Keeping faith with Dr King

Martin Luther King Jr and family

About 10 years ago I spent part of a summer in Memphis because my boyfriend lived there. One day I visited the National Civil Rights Museum, on the site of the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King was shot. A number of things struck me – I don’t know if they’re still true today.

The museum was literally the wrong side of the tracks. The area was run-down – from downtown, which is smart, you crossed the railway which tracks down to, and over, the Mississippi and suddenly there was rubbish, weeds pushing between cracks in the pavement, little traffic and an aimless quality to the few pedestrians on the street. The museum was nearly empty, which bothered me. There should have been hordes of school-children, tourists and community groups. All the Elvis fans should have been there after their visit to Graceland. And the gamers from inner Tennessee, Kentucky &tc who flocked to the casinos on piles in the legal and tax loophole of the Mississippi River (my boyfriend was a croupier) should have been there. And the blues fans should have been killing time there before Beale St woke up at dusk. And for most of my visit to the museum I was the only white person (I spent a year in North Carolina and I can honestly say, maybe because I grew up in the middle of Bedford, that I’d never noticed colour before that year but since that year I think about it a lot).

The museum is very good. I particularly remember the installation of the Greensboro sit-ins, 1960, when African American students protested segregation by appropriating areas reserved for white people at the lunch counter in Woolworths on Elm St. Greensboro North Carolina was where I worked for a year as an au pair – people said (though I can’t corroborate it) that there was a country club which wouldn’t accept Jews and the one which accepted Jews wouldn’t accept African Americans. In our neighbourhood the only black people you saw were gardeners. White people still went to ‘white colleges’ and black people went to ‘black colleges’. There was still an active KKK, they said, and you’d see a lot of confederate flags and bumper stickers, though not as many as in Tennessee. I would have arguments with people about the ‘bad attitude’ and ‘sense of entitlement’ of African Americans. I should say that there was also a strongly-felt Quaker influence, plenty of independent music, art and cinema, beautiful forests, fantastic keg parties and some of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet. But it’s a place which is redolent with the legacy of segregation.

There’s a chapter in The Logic of Life by Tim Harford (who exemplifies the startling march of economists into general everyday existence) about ‘rational racism’, supported with findings from experiments, which is probably the most depressing thing I’ve read in a long time. In the US Marianne Bertrand and Sunhail Mullainathan sent out CVs which differed only in that some had black names, like Ebony and Leroy, and others white names like Brendan and Alison. The call-back rates were much worse for the CVs with black names (p149-155).

In another experiment (p145-147), Roland Fryer, Jacob Goeree and Charles Holt assigned young idealistic students as Employers or Workers, and subdivided the Workers into Green or Purple categories. The workers had to decide whether or not to spend money on an ‘education’. There followed a ‘test’, which was actually a random throw of a dice but with the odds loaded in favour of those who had paid for an ‘education’. Then there was a hiring decision. The Employers were given two pieces of information: the colour of the worker and the result of the test (which hinted, but did not confirm, whether the Worker had paid for an ‘education’ or not). The Employers then made their decision. There were twenty more iterations of this process, using a Web interface which showed the Employers the average test scores and hiring rates for Greens and Purples. The outcome for the first round was colour-blind. But by the second round, chance had given the Greens a better test score and hiring rate, and the Employers incorporated this history into their judgement and were more willing to take a chance on Greens. Purples became demoralised, and began to stop investing in their ‘education’ – why bother if the odds were stacked against their getting hired in the first place?

There’s a section on the controversial idea of ‘acting white’ – that black people can ‘betray’ their roots and their community by, say, trying hard at school, or showing an interest in art. Hence Barack Obama’s address (p157) at the 2004 Democratic National Convention where he said, “Children can’t achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television sets and eradicate the slander that says that a black youth with a book is acting white”.

I wondered, and couldn’t find any clues, what bearing this phenomenon had on Richard Wright’s experience, written up for the gripping opening salvo of the cultural Cold War, The God That Failed (1950, ed. Richard Crossman), of the punishing experience of being a black writer and Communist in Chicago in the 1930s, cautioned for being an ‘intellectual’ by senior black Party members (p128):

A quiet black Communist came to my home one night and called me out onto the street to speak to me in private. He made a prediction about my future that frightened me.

“Intellectuals don’t fit well into the Party, Wright”, he said, solemnly.

“But I’m not an intellectual,” I protested. “I sweep the streets for a living.” I had just been assigned by the relief system to sweep the streets for thirteen dollars a week.

“That doesn’t make a difference,” he said. “We’ve kept records of the trouble we’ve had with intellectuals in the past. It’s estimated that only 13% of them remain in the Party.”

and openly laughed at by black peers (p127):

“I learned, to my dismay, that the black Communists in my unit had commented upon my shined shoes, my clean shirt, and the tie that I had worn. Above all my manner of speech had seemed an alien thing to them.

“He talks like a book,” one of the Negro comrades had said. And that was enough to condemn me forever as a bourgeois.

To what extent being a black comrade came to bear on this derision I don’t know. Richard Wright’s self-care, contrasts interestingly with Arthur Koestler’s account of the deliberate neglect of Hungarian Communist sympathisers in one of the volumes of his autobiography, I forget which. He reminisces about the admiration, and even envy, the bourgeois communist sympathisers felt for the genuine, callous-handed, accented proletariat, and the way they used to affect that way of dressing and talking.

For Richard Wright being working class did not suddenly become glamourous when he became a Communist.  He didn’t suddenly love to dress shabbily and talk as if he had no education. Richard Wright was reaching for a better life. For black people in the US Communism was the only prospect of emancipation from segregation and the physical drudgery which was the likely life course for black people in 1930s America.  And yet his black comrades derided him for his self-care. Crossman comments in the introduction to The God That Failed (p9),

Richard Wright’s story has special interest, because it introduces in an American setting the issues of “imperialism” and race. As a Negro dweller in the Chigago slums, he felt, as no Western intellectual could ever feel, the compelling power of a creed which seemed to provide a complete and final answer to the problems of both social and racial injustice. All the other contributers made a conscious sacrifice of personal status and personal liberty in accepting Communist discipline; for Wright, that discipline was a glorious release of pent-up energies. His sacrifice was made when he left the party.

whatever its failures in the West, Communism still comes as a liberating force among the Colored peoples who make up the great majority of mankind [sic – ironic isn’t it]. As an American NEgro, Wright both belongs and does not belong to Western democracy. It was as an American writer, imbued with a Western sense of human dignity and artistic values, that he fell afoul of the Communist apparatus. But as a Negro he utters the tragic sentence after he has left the Party. “I’ll be for them, even if they are not for me”.

Millions of Colored people are not subjected to the complex conflict through which Richard Wright passed. For them, Western democracy means, quite simply, “white ascendancy”. Outside the Indian subcontinent, where equality has been achieved through a unique act of Western statesmanship, Communism is still a gospel of liberation among the Colored peoples, and the Chinese or African intellectual can accept it as such withouth destroying one half of his personality.”

Having read Richard Wright’s account of his Communist years, which ended with the physical expulsion, head-first, by white Communists while black Communists stood by, from the Communist Party ranks of the 1936 May Day demonstration, that is terribly sad.

That’s why even all these years after Dr King’s life and death it’s not surprising that prejudice, including self-prejudice remains a serious handicap for black people – possibly only a slightly bigger handicap for the descendants of slaves in the US than for black people in Britain. This is why it’s important to remember Dr King as somebody who started something difficult, painful – fatal in his case – and largely unfinished.

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