing, the owner calculated, would force “my negroes [to do] twice as much here as negroes generally do in N.C.”This human technology powered by the whip created productivity increases that rivaled anything achieved by the steam-powered machines of the industrial revolution, as people desperate to evade the lash developed new techniques for planting, hoeing, and picking cotton. Between 1801 and 1840, the average amount of cotton picked each day rose from 28 pounds to as much as 341 pounds per person.
That torture continued with the state-sanctioned practice of lynching, and continues today in our jails and prisons.
The house is still on fire.
But Dr. King's legacy lives on here, and around the world. It lives on in Black Lives Matter, in Colorlines and Color of Change, in Critical Resistance, Left Roots, Right to the City, Causa Justa, and the thousands of other local and national organizations struggling to birth the beloved community. It lives on in the scholarship of Michelle Alexander and Naomi Murakawa, who challenge mass incarceration, and the very act of locking human beings up in the cages we call prisons.
And it lives on in the place that many people have called the world's largest open-air prison -- the Gaza strip in the Middle East. Just under 2 million Palestinians live in Gaza, and most of them cannot leave. Today we mark the 50th anniversary of the catastrophe of Dr. King's murder. In a few weeks, Palestinians will mark the 70th anniversary of the Naqba -- what for them was the catastrophe of 1948, in which their parents and grandparents lost their homes in what is now the land of Israel. How are they observing it? With a massive civil campaign of nonviolent direct action. Thousands, men, women, and children, have begun camping near the electrified fence that separates Gaza from Israel, insisting on their humanity, their human desire for justice. Their nonviolent action has been met -- as Dr. King was met -- with violence. Eighteen have been killed by Israeli soldiers and many more wounded. But still they carry on that legacy of Dr. King's nonviolent action, still they demonstrate in their resolve, their humanity. Can we do any less?
When Dr. King told Harry Belafonte about the burning house, Belafonte asked him, “Well what are you going to do about it?”
“I guess we'll have become firemen,” said Dr. King.
The house is still on fire. We must all become firefighters.