Remember Direct Action As Part Of Dr. King’s Legacy
Note: The interview below was originally published in 2014.
Glen Ford: The Civil Rights Movement ended official racial discrimination in the U.S., but many of its leaders broke with grassroots organizing and direct action and instead chose to become business leaders or members of the Democratic party.
ANTON WORONCZUK, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Anton Woronczuk in Baltimore. And welcome to another edition of The Ford Report.
Now joining us is Glen Ford. Glen is the cofounder and executive editor of the Black Agenda Report and the author of The Big Lie: An Analysis of U.S. Media Coverage of the Grenada Invasion.
Thanks for joining us, Glen.
GLEN FORD, EXEC. EDITOR, BLACK AGENDA REPORT: Oh. Thanks for the invitation.
WORONCZUK: So, Glen, as the nation observes another Martin Luther King Day, let’s talk about the part of Dr. King’s life that’s not commonly discussed in the mainstream media. Most people’s understanding of Dr. King’s life tends to begin and end with the 1963 March on Washington. But most people don’t really know that up until the day before he died, he was organizing sanitation workers in Memphis. So let’s talk about that part of his life that’s not commonly discussed.
FORD: Well, Dr. King was involved in a whole range of activities in the five years that separated the March on Washington and his assassination. And yet these years have been excised. It’s kind of like an assassination, a stealing of his life, a putting a cap on it, ending, somehow, in 1963, very conveniently. Dr. King was part of the changes of the ’60s, but he was also changed by them, not necessarily changed in terms of his internal makeup, his worldview, but in terms of the range of topics that he as a Baptist minister thought that he could address.
So everybody’s familiar with the “I Have a Dream” speech. It’s almost anodyne. But back in 1959–I’m going to read something to you that Dr. King wrote in a presentation. This is a dream that he had four years before his “I Have a Dream” speech. He says he has “a dream of equality of opportunity, of privilege and property widely distributed; a dream of a land where men will not take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few”. Now, that’s the kind of dream that has application in today’s world and in today’s politics.
But in 1963, he wasn’t talking about income distribution for a large public. It would take a while. It would take a kind of growth in the movement and new voices coming in that would move King to speak his mind, I believe, on issues of social transformation and of war and peace.
WORONCZUK: So some of these issues that you mentioned were poverty, militarism, racism. Talk about the [part of the end of his] life where he would speak out against the U.S. being one of the greatest purveyors of violence in the world.
FORD: You have to understand that the civil rights battle was essentially won in terms of getting rid of grand apartheid in America, that is, official racial discrimination. Basically, that was won with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. There was only one arena that could be dealt with in terms of legislation, and that was housing, and the Fair Housing Act was passed a week after his assassination.
But basically the civil rights law agenda was completed in a remarkably short period of time, by ’65. After that period, King was talking about where do we go from here, how do we connect what he considered to be a moral and spiritual movement to the other movements that were underway. And understand that in the black community, post ’65 is a time when people have just discovered the word, the term self-determination and are trying to figure out what that means in their lives. And so we see the black power movement and we see eventually the founding of the Black Panther Party, which was an openly socialist and revolutionary movement that identified with people’s struggles all over the world.
And so, finally, in 1967, when King makes the best speech of that period of his life, April 4 at Riverside Church, and breaks with Lyndon Johnson over the Vietnam War and calls the Vietnam War a war on the poor, besides being immoral and a crime against the Vietnamese people, he describes the militarist military industry as a great suction machine that just sucks all of the resources that should be going towards bettering the lot of people in this country and sucks it into the Pentagon. He spoke in terms that were not socialist, but certainly in terms that any socialist would use.
But the reason that I read that 1959 speech earlier on is to say that this was his philosophy, his outlook on the world before the March on Washington. His dream was always bigger than the one that he exposed to the world in ’63.
WORONCZUK: So, very briefly, what would you say were the concrete successes and failures of the civil rights movement?
FORD: In terms of getting rid of grand apartheid in the United States, total success. That is, the United States was no longer a country that discriminated by law against people because of their race. And that was a huge victory.
The question then becomes: well, okay, so we’re no longer officially subcitizens. What do we do in terms of these burning questions, not just black poverty, not just de facto segregation in housing and education, but what do folks do in terms of really coming to grips with their fundamental rights to organize society in ways that suit their people’s needs, that is, the self-determination question? That is one that is unresolved.
Instead, many of Dr. King’s lieutenants and others took advantage of the opportunities that the death of American grand apartheid divided to go into business and into the Democratic Party and to break with the legacy of grassroots organizing and direct action. In fact, today, I think, maybe one of the best proofs of what has been lost is the fact that very few people today understand what direct action is. They think it just means walking down the street and possibly shouting slogans and holding up a placard. But direct action, as Dr. King understood it and practiced it, meant bringing a social institution or the society itself locally to a halt, to make the system scream, just like its victims screamed, to bring contradictions to a head, so that everyone could see what the real problem was, that is, to confront authority. And that’s not understood in terms of what King’s legacy is.
WORONCZUK: Glen, thanks so much for joining us.
FORD: Thank you.
WORONCZUK: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
Glen Ford is a distinguished radio-show host and commentator. In 1977, Ford co-launched, produced and hosted America’s Black Forum, the first nationally syndicated Black news interview program on commercial television. In 1987, Ford launched Rap It Up, the first nationally syndicated Hip Hop music show, broadcast on 65 radio stations. Ford co-founded the Black Commentator in 2002 and in 2006 he launched the Black Agenda Report. Ford is also the author of The Big Lie: An Analysis of U.S. Media Coverage of the Grenada Invasion.