On 25 May in Minneapolis, an unarmed man was murdered by police officers while being arrested for suspicion of “passing counterfeit currency” ($20).
George Floyd. Say his name.
His is the latest to join a long roster of black men and women who have died under police custody in the United States. The country has now experienced a week of protests, some have involved the destruction of property and others have been violently suppressed, with many cities under curfews. Protestors have taken up the phrase 'I Can't Breathe' as a rallying call, in reference to Floyd's pleas for help. 'Black Lives Matter' solidarity marches have also taken place globally and citizens of many countries including the United Kingdom are reflecting on how the US situation is mirrored in their national contexts.
The historian of the Reconstruction era, Eric Foner, has influentially argued that that most overused of concepts, 'freedom', is "the subject of persistent conflict and debate in American history." The debates revolve around three things "the meaning or definition of freedom, the social conditions that make freedom possible, and the boundaries of freedom, who, that is, is entitled to enjoy it." While the Constitution outlines some of these, it is the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments and the judicial interpretations of these that have been instrumental in keeping this conversation active.
Invariably, as these three amendments relate to the rights of former slaves, the conversation about freedom has continued to be integrally connected to the conversation about race. Now, when the rallying call of a protest movement is 'I Can't Breathe', and the President is threatening to deploy armed forces against protestors, it seems to this curator that we should not shy away from calling this what it is: an urgent public conversation about freedom in the US, and beyond.
The significance of the word freedom was not lost upon the activists of the Civil Rights Movement who used it rhetorically to evoke hope amongst African Americans who were risking their lives for the cause, but also to engage the support of sympathetic middle-class whites. During this last week, many people have called on the memory of Rev. Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. whose leadership and advocacy of non-violent protest were a key component of the successes of the Movement. While Dr King is often invoked during public race relations debates, in this instance the rioting and protests are directly comparable to the circumstances that followed his assassination.
In a two-part blog posts, I will reflect on the similarities and difference between these two historic moments and consider what useful lessons might be drawn. I shall also highlight some collection items and other online resources that may be of interest to readers. This post takes a closer look at the national campaign that Dr King was working on at the time of his murder, and the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike. The second post will focus on Dr King’s assassination, the rioting that followed, and the response to this in the UK.
A list of resources for researchers, teachers and families can be found at the bottom of this post.
Looking closer at non-violence and the Memphis sanitation workers' strike
Dr King’s son, Martin Luther King III has remarked in the last week that his father used to say that "violence is the language of the unheard." His position of non-violent protest was thus not a superficial glossing over of the anger begot from the deep inequities of segregation and institutional racism, rather Dr King tried to speak directly to the grief and pain of African American communities by offering an organising tactic that empowered protestors by asserting their innate dignity when faced with violence.
Dr King's non-violence must be understood within the framework of the Christian (Baptist) theology he preached, and alongside the many local activists and organisations who worked tirelessly to instil change in their communities. These were the unions and church leaders and educators who would teach basic literacy to adults to enable them to enact their constitutional right to vote, or would document transgressions by local law enforcement, organised local boycotts and many other such activities. King relied on these grassroots activists, many of whom were women, to help decipher local politics, to do the minutiae of civil rights' work, and in return he brought a national platform to their local causes.
It was while he was supporting such a local cause – the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike – that Dr King was assassinated. It will perhaps not come as a surprise that the strike was triggered by the death of two workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker. In the segregated city, black sanitation workers walked alongside refuse collection trucks while white workers drove them. When it rained, the only shelter afforded black workers was inside the compactor and horrifically, Cole and Walker were crushed to death by a faulty mechanism during a rainstorm. The subsequent strike was supported by the local and national unions, and the striking workers would march daily to downtown Memphis. They faced regular assault from police, including tear gas and mace. In response to this, the strikers made pickets with the now iconic slogan “I AM A MAN”.
It is a remarkably simple and effective banner, a vehement declaration of the fundamental humanity and dignity of Black men (workers). While separated by half a century, the logo of the Black Lives Matter movement directly recalls the banners the sanitation workers carried.
Dr King and others from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) arrived in Memphis towards the end of March, several weeks into the strike. The concerns raised by the strikers resonated with the SCLC’s ‘Poor People’s Campaign’, which directly tried to address the dire poverty and social issues such as poor housing that many African Americans lived with. Amongst other things, the campaign called for a guaranteed basic income, a radical proposal for its time.
In later years, King’s political understanding of the causes of racism and inequality had developed considerably. He was particularly influenced by the continuing presence of the US military in Vietnam, and the high deployment of African Americans in frontline combat positions. He eventually came to the position that he had to speak out against the Vietnam war. In a key speech titled Beyond Vietnam he connected the war with the economic injustice in the United States, criticising the increase in the country’s militarisation, stating that "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death."
King’s vision of non-violence, then, was radical, complex and informed by geopolitics as well as a detailed understanding of the problems that afflicted African American communities. This position proved to be seriously damaging to his reputation, including among African Americans many of whom felt that he risked damaging the Civil Rights Movement by complicating the discussion, and alienating sympathetic whites who were an important donor base with ‘radical’ views. The sanitation workers’ strike would prove to be a difficult campaign for King, but it was also a perfect example of the domestic challenges that the SCLC was battling in the PPC and both King and SCLC were in need of a ‘win’.
It is sobering to see that many of the concerns raised by the Poor People’s Campaign and in Memphis in 1968 are shared by contemporary protestors. In a collection of essays about miscarriages of justice against black people, the author and activist Mumia Abu-Jamal asks the question “Have black lives ever mattered?” stating that if the question seems provocative, the answer “no matter how damning, [is] far more provocative. And yet who dares answer but any way other than the negative?” Abu Jamal has spent thirty-eight years in prison, twenty-nine of which on death row, and regularly comments on matters related to the US criminal justice system.
Within the current debate it is important to remember that policing in the United States mostly takes place at the state, district, and city levels. Nationally, there are over eighteen-thousand police departments, each of which is governed by a different set of powers. Additionally, police officials at various levels are regularly subject to public elections. Changing policing strategy, already a complex problem, is thus further complicated by the lack of geographic and temporal continuity. Another complicating factor, as detailed in this article by Mother Jones, is that the Trump administration released police departments from federal oversight. This included the use of consent decrees which imposed reform on police departments that consistently misuse force in a discriminatory way. Many departments, such as in Chicago, that had lost the trust of their local communities had benefited from such intervention, and the Obama administration also actively pursued over seventy cases against police officers. Some gains were being made, albeit it slowly.
Without continued federal oversight and leadership on this issue, harnessing change once again becomes the remit of local activism. In this respect, there is much to be hopeful about. Local people are often the best placed to identify problems and concerns in their communities, and to organise for elections. The Memphis sanitation workers’ strike, which married grassroots activism with a national campaign, provides an inspiring historic precedent of an African American community standing up for the civil rights of Black men to be recognised and respected.
Clearly today’s changed communication channels have substantially influenced the nature of activism, facilitating devolved organisation and the rapid spread of support. However, it remains the case that a grassroots presence of individuals and organisations is essential to the success of a movement.
This can currently be seen by the work being done by local churches in dispersing aid packages and sheltering peaceful protesters from the effects of tear gas, and the calls for financial assistance for organisations such as United Families and Friends Campaign which supports those directly affected by the deaths of Black and minority ethnic people in institutional settings, and Green and Black Cross who have provided legal support to those arrested at protests. We also know that George Floyd was involved in local community programmes, through his church in Houston's Third Ward, and had moved to Minneapolis to fill a similar role helping youth through a church programme.
These community-based institutions have long histories of supporting activists and organising at times of crisis, and much can be learnt from reflecting on historic precedents to the current scenario. The night before his assassination, Dr King preached to a packed church hall in Memphis. He spoke of the local injustice experienced by the sanitation workers, linking it to the need for national political change: “All we say to America is be true to what you say on paper.” He spoke of the need of the community to stay strong and united in the face of continued adversity and resistance to change by white officials. He outlined continued protest strategy including non-violent protest, economic boycotts of locally produced products and businesses. Finally, he went on to deliver one of his most rousing sermons in which he speaks of the sacrifice that he and, by proxy, Black activists might have to make.
In it he evokes a different kind of freedom, that of Christian redemption. Dr King was assassinated the following morning. His funeral, attended by over 100,000 people, was televised nationally. During the ceremony at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where he and his father were senior preachers, a recording of his final sermon at the church, ‘the Drum Major Instinct’, was played. His body was then carried by a mule cart to Morehouse College where he studied, followed by the crowd. He was subsequently buried at South View cemetery which was established by slaves beneath an inscription that reads “Free at last, Free at last, Thank God Almighty, I’m Free at last.”
Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Say his name.
Electronic Library Resources
For researchers the following electronic resources that the British Library subscribes to may be useful. Please note that while the Library remains closed to readers during the Covid19 lockdown, reference services staff are assisting with requests for electronic research materials that are not available to readers remotely:
African American Newspapers: 1827-1998 parts 1 & 2 (available to registered British Library readers from home). This invaluable resource brings full access to hundreds of local, regional, and national African American newspapers.
US Congressional Serial Set (available to registered British Library readers from home). Reports, documents and journals of the US Senate and House of Representatives in full text, 1817-1994. Includes congressional reports on the 1968 riots, as well as broader records of discussions about the Civil Rights Movement.
The Black Freedom Struggle in the Twentieth Century: Organisational Records and Personal Papers, parts one and two (reading room access only). Includes the organisational papers of the Southern Christian Leadership Congress, the Congress of Racial Equality, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs, and the Revolutionary Action Movement. They also include the personal papers of Bayard Rustin, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Robert F. Williams.
Race Relations in America, 1943 - 1970 (reading room access only). The Race Relations Department, based at Fisk University, was a highly influential think tank offering a forum for discussion and research on racial topics. The work of the Department highlighted topics such as poverty and inequality, class, housing, employment, education and government policy. Its programme attracted many well-known figures in the Civil Rights Movement, including Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King Jr., Bayard Rustin, Charles Houston, and Marguerite Cartwright.
Further materials can be found online at the following links:
Digital SNCC Gateway https://snccdigital.org/
For any parents who are struggling to find a way to talk with their children about race and racism, the following online resources may be useful.
Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust resources page
Black Cultural Archives
Black Lives Matter toolkits
National Museum of African American History "Talking about Race"
New York Times article "First Encounters with Race and Racism: Teaching Ideas for Classroom Conversations"
The Martin Luther King, Jr. Education and Research Institute online resources
US National Archives: Civil Rights in America
Civil Rights Teaching: https://www.civilrightsteaching.org/
Finally, this conversation on twitter has a long lists of children’s books about race and racism: https://twitter.com/antisocialbritt/status/1267617830872154113
Eric Foner, “The Contested History of American Freedom”, The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol.137, No. 1 (January 2013), pp.13-31.
Joan Turner Beifuss, At the River I Stand: Memphis, the 1968 strike, and Martin Luther King. Memphis: B&W Books, 1985. Document Supply 86/09202
At the River I Stand (film). 1994. Dirs. David Appleby, Allison Graham, Steven Ross. http://newsreel.org/video/AT-THE-RIVER-I-STAND