1960s >> 1968 >> no-765-may-1968

The Review Column: Martin Luther King

 Martin Luther King

Even before the killing of Martin Luther King, this summer promised to be a bad one for race troubles in America. Many city authorities, fearing an intensifying of the riots, had armed themselves with some formidable weapons.

The Negroes were also preparing and waiting, with no lack of black nationalists to advise them on how to use arms, petrol bombs and the like. This menacing situation was ignited by the assassination of Martin Luther King and the death of the advocate of passive resistance was, ironically, marked by a flare-up of the very violence he denounced.

King had, in fact, been losing some ground to the groups like Black Power and this in itself is symptomatic of the change which America has undergone during the last twenty years; The suppression which the Negroes have suffered for so long was bound one day to erupt. For too long have they been denied the vote, subjected to a host of indignities and restraints. For too long has colour discrimination been a part of the American way of life. For too long has a coloured life been cheap so that, in some states, the murder of a Negro counts for little more than the killing of an insect—and the body silently disappears into some southern swamp.

The predictable result of this has been the Negro protest, the riots and the rise of the Black Power theorists. Kill Whitey and Burn, Baby, Burn are sterile remedies for the Negroes’ frustrations—but who, or what, must bear the blame for them?

Martin Luther King, for all his courage, had little more to offer the American Negroes than a place beside the country’s white workers. For most coloured workers, this is their highest aim—the right of access to the same sort of employment, the same sort of working class homes, the same sort of terms from the hire purchase company, as others.

Many have died in the long history of the American Negro, and many will die in the future. Is the result of it all only to be the exchange of one kind of oppression for another?

Wilson’s Latest Gimmick

Harold Wilson, it is said, has always thought Macmillan made a serious mistake when in July 1962, in panic at the Orpington by-election result, he butchered so many of his Cabinet.

Wilson, it is true, has shown no comparable ruthlessness—and if ever a Prime Minister had cause to panic he has now. But panic or not the latest government reshuffle, which had already been dubbed by Richard Crossman in fashionable technological jargon as Wilson Cabinet Mark II, was plainly inspired by the government’s low popularity.

The big move was that of Barbara Castle from Transport to the new Ministry which will combine some of the work of the Ministry of Labour and the Department of Economic Affairs. Castle has proved in her term at the Ministry of Transport that she is a cunning politician and a master of the art of public relations. It was a shrewd, if despairing, move to give her the job of kindling the government’s latest pillar of fire—the promise that, if we all concentrate on productivity wage restraint will come off and we shall soon arrive at the Promised Land.

This must have been about the only ember Wilson was able to find, as he raked about in the ashes of his defeats— his unpopularity, the sour memory of his National Plan, the ludicrous impotence of his Rhodesia policy, the long list of broken promises. Castle, the one-time firebrand, Aldermaston marcher, anti-apartheid campaigner, could be just the person to fan the ember into flame and to mislead the working class into a belief that, whatever may have happened in the past, there is some hope for them in the future.

The working class, as we know, can be infuriatingly gullible. But are they really so far gone that they will be impressed by this latent, and emptiest, of gimmicks?

Johnson—All The Way?

Will LBJ go all the way? Whatever he may have said about his firm intention not to run for office in November, there is still a chance that this is no irreversible decision.

The mounting opposition to Johnson’s policies, and the explosive frustration at his failure to build the Great Society to order, seemed to have put him on a hiding to nothing. His one chance was to opt for the nothing, and some of his conduct since his renunciation—for example the peace moves in Vietnam—suggests that he is now trying to build up a campaign from there.

Whatever the truth of this, there is no denying that Johnson had found himself with hardly any room to manoeuvre—an unusual plight for the master politician, the ace fixer, the famous wheeler-dealer. This was the man who convinced millions of Americans that he was their saviour, who won an unprecedented victory in 1964, who was so recently the object of mass adulation. Now, Johnson has given up, or at best is struggling desperately for survival.

There is nothing unprecedented in this. One after another, politicians come, see the problems of capitalism and conquer with their promises to cure them. It does not usually take long for reality to assert itself, for the anarchies of capitalism to expose the promises and to turn the blind faith of the followers in their leader into angry disillusionment.

This has happened to Johnson and it has happened in this country to Harold Wilson, who came to power at the same time as Johnson won his famous victory and who is now similarly discredited and disliked. The fact is that capitalism’s leaders cannot control the system and they cannot break its problems. They themselves are the ones to be broken—and usually the more they promise, the greater the enthusiasm for them, the higher they climb in popular acclaim, the lower and harder they fall.