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Thoughts on Dr. M.L. King Jr., Self-Awareness, and What Needs to Be Done

February 11, 2005

BY HERMAN BELL, New York 3 political prisoner

In examining the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (referred hereafter as Martin or Dr. King) some would say in their assessment that he walked on water and parted the seas. Without question Dr. King was a good man. Even people not of his race give him high praise. Some people think of him as they would a prophet. Many people have had their say about Dr. King. Now and again I have found cause to defend his name against what I felt were misinformed remarks on his “non-violence” stand. As I reflect on Dr. King’s legacy, and on what he meant to so many people, I am reminded that in our praise of someone we can unintentionally overstate and thereby rob the person of his dignity. I bear that in mind as I write this. In this piece I wish to discuss Dr. King’s leadership, the question “Who am I?” (as posed by Black people to themselves during and before the 50s and 60s) that the movement to which he belonged attempted to answer, and conclude with a few remarks on “What needs to be done now.”

The word leader denotes a person who has commanding authority or influence and as a public speaker, few speakers of his century could rival the eloquence of Dr. King. His oratory anointed him with the moral authority and influence that he wielded. But his most enduring qualities were that he never betrayed his people, he never wavered in his convictions, and in his fight for social justice he unveiled a compelling stoutheartedness. His intelligence, poise and quiet dignity were emblematic of his standing on national and global stage, which inspired trust and confidence in his leadership. He and Malcolm X, above all others of their time, personified the spark of black manhood that had been bludgeoned and terrorized into a glimmer through centuries of unremitting suppression and brutality that now stood primed to reignite. They spoke plain truth to power and the gravity with which they spoke served notice to Uncle Sam that he could no longer ignore the legitimate claims of u.s. black citizens.

Given the proceeding centuries of unparalleled European rapaciousness and brutality, during which time afrikans were abducted and brought to the New World as european slaves. This diabolical scheme triumphed in its “creation” of a new people: the Negro, and as a principle beneficiary scheme America has refused to take responsibility for her misdeeds. After slavery these spawns of despicable greed and unjust use of other persons for one’s own profit or advantage found themselves devoid of self-identity, stumbling about in the cities and countryside of America in the manner of incomplete human experiment that wandered out of a madman’s laboratory, untutored, unprepared, and barely able to fend for themselves in a hostile world. Their progeny were Dr. King’s charges in the 50s and 60s.

Since their enslavement, and in every generation thereafter, scores of heroic blackmen and women have borne untold hardships and sacrifices to advance the black freedom struggle. Despite his disadvantages the Negro did the best he could with what he had. He worked when he could, lived frugally, and otherwise endured. He bought land in some places and was forced off that land in others, especially when he grew prosperous. Klan terror and general white mob violence circumscribed his life to a considerable extent. The bonds of slavery are not easily struck. Though abolition cast aside the physical chains of slavery, these mental chains remain long after, especially since the proprietor of American slaves sought to own not only the slave’s labor and body but his mind and soul as well.

Despite Negro disadvantages and unpreparedness, their moxie, innate intelligence and natural ability set them on a path that sharply veered from the one laid out by their white overlords. That demanded suffrage, an end to discrimination in public places, and the Constitution of the land enforced. Rights that are morally and legally theirs. Dr. King came to national prominence by articulating these concerns to the nation. He stated that Negroes work, pay taxes, obey the law, serve in the military, and raise families no different from any other american. Yet they are treated different, and their rights are neither respected nor protected by lawful authority. In his book Crisis in Black and White (1964), Charles E. Silberman observed that “…mass movements (or at any rate, mass movements among disadvantaged people) are built not on skill in selling ‘apples and peaches and potatoes’ to a passive, inert audience, but on the ability to articulate a people’s real, if unconscious grievances, and to propose a course of action that conquers their apathy and converts them from an inert mass to an active movement.” Martin’s oratory and endearing qualities empowered him to move the masses, and because of this history will look kindly upon his name.

In responding to the question: “Who am I?” as posed by Black people to themselves during the 50s, 60s, and even during earlier times, a brief look at chattel slavery, the years subsequent to emancipation and reconstruction, as well as at more contemporary times can be helpful. Chained neck and hand to the floor, stacked sardine-like in the holds of slave ships bound for the new world, Afrikans knew who they were. Knowledge of their history, customs, and traditions were indelibly imprinted on their souls. However once in the new world this knowledge soon faded from the collective memory of succeeding generations. Under the old form of slavery no effort was made to strip a slave of his humanity; the slave was regarded as an unfortunate victim of circumstances. Under modern slavery a u.s. slave owner regarded his slaves as chattel to be bought and sold no different from the way he bought and sold his hogs, chickens and cattle. His concept of ownership entailed owning the slave’s mind, his soul, as well as his body and labor, forever. And forever is for always.

The modern slave system created a new people. It created a relatively passive inert mass. This in no way is meant to trivialize or to dismiss the significance of u.s. slave rebellions, runaways, or the “bad slave” that massa had to contend with. The Afrikan stood bowed before strangers whose power and authority over him was absolute; they were the givers and withholders of all things pertaining to him. He knew nothing of life beyond the plantation and he was kept illiterate.

Emancipation and Reconstruction found him in no better shape because white authority continued to control his life. He wandered through his days as though in a dream state. Time moved on but race relations remained the same. Yet despite this stubborn apartheid-like entrenchment the Negro world changed. Negro literacy increased; they fought in a world war overseas (WWI) and expected better treatment upon homecoming and discovering that nothing had changed were bitterly disappointed. Newspapers reported almost daily stories of a Negro soldier’s lynching by a white mob while still in uniform. Time marched inexorably onward as white mob violence and lynching of negro citizens reached new heights. Nevertheless, the world was changing. A rising tide of global social consciousness swept away the old paradigm of submission, subordination, and white supremacy. People of color were demanding their rights, which included self-determination and national independence from colonial domination.

An irresistible restlessness engendered by events taking shape beyond u.s. borders encouraged u.s. Negroes to focus a more critical eye on their own circumstances. The passive inert black mass stirred restlessly and began to see itself through the lens of this new social consciousness.

The quest for black self-identity and self-determination in the u.s. is a long, arduous, heart-wrenching saga; it has encountered a wide range of conflicting influences along the way, and they continue to harry blacks today. The white controlled media has never extended a hand of friendship to blacks. The menial roles reserved for blacks in the film industry did nothing for black self-esteem. One film, Birth of a Nation, caused race riots and black lynchings practically wherever it was shown. Books, magazines, and newspapers reinforced racial stereotypes and negative images of blacks. Post Reconstruction blacks were thought of as incapable of making decisions for themselves and had to be looked after by others. Sociologists call this fixed state of mind “paternalism,” which denotes: “A system under which an authority undertakes to supply needs or regulate conduct of those under its control in matters affecting them as individuals as well as their relations to authority and to each other.” A system, as one can well imagine, that authorizes whites to be in exclusive control and authority over black people.

Emasculation of black males, through the use of threats, intimidation, mob law, brute force and terror were crucial to the maintenance of this brutal system. It cast a spell of invisibility over blacks in american society and when noticed they were commented on as being healthy, happy, and in continual need of a guiding influence. How, one might ask, did blacks (or at least some blacks) cast off their blinders and climb out of this dead state of enforced ignorance and repressed self-awareness to one demanding their Constitutional rights? A number of factors contribute to this dynamic: grinding poverty and deplorable living conditions; blacks who could escaped the southern racial caste system by migrating to the north; three hundred thousand blacks served in WWI and they held expectations that social conditions would change upon their return. A confluence of inspiration flowed into mainstream black life shaping its social identity and self-awareness.

Inspiration came from leading black journals of opinion in america such as: The New Age, Crisis Magazine (1910), The Negro World, Opportunity (1911), Amsterdam News (1909). From black organizations: NAACP (1910), which was created to prevent racially motivated violence and job discrimination, to promote equality in the legal system. It had over 400 branches by 1921. The Urban League (1911) was founded to help newcomers adjust to urban life, to improve industrial conditions of Negroes in NY. It worked to end discrimination in labor unions, federal programs, and armed forces. UNIA (1914) organized to promote destruction of colonialism and the political unification of Afrikan people everywhere. It had profound political and cultural influence on the black diaspora and in Afrika. It wrote the “Declaration of the Right of the Negro People of the World.” From educated blacks: Ida B. Wells (1826-1931), teacher, journalist, staunch anti-lynching campaigner. From leaders of black self-help organizations: Martin Delaney, W.E.B. Dubois, Marcus Garvey, Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, MLK and the like all contributed to fashioning a new awareness of black rights and self-identity, awareness of new possibilities and of the old dangers that accompanied them. Desiring a better life for themselves and a brighter future for their children, blacks challenged Jim Crow laws in u.s. southern states and bravely confronted the paternalistic social parameters that impeded improvement in their quality of life. Once out the black genie was not to be put back in the bottle of stifled growth, intimidation, and total dependency. Hence the “sit-ins,” “Freedom Rides,” “marches,” “boycotts,” and urban rebellions of the 50s and 60s; and the outgrowth of the black consciousness movement in the 60s and 70s, whose theme was “Black is Beautiful.”

What Needs to Be Done Now?

Some post-Civil War leaders believed the american dream would eventually include black americans, less optimistic blacks did not, especially the poor. They felt that america was too racist and bigoted to do right by blacks.

Although significant social and economic changes have occurred in america since blacks were freed from slavery, blacks are still treated as second class citizens today. And while it is thought that Abe Lincoln is owed a certain amount of gratitude from blacks for their emancipation, the record suggests that his emancipation degree was motivated more by a perceived opening to weaken the confederacy by depriving it of its labor force than by his disdain of slavery. In fact, the British command inspired a similar ploy during the american revolution aimed at depriving the Rebel army’s southern colonies of its labor force. It offered freedom to all slaves that crossed to British lines in support of the Crown’s war effort. As might be expected many slaves crossed over while others declined and allied with the Rebels as fighters and supporters with hope that at the war’s end they would be freed and that slavery would be abolished. We know that the american revolution did not end slavery, and that the British did not honor its word to the slaves that crossed to its lines.

Considering all the above throughout the intervening centuries, that the burning desire of afrikan-americans to gain their independence and total freedom to choose their own destiny remains unachieved today is remarkable. While some people would argue that blacks enjoy unprecedented political and economic freedom today more than ever before, a cogent response to that argument would suggest that much of this vaunted political and economic freedom is an illusion. American political power is vested in either the democratic or republican party and blacks typically vote the democratic party, which has come to accept the black vote as its due and it gives nothing back in return. Blacks feel that they would fare no better with the republicans. So why switch horses in the middle of the stream after all this time? Meanwhile, as blacks wade through this morass in search of solid ground, real political power continues to elude them.

Their economic front is in no better shape. Since the 60s, the size of the black middle class has grown and the number of wealthy blacks has modestly increased, but the overall economic standing of most black americans remains significantly unchanged. Therefore, can a majority of black americans say “they are better off today than they were thirty or forty years ago?” Back then, at least, they knew where they stood, and what they were up against, and the direction in which they were going. Not so today. The murky waters of integration and equal opportunity continually rake them across the treacherous shoals of unfulfilled promises and dreams deferred. In pointing to “what needs to be done now,” it is true that blacks enjoy more political and economic freedom today (as illusory as they might be), yet to the extent possible can they rightly claim to have organized political power for themselves on the local or state level on their own initiative? The answer is a resounding no—not to the degree they should have! In no way is this to suggest that the prevailing electoral process can or will resolve the complexities of the black historical past; only blacks can find resolution and closure in that regard.

The economic front deserves no less scrutiny. Some economists say blacks spend more than five hundred billion dollars in the u.s. economy annually. One could rightfully argue that blacks control little to none of the wealth they produce because, among other reasons, the black “skill base” is woefully inadequate. People with skills attract wealth, equity, and general prosperity to a people and their communities. Academic and vocational education, saving and investing wisely are a prerequisite to this paradigm and it starts with responsible parenting and a proper upbringing that imbues young minds with an abiding respect for knowledge, social responsibility, education, and independent thought. The rest will take care of itself.

Manage your finances with good judgment. Avoid businesses that disrespect workers and their rights, that engage in racial discrimination and unfair hiring practices,that operate counter to your political and economic interests.

The need for building community survival programs can never be overemphasized, nor can self-help community gardens in abandoned spaces. Grow potatoes as veggies in stacked rubber tires, in pots, sawed-off 50-gallon drums on rooftops and elsewhere. Organize community food co-ops to collectively buy wholesale and divvy it up among the participants. Projects like these bring people together. They get to know one another; they get to talk and plan and network with other community groups and organizations. Networking is essential because much can get done, be learned and shared working with others. But the will has to be there to fuel this collective energy.

Organize community centers which can be an excellent resource base that facilitates organizing the social, political, and economic life of the community. They can serve as a nexus of the community from which all manner of community service programs can grow – vocational, cultural, economic and the like. And when these dire survival programs are non-existent, organize them yourself, what are you waiting for?

Get involved; seek volunteers; network with people who have knowledge and experience in this regard; take up the challenge, make mistakes, fall on your face, get up and start again until you get it right. This is a successful recipe for organizing and working with people. Take small first steps and big ones later. Get your legs and wind under control before you endeavor to run. Identify the practical, the “do-able” and make it happen. Over time the returns will far outweigh the investment. Exercise patience because projects like these generally take root. When they bear fruit nothing could be more satisfying to the human spirit. Leadership is about helping people to help themselves. Without the leadership and examples shown by those who came before us, where would we get our inspiration? More important what will be what will those who come after us? They will know whether we acquitted ourselves well or not.

Herman Bell (79C0262)
Eastern Correctional Facility Box 338
Napanoch, NY 12120 USA

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