Monday, February 04, 2008

MLK and Bobby Kennedy

Although the Federal Government wasn't the source of civil rights reform it's not accurate to say that the Civil Rights Act was forced into passage by the civil rights movement. Well, it was and it wasn't. One of the lesser known aspects of the struggle is that Martin Luther King Jr. had a meeting with Robert Kennedy, then Attorney General of the U.S., where Kennedy said that legislation would be passed and would be enforced provided that King drop his more radical demands. MLK agreed and Kennedy sent troops down to Alabama to enforce desegregation of schools.No matter what MLK did at the end of his life, after his basic struggles were won he faded into the woodwork and his approach was subsequently criticized as being accomodationist by people like Kwame Ture formerly Stokely Carmichael, who presented a more radical critique of race in America in publications like the excellent "Black Power", which is still a great read. Better than "Soul on Ice", but that's another story. The Black Panther Party platform, for instance, talked explicitly of providing jobs and resources to black communities, and declared itself to be socialist. The guns may have been what people focussed on but the heart of it was struggling for real, material, social change on top of the social change fought for by the more mainstream civil rights movement. And Bobby Kennedy, it should be remembered, was a rabid anti-Communist prosecutor during the McCarthyist era. That doesn't get talked about much.

JFK, too, was no saint. People quote "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country" as if it's some sort of inspiring call to change. Richard Hofstadter, writing in his book "The American Political Tradition", whose subtext was that the American Political Tradition was fundamentally moderate, which is another issue for another time in itself, points out that Kennedy's slogan basically committed the administration to small government. In other words, don't ask for universal healthcare or an extended welfare state, 'cause the government won't give it to you. Ask about volunteer opportunities instead.

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