The One who Indelibly Marked the Pages of Human History

Martin Luther King

“Whatever you’ve gone through, it pales in comparison to the hardships previous generations endured – and they overcame them. And if they overcame them, you can overcome them too”

— President Barack Obama to a graduating class from Morehouse College, a respected and historically-black University

The name is evocative of a strong reformer of the Catholic Church of the early 16th Century: Martin Luther. He was a Catholic priest from Germany, one who strongly disagreed with the widespread practice of the Church at that time that he qualified as the “sale of indulgences”. Martin Luther did not agree that a person could buy up “indulgences” to condone for his sins by donating sums of money to the Church, the dispensation being larger the higher the amount tendered. The Martin Luther of Germany started what is usually referred to as the Reformation, which accidentally brought up, as a part of this protest movement the Protestant Church, breaking Christendom away from the sole sway of the papacy in Rome till that time.

Like Martin Luther of the 16th Century, the American black leader, Martin Luther King (MLK), was a pastor. Hundred years after the abolition of slavery, that is, in 1963, discrimination against blacks was commonplace and widespread in almost all walks of life in America. The oppression of all sorts, which stalked all the corridors of public life, made it appear as if slavery had only been abolished in name but was continuing all the same in practice. John Fitzgerald Kennedy (JFK) was President. He had made a number of promises to change this state of affairs. But three years after he assumed the highest office of the land, the promises went unfulfilled.

It is in this context that a massive protest march was initiated by James Meredith, the first black man admitted to the University of Mississippi. He was shot and wounded soon after leaving Memphis. Martin Luther King and others took over the baton of protest from him. It is this movement that culminated in a gathering of some 250,000 black Americans from the various states on 28th August 1963, the March on Washington, exactly 50 years ago today, in front of the imposing Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC.

MLK had no prepared speech for the occasion; the huge crowd gathered in front of his pulpit was enough to inspire his historical and electrifying speech ‘I have a dream…’, a mélange of rhetoric and passion, but full of sincerity and clarity as to the objects sought, a vision for the betterment of the plight of America’s blacks never before seen from a black leader of America. Such was the amount of admiration and deep feeling of respect that this apostle of non-violence aroused for the occasion that President Kennedy, who listened to MLK’s speech on TV, called MLK at the White House the very next day, consecrating him, as it were, as the matchless leader of America’s black community and conceding at the same time to his justified quests in favour of discriminated-against blacks.

His message was one of genuine reconciliation and justice. He referred to the need for descendants of slaves and slave owners to turn around the situation of maltreatment inflicted upon blacks of America and to “sit down together at the table of brotherhood”. He asked that four grievances of America’s black population be addressed: i. discrimination against them by private businesses and local governments; ii. remove barriers which prevented black Americans from voting (reminiscent of practices in Mauritius at one time: the qualification to vote being conditioned upon payment of poll taxes, literacy tests and certain other practices designed to prevent blacks from voting); iii. deal with the unfair treatment meted out by the police against blacks, and iv. free blacks from the various obstacles blocking their social mobility and economic opportunities. “We cannot be satisfied”, said MLK, “as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto (i.e., the slave owner) to a larger one (i.e., the discriminating public and private sectors)”.

The American Dream

Clear and direct, he was asking that the American Dream, as set out in the American Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, be respected and implemented for all without distinction. This dream, he said, is “a promissory note… that all men – yes, black as well as white men – would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” so that in future MLK’s ‘children’ would “not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character”.

He said he had come along with all those people in Washington DC to “cash the cheque” which the Constitution had promised for all indiscriminately. Few leaders today can summon up that kind of vision and formulate it as candidly and precisely as he did, with convincing passion in an impromptu speech directly and clearly, stating what exactly they want to achieve to further the cause they want to defend. MLK was therefore a class above the lot and a pace setter for social development at an unexpected turn of history – that is why this speech has earned him fame and admiration.

MLK’s action showed that, in the face of dozing public establishment content with the discriminatory treatment which was the common fare of non-whites, nothing is gained without delivering a fight. JFK was assassinated in November 1963 and it befell on his successor, Lyndon Johnson (LJ), to give to blacks of America the civil rights that were theoretically theirs but were being denied in everyday life so far, so many years after the 1776 Declaration of Independence. LJ signed into law the Civil Rights Act 1964 ten months after the March on Washington. The Act banned interstate businesses which refused to serve members of the public or prohibited the access to public facilities (e.g., bus transport) on the basis of race.

It empowered the Attorney General to sue local authorities to force school desegregation, outlawed discrimination by any business employing more than 25 people and created an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to deal with complaints about discriminations in employment. He enacted the Voting Rights Act in 1965 to outlaw poll taxes, literacy tests and other such devices being used to prevent blacks from voting. Justice and Federal courts were empowered accordingly to veto any such discriminatory practices standing in the way of voting. All this was going in the direction of the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution which provides that all citizens, regardless of race, enjoy the right to vote and “equal protection of the laws”.

On the edge of poverty

Progress has been made on all fronts, despite the continuing vulnerable situations in which members of the black American population often find themselves, even to this day. It is not the same thing to come up fit and fine socially when one has had to battle it up, at some stage or other of social evolution, against insuperable barriers of prejudice and blockings of various sorts. In 1959, only 4.6% of blacks had graduated from college; in 2010, 38% of them aged between 18 and 24, were enrolled in a university. In 1959, over 55% of black Americans lived in poverty; today, most black Americans are not poor. In 1965, Congress had in all 5 black members; in 2012, roughly 10% of the members of the House of Representatives were black. Both income and wealth of America’s black population has progressed in tandem with catching up on education and skills.

However, there are significant disparities between whites and blacks at both income and wealth levels today. Between 2000 and 2011, the average income gap between whites and blacks moved up by one third (+$9,000) in favour of whites. Black average wealth fell by 53% between 2005 and 2009 (onset of the economic crisis) whereas the average wealth of whites fell by just 16%. The reality is such that, while both some white and black American young persons may be indulging in consumption of marijuana, blacks are more likely to be arrested for possession of the drug than whites. This partly explains why a disproportionately larger part of the American prison population is constituted of blacks.

Once you have a criminal record in America, it may entail risks of losing public benefits, being thrown out of public housing and suffering permanently from job and earnings prospects. From here to living on the edge of poverty, there is not a big gap. Poorer black households tend to move out to less valued areas in what may be called a system of residential segregation and this is due to the operation of the laws of economics, not social outcasting.

New social trends have been taking a toll of their own on America’s black population. Marriage has been declining; out-of-wedlock births are increasing. In 2011, 72% of babies were born to unwed mothers who are often the principal breadwinners in homes with children. In 1960, 60% of black adults were married; in 2011, only 29% of them were married. In 2011, 55% of black children were being raised by a single parent. Children from such households are four times more likely to be poor than children raised by married parents. Altogether, while it may be said that the protests of 1963 and after have borne their fruits, there is a persistent precariousness to the forward march of a section of the black American population that was sorely discriminated against for a long stretch of time.

Stop complaining, stop grumbling, stop crying

The solution to this persistent vulnerability of America’s black population is to address patterns of both internal and externally inflicted social codes of conduct before they overturn the positive impacts of a bitter struggle fought by past generations. As President Obama once told members of the Congressional Black Caucus, the solution is “to stop complaining, stop grumbling, stop crying” i.e., take on problems as they arise and get over them. Only determined efforts to positively continue constructing the edifice that was begun by MLK and his peers will affirm the much sought for parity in a progressive multi-racial society like that of America.

In 2009, James Young became the first ever black mayor of majority-white Philadelphia; early this year, he was again elected. In 1963, black Americans were asking for the right to vote to be given to them just as it was given to others; in 2008, America elected its first black President; in 2012, Barack Obama was elected for a second term. Nothing works better than constructive, positive perseverance: the older generation has lighted this path; it remains to be seen whether upcoming generations will stick to it, prosper in society and become role models for others to follow them in their tracks.

* Published in print edition on 30 August 2013

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