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Greta Is Our MLK. That’s Not Necessarily a  Good Thing.

Greta Is Our MLK. That’s Not Necessarily a Good Thing.

Diversity of Tactics

January 21, 2020

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Above: Arnold Schwarzenegger and Greta Thunberg in Austria, May 2019

In September of last year, a young girl stood in a Washington DC congressional building to give a speech. Audaciously, she professed to follow in the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famed address to the March on Washington in 1963. “I also have a dream,” she intoned, “that governments, political parties and corporations grasp the urgency of the climate and ecological crisis and come together despite their differences…I have a dream that the people in power, as well as the media, start treating this crisis like the existential emergency it is.”

Greta Thunberg may not be an orator on the level of Dr. King, but there is something undeniably compelling about her. She’s an appropriate celebrity for the era of Bernie Sanders, where a lack of traditional charisma connotes authenticity. More importantly, the content of her speech was both learned and thoughtful, touching on everything from the techno-optimism of both the left and right, to the looming 12 year deadline to cut emissions to pre-industrial levels, to nasty “non-linear effects” which could hit us even before that deadline, to a global “climate justice” paradigm that recognizes the greater obligation that wealthy Americans have to solve the problem.

Legitimate criticism of Thunberg seems as unthinkable as criticism of Martin Luther King. One group of prominent supporters recently called her “unimpeachable” on all levels. Attacks are expected from the far-right of course—Indeed, another reason that Greta and MLK both draw immediate solidarity from progressives is the sense of protectiveness which they inspire. Thunberg has had to contend with crude jibes about her autism and inexperience. Dr. King faced slander, blackmail, and repeated threats on his life.

And yet Greta, like MLK, has prompted that unthinkable: Criticism from the political left which questions the soundness her methods and effect on the movement. As with King, Thunberg acolytes have attributed these critiques to jealousy, bigotry, vested interests, and even proto-fascism. Yet many harsh critics of Dr. King—Ella Baker, Malcolm X, Gloria Richardson, James Forman and others—were just as dedicated to social justice as he was, and took similar risks in their activism. Further complicating the narrative is that movement historians have studied the criticisms leveled at MLK by his colleagues and found many if not most of them to be legitimate. With that in mind, leftward salvos at Thunberg need to be taken seriously as well.

One of the recurring claims about both King and Thunberg is that they were aligned from an early stage with elite interests who were working against the activists’ own cause. Veteran civil rights organizer Ella Baker criticized MLK for being a corporate media darling who distorted both the image and goals of the movement. When she left a position at Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (which she had helped found) to create a new group, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), she warned fellow activists about the phenomenon of the “charismatic leader…It usually means the media made him, and the media may undo him…such a person gets to the point of believing that he is the movement.”

There is nothing in Ella Baker’s critique of King that’s particularly exaggerated. In January 1957, when King had only been an activist for a year and a half, he was contacted by Clare Booth Luce, conservative mogul of the Time magazine empire, and offered a cover story. According to King biographer Taylor Branch, Luce rescued King from a state of “helplessness”. In the aftermath of the famous bus boycott and its apparent victory, the City of Montgomery had shut down all bus lines after the Ku Klux Klan began shooting at black passengers, and commenced to enact a whole new wave of segregation laws—an early manifestation of the Dixiecrats’ “Massive Resistance” campaign which blocked King’s nonviolent movement throughout the late fifties. Luce, who was also US Ambassador to Italy, was explicit that she wanted to show off King, at the height of the Cold War, to a skeptical global public who doubted that there was hope for racial progress in America.

Greta-A Schwarzenegger

Similarly, Greta Thunberg has been criticized for her comfortable relationship with the very decision-making class whom she pillories. Thunberg has repeatedly met with Arnold Schwarzenegger, the ardently green capitalist former governor of California. Arnold championed the state’s carbon cap-and-trade scheme, which ProPublica has exposed asallowing California’s biggest polluters to conduct business as usual and even increase their emissions.” Schwarzenegger’s entire record on the climate crisis has been one of empty promises—precisely the sort of empty promises Greta Thunberg claims she is here to confront. The young Swede’s carefully arranged meeting with Barack Obama isn’t any more reassuring. In several speeches Thunberg has rightly thrown shade at “economic growth” as a hinderance, not a help, to a climate stability. But not only is Obama a booster of capitalist growth, he is an unrepentant booster of fossil fuel extraction. “[US oil] production went up every year I was in office,” Obama boasted to a university audience less than a year before meeting Thunberg. “Suddenly America is the largest producer of oil! That was me, people.” The Environmental Integrity Project has reported that this oil and gas boom eliminates all of the net emission reductions which had been achieved through US coal plant closings. Greta declared she didn’t want any more pacifying doses of political “hope”, yet she’s embraced the most slippery merchant of hope in modern political history.

In his lifetime, Martin Luther King ‘s alliance with Nelson Rockefeller, one of his top funders, was often looked upon dimly. As Timothy Tyson demonstrated in his classic book Radio Free Dixie, Rockefeller and King worked in concert to suppress the radical but popular North Carolina leader Robert F. Williams, who advocated for armed self-defense against the KKK. King once claimed that Governor Rockefeller had ‘‘a real grasp and understanding of what the Negro revolution is all about, and a commitment to its goals.’’ The governor’s subsequent order of the worst state massacre of African-Americans in US history at Attica prison (“a beautiful operation” Rockefeller later boasted to Richard Nixon) and his authorship of some of the most racist drug laws in the country (a blueprint for the New Jim Crow) revealed a different agenda.

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During this time of year, the left often praises King for his anti-capitalism, but history shows that MLK’s turn to radicalism was hard won. “In some ways,” Michael Eric Dyson has written, “King’s change was even more startling and consequential than Malcolm X’s…what is little appreciated is how…an element of Malcolm’s thinking got its hooks into King.” Pre-1965, King was a public supporter of US foreign policy and capitalism who preferred to rely on traditional political maneuvers, even as he supposedly represented a movement built on direct action (MLK scholar Clayborne Carson notes that the reverend did not initiate the bus boycott, the sit-ins, or the Freedom Rides, and only participated in them reluctantly). This gradually changed due to relentless criticism and pressure put on King by militant activists associated with SNCC.  “His antiwar activity was motivated as much by moral and political pressure from key black colleagues as by conscience and commitment to nonviolence,” notes Dyson. King’s moderate tendencies had come from his association with Rockefeller and other One Percenters, who were supporters of the Vietnam War. One scholar does credit “King’s deft leveraging of power” in the relationship, but also notes that Rockefeller leveraged MLK expertly for political capital.

Leveraging political capital explains much about Greta Thunberg’s counterintuitive relationship with the World Economic Forum. Greta, of course, made a famous “impromptu” speech to the WEF meeting in Davos, Switzerland on January 24, 2019. She was credited by many commenters with making oligarchs feel “uncomfortable” by calling out people who are “making unimaginable amounts of money” from the destruction of the climate. Yet there’s substantial evidence that the Forum establishment wasn’t made uncomfortable at all, but welcomed the spectacle of dissent: A full day before Thunberg’s speech, the WEF was promoting a video of her speaking essentially the same words on their Twitter feed. In the months since, the WEF has not only not blacklisted the activist, but has praised her and welcomed her back.

Why would the World Economic Forum accept such a critique of itself? Because youthful, angry dissent against 21st century capitalism was not pioneered by Greta Thunberg. Indeed, in comparison with the riotous blockades that progressives and anarchists once launched against the WEF, being scolded by a lone 16 year old was a veritable picnic. “Swiss police have mounted their biggest security operation in decades to try to prevent protesters from disrupting the conference.” reported the Los Angeles Times in January 2001. “Four cars were set on fire during protests in Zurich by up to 1,000 demonstrators after many were prevented by police from traveling to Davos. Police responded by firing tear gas and rubber pellets.” The goal of these protests was abolition, not institutional reform: their slogan was “Wipe out the WEF!” European street militancy declined in the post-9-11 years, but has more recently surged again, including in relation to environmentalism. The 2015 Paris climate summit saw hundreds of green insurgents try to storm the conference area, even after a a state of emergency was imposed on the city. The upcoming generation of climate radicals will be diverted from taking such direct action however—Greta is already at the conferences to represent them. Within the overall context of the climate movement (which includes long-term blockades at Standing Rock and Unist’ot’en British Columbia, as well as insurrections against capital) even Thunberg’s “Friday for Future” strikes represent a clear de-escalation; a step forward only if you value quantity above quality.

Much as Nelson Rockefeller sought to “save capitalism by softening its sharpest edges”, the founder of the WEF, Klaus Schwab, is now in the process of rebranding the earth-devouring global economy as “Stakeholder Capitalism.” According WEF documents, Schwab has had this agenda in place since the first Davos meeting in 1971, but he explicitly attributes its recent advance to what he calls the “Greta Thunberg effect.”

While J. Edgar Hoover and the far-right wielded the stick of the Red Scare against the civil rights movement in the 1960s, the center-right of Rockefeller and other foundation oligarchs wielded the carrot of patronage for MLK. Yet the reform proffered by One Percent is not an alternative to revolution—It’s an antidote to it. As in Dr. King’s era, the establishment is now in full co-optation mode: One half of the elite is pushing against change, while the other half—again led by Rockefeller progeny, who fund Greta allies such as the group 350.org—is pushing for it. But despite the rhetoric, it’s only change on capitalist terms. It will take ruthless criticism of those charismatic leaders held up to represent us if we wish to correct the ship towards true revolt and true justice.

Beyond MLK

The New Inquiry

January 20, 2015

By Lorenzo Raymond

memorialMLK

“Basically your ministers are not people who go in for decisions on the part of people, I don’t know whether you realize it or not…they had been looked upon as saviors.” – Ella Baker

“King was assigned to us by the white power structure, and we took him.” – John Alfred Willams

LBJ and the repressionThe legend of Martin Luther King Jr. looms larger than usual this winter, even though it’s every January that we celebrate his birthday. One reason, obviously, is that there‘s a new Hollywood film out about him, which, while snubbed by the Oscars, has been embraced at the White House. The other reason is that the wave of black resistance sweeping the country today is often characterized as “a new civil rights movement,” and King—we are told—was the supreme leader of the civil rights movement.

However unfair the Oscar snub (whatever its faults, the film is a hell of a lot better, both historically and cinematically, than American Sniper) the most interesting argument so far about Ava DuVernay’s Selma remains the controversy over the relationship between King and President Lyndon Baines Johnson. Former LBJ advisor Joseph Califano has publicly argued that King and Johnson were not at odds during the Selma campaign as the movie depicts, but that the African-American leader followed Johnson’s encouragement to nonviolently dramatize the obstacles that blacks had to voting in the South. The filmmaker shot back that this was “offensive to SNCC, SCLC and black citizens who made it so.” (the acronyms refer to civil rights organizations the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, respectively). But Califano’s assertion has gained traction because there‘s more than a grain of truth in it.

“King: And it’s very interesting, Mr. President, to notice that the only states that you didn’t carry in the South, the five Southern states, have less than 40 percent of the Negroes registered to vote. It’s very interesting to notice. And I think a professor at the University of Texas, in a recent article, brought this out very clearly. So it demonstrates that it’s so important to get Negroes registered to vote in large numbers in the South.” – Johnson Conversation with Martin Luther King on Jan 15, 1965, tape WH6501.04DuVernay distorts the record here in order to avoid one of the great problems of Martin Luther King’s career: his compromised position in relation to the white power structure. Califano may have jumped the shark when he wrote that “Selma was LBJ’s idea” but he hinted at a deeper truth—that the whole idea of Martin Luther King as “the Moses of his people” was largely established and maintained by members of the white elite. In January 1957, when King had only been an activist for a year and a half, he was contacted by Clare Booth Luce, conservative mogul of the Time-Life empire, and offered a cover story. According to King biographer Taylor Branch, Luce rescued King from a state of “helplessness”. In the aftermath of the famous bus boycott and its apparent victory, the City of Montgomery had shut down all bus lines after the Ku Klux Klan began shooting at black passengers, and commenced to enact a whole new wave of segregation laws—an early manifestation of the Dixiecrats’ “Massive Resistance” campaign which blocked King’s nonviolent movement throughout the late fifties. Luce, who was also US Ambassador to Italy, was explicit that she wanted to show off King to a skeptical global public who doubted that there was hope for racial equality in America. The Time article, meanwhile, was explicit that what it liked most about King was his pacifism and moderation; The reverend was “no radical,” they gushed: “he avoids the excesses of radicalism.” MLK’s first visit to the White House took place later that year. In its aftermath, King’s host, Vice-President Richard Nixon, approvingly told President Eisenhower that Dr. King was “not a man who believes in violent and retaliatory pro-Negro actions.” As King’s friend, the black journalist Louis Lomax once acknowledged, “certain white men and events would make the choice for King to become as famous as he did.”

Nelson Rockefeller’s support for MLK, Rockefeller’s work with Kissinger and the Missile Gap. See alsoThe American Right has become notorious in recent years for mythologizing King as a one-dimensional conservative. But it won’t do for the Left to offer up their own whitewash, painting him as a lifelong opponent of the ruling class when he was anything but. Before the fifties were over, Nelson Rockefeller emerged as one of MLK’s primary sponsors. Rockefeller is often depicted as a progressive, but his major project of the time was escalating the Cold War by promoting the fiction of a “missile gap” between the US and the Soviet Union. His principle agent for spreading this hysteria was a Harvard political scientist named Henry Kissinger. Nelson Rockefeller’s support for MLK, Rockefeller’s work with Kissinger and the Missile Gap. See also It tells us a great deal about the hegemony of elite money over both the respectable Left and the respectable Right that Dr. King and Dr. Kissinger had the same benefactor. As Timothy Tyson demonstrated in his classic book Radio Free Dixie, Rockefeller and King worked in concert to suppress the radical but popular North Carolina leader Robert F. Williams, who advocated for armed self-defense against the KKK. King once claimed that Governor Rockefeller had ‘‘a real grasp and understanding of what the Negro revolution is all about, and a commitment to its goals,’’ but given that Rockefeller would go on to order the worst state massacre of African-Americans in US history at Attica (“a beautiful operation” Rockefeller told Richard Nixon later), and to create some of the most racist drug laws in the country, this was not one of King’s wiser political insights.

Clayborne Carson on MLK’s reluctance toward civil disobedience.The truth is that King’s turn to radicalism was hard won. “In some ways,” Michael Eric Dyson has written, “King’s change was even more startling and consequential than Malcolm X’s…what is little appreciated is how…an element of Malcolm’s thinking got its hooks into King.” Pre-1965, King was a public supporter of US foreign policy and capitalism who preferred to rely on traditional political maneuvers, even as he supposedly represented a movement built on direct action (King scholar Clayborne Carson notes that the reverend did not initiate the bus boycott, the sit-ins, or the Freedom Rides, and only participated in them reluctantly). Clayborne Carson on MLK’s reluctance toward civil disobedience Post-1965, King gradually evolved into a relentless public opponent of American imperialism and avarice who was prepared to personally defy federal injunctions.

“…his antiwar activity was motivated as much by moral and political pressure from key black colleagues as by conscience and commitment to nonviolence…” -Michael Eric Dyson, I May Not Get There With You, p.51-56How did this come about? Principally through the pressure put on King by militant activists associated with SNCC. When SNCC demanded an unconditional withdrawal from Vietnam in January 1966, King suggested a conditional ceasefire—but came around to SNCC’s position a few months later. When SNCC began calling for the election of black officials who were independent of the Democratic Party, King called for the election of more blacks within the Party—but the following year considered an independent campaign himself. “…his antiwar activity was motivated as much by moral and political pressure from key black colleagues as by conscience and commitment to nonviolence…” -Michael Eric Dyson, I May Not Get There With You, p.51-56 When SNCC declared the ghettos were internal colonies that should be granted community control, King rejected this and began campaigning for open housing in white neighborhoods to thin out the ghetto—but then came around to publicly considering “[self-] segregation as a temporary way-station to a truly integrated society.”

LBJ conversation with King, August 20, 1965, Tape WH6508.07Leftists often laud King this time of year for his anti-imperialist statements, epitomized in the classic 1967 speech “Beyond Vietnam”. But a conversation with LBJ illustrates King’s agonizing reluctance on this cause prior to SNCC’s pressure. By 1965, two American pacifists, Alice Herz and Norman Morrison, had already perished setting themselves on fire to protest the war, yet King’s criticism of US aggression in Vietnam remained, in Michael Dyson’s words “a modest proposal” for negotiated settlement. Talking privately with Johnson, King seemed apologetic even for that. In an August 1965 phone call, LBJ pleads the victim (“…if they’ll quit tearing up our roads and our highways and quit taking over our camps and bombing our planes and destroying them, well, we’ll quit the next day…”) and then the Domino Theory (“If I pulled out… I think that we’d immediately trigger a situation in Thailand that would be just as bad as it is in Vietnam. I think we’d be right back to the Philippines with problems. I think the Germans would be scared to death…”) King responds with praise for “the breadth of your concern” in Vietnam which “represents true leadership and true greatness.”LBJ conversation with King, August 20, 1965, Tape WH6508.07 Lobbying is a dirty job. Dyson notes that this “vicious double-bind effectively silenced King’s opposition to the war” during its first wave of escalation.

Ultimately, King embodied a kind of neutral zone that the power structure and the radical grassroots kept trying to push toward their respective goalposts. He once acknowledged that “I have to be militant enough to satisfy the militant, yet I have to keep enough discipline in the movement to satisfy white supporters,” and even admitted at the end of his life that the entire “black church has often been a tail-light rather than a headlight” in the movement. Selma builds up MLK as a decisive leader and strategist, but he was more often a follower and a figurehead.

Although DuVernay claims to defend the honor of the SNCC militants, it is she who paints an offensive portrait of them. When SNCC leader James Forman criticizes King’s media grandstanding and dependence on whites in the film, it’s portrayed as the competitive chest-thumping of a bitter young upstart . Yet in reality, the first person to raise this critique wasn’t some insecure man-child, but an experienced black woman who’d been organizing her people since King was in diapers. Ella Baker was a veteran NAACP organizer who mentored Rosa Parks, and went on to work under MLK in the late fifties. She found him to be an out-of-touch narcissist who was more interested in promoting his book than promoting voter registration. When she left to help found SNCC in 1960, she warned the students about the phenomenon of the “charismatic leader…It usually means the media made him, and the media may undo him…such a person gets to the point of believing that he is the movement.” Militant deviation from King also arose from SNCC leader Gloria Richardson, another mature woman with a grassroots constituency. King originally refused to aid her working-class chapter in Cambridge, Maryland unless he was paid $3000 for speaking, but later invited himself to town after rioting broke out in 1963. Richardson told him that her campaign was going fine (it turned out to be one of the most successful of the period) and that him and his aristocratic style were obsolete in Cambridge.

In 1966 Alabama elections, John Lewis did not support the independent primary of the Lowndes County Freedom Organization with the rest of SNCC, instead joining King in campaigning for Democrat candidate Richmond Flowers. He also refused to join the SNCC boycott of meetings with LBJ. Both were major factors in his being deposed from his Chair. (Branch, At Canaan’s Edge, 460-467)That isn’t to say that men like James Forman were never incendiary, just that they were fired-up with a purpose. After King made a secret agreement with the White House on March 9 to halt the second Selma march (which the foremost historian of the campaign, Gary May, calls “King’s lowest moment as a leader”) Forman led students in a uncompromising sister campaign at Montgomery that broke away from nonviolence, and declared that “If we can’t sit at the table of democracy, we’ll knock the fucking legs off!” This was a risky move given that black riots had swept the Northeast the previous summer, and an armed civil rights militia, the Deacons for Defense and Justice, was beginning to sweep the South. But it was only at this point that Lyndon Johnson introduced the voting rights bill to Congress and sent federal troops to Alabama to intervene between police and protesters. Needless to say, King’s backroom deal and Forman’s bold leadership aren’t included in the movie. (Another SNCC leader, John Lewis, is depicted favorably in the film, but only because he’s a loyalist to King and LBJ. In 1966, he would lose his chair in SNCC due to his devotion to the Democratic Party, a loyalty which has since served him well in his 30 year Congressional career.) In 1966 Alabama elections, John Lewis did not support the independent primary of the Lowndes County Freedom Organization with the rest of SNCC, instead joining King in campaigning for Democrat candidate Richmond Flowers. He also refused to join the SNCC boycott of meetings with LBJ. Both were major factors in his being deposed from his Chair. (Branch, At Canaan’s Edge, 460-467)

These historical distortions aren’t just academic: they affect how we view militancy and moderation today. If activists and supporters aren’t aware of the contribution that rowdy non-nonviolent marches made to the campaign, they might instead chalk it up to King’s horse-trading, and thus submit to elite calls for tighter leadership and a cooling-off period—a course that would undermine the crucial momentum of the movement. (Selma producer Oprah Winfrey has said it’s precisely her intention to divert protesters into King’s “strategic” model.) If they come to associate the archetype of the well-funded, well-connected leader with strategic wisdom, they may find themselves embracing the next faux messianic figure who emerges to channel revolutionary energies into reformism, despite the fact that decades of liberal church leadership have brought real losses to the black community, including rollback of the Voting Rights Act.

Claims that Selma’s success somehow breaks the mold of Hollywood depictions of black struggle are dubious at best. That the filmmakers are women of color doesn’t change the fact that the film is fundamentally a King biopic that entrenches the Great Man theory of history. Meanwhile, commenters have noted that the most memorable sequences of the film feature white racists brutalizing helpless black bodies. “History as a horror movie” wrote The Washington Post approvingly, going on to compare the film to 12 Years a Slave. As Azealia Banks said in her trenchant, courageous interview about racism last month, “It’s really upsetting…that they’re still making movies like 12 Years a Slave. I don’t want to see no more fucking white people whipping black people in movies.”

The post-Ferguson movement is making 21st century history with its overall refusal of accommodation and martyrdom. Yet the historical narrative Selma reproduces threatens to paper over the necessary divisions among today’s protesters with a romanticized view of a “black united front” that never quite was. Lecturing the young militants, one liberal leader recently claimed that for all their “different ideas,” King and SNCC ultimately “came together to dialogue.” She doesn’t mention that this dialogue usually began with the moderate leader apologizing for “the betrayal of my own silences” (to use King’s words in “Beyond Vietnam”). Al Sharpton has been called out by activists repeatedly for his riot-shaming and victim-blaming, yet rather than apologizing, the great patriarch has tried to bad-jacket them as “provocateurs.” But the street kids made this movement. If any false messiah tries to push them away from the table, they should borrow a page from SNCC, and knock the fucking legs off.

 

 

[Lorenzo Raymond is an independent historian and educator living in New York City.]

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