America has romanticised the civil rights movement

Some 50 years after Martin Luther King’s death, racial inequality still pervades US society

Fifty years ago on April 4th 1968 the Rev Martin Luther King Jr, America's most famous civil rights activist was shot dead by James Earl Ray at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis Tennessee.

 

It was his third visit to Memphis in less than three weeks. On April 3rd, 1968, Martin Luther King jnr arrived in the southern city of Memphis ahead of a planned march on April 5th in support of the city’s striking sanitation workers.

In the preceding months the civil rights leader had begun to focus his attention on the plight of the poor and the economic injustices that underpinned the racial inequality of America.

Memphis had long been home to a large African-American population. Nestled in the southwest corner of Tennessee along the Mississippi river, the city had developed into a major industrial hub in the 19th century thanks to the cotton industry.

The huge plantations that stretched down into the state of Mississippi just south of Memphis provided a continuous supply of cotton, powered by slave labour. African-Americans were a familiar presence in the city, the centre for slave markets in the region.

During the civil war of the 1860s many newly-emancipated slaves migrated north from the Mississippi Delta to Memphis, bringing their cultures and musical heritage with them.

The night before his death King addressed his fellow African-Americans at Mason Temple in southern Memphis, speaking in prophetic terms about the coming protest and the threats against him.

“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place, but I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain, and I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land,” he said, in what was to be his final speech.

The following day he spent the afternoon at the Lorraine Motel with advisers and friends, including the Reverend Jesse Jackson.

As the clock struck 6pm, King stepped out onto the balcony of his room and was hit by a bullet shot from the second-floor of a boarding house opposite the motel. The FBI, who had been monitoring King, rushed to the scene, but it was too late.

He was pronounced dead in hospital an hour later. James Earl Ray, a white surpremacist, was later charged with his murder.

Final hours

Today the Lorraine Motel has been converted into the National Civil Rights Museum. On this humid March morning tourists wander in and out of the museum, finishing their tour in the room where King spent his final hours.

The museum tells the story not just of King, but of those who made the civil rights movement possible. People like Charles Hamilton Houston and future supreme court justice Thurgood Marshall, who took the first legal cases against segregation, paving the way for the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Or Ethel Tompkins, the only black student in the class of 1961 at Hoxie High School in Arkansas – her graduation picture on display at the museum is a powerful visual reminder of the fierce resistance that still existed towards integrated education even after the landmark Brown V Board of Education Supreme Court ruling of 1954 which outlawed segregation in the classroom.

Amid the often harrowing footage, the museum is a reminder of the power of King’s ethos of non-violent confrontation. Despite the vicious backlash, most of the protests succeeded in their ultimate aims – the year-long boycott by black passengers of buses in Montgomery, Alabama, after Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat resulted in a change of policy.

Similarly, the mass sit-ins by black students at lunch counters which began with the Greensboro sit-in of 1960 in North Carolina ultimately led to Woolworths removing its policy of racial segregation in the south.

King’s legacy

But the museum also opens up important questions about the legacy of King 50 years after his death, and the racial inequality that still persists in the US despite the achievements of the civil rights movement.

Despite the achievements of the civil rights movement, African-Americans have not improved in their economic standing

Assessing the current state of race relations and the legacy of King is a central theme of next week’s commemorations, says Terri Freeman, president of the National Civil Rights Museum. The programme of events is titled “Where Do We Go From Here?” – a reference to King’s final book – but is also an invitation to explore the next steps in the movement that King championed.

“There has been a lot of progress in the past 50 years, but challenges remain,” she says. “Despite the achievements of the civil rights movement, African-Americans have not improved in their economic standing.”

She cites education as an example. This week Linda Brown, the Kansas child who was at the centre of the landmark Brown V Board of Education, passed away at the age of 76. But Freeman questions how far things have changed more than 60 years on.

“We talk about Brown v Board yet more than 70 per cent cent of African-American students in Washington DC are attending schools where the student population is non-white, with public schools in New York also effectively segregated.” she says. “We need to ask why that is the case.”

Mary Mitchell (right) and Luella Marshall in Orange Mound, Memphis. Mitchell decided with a group of friends to travel to Atlanta for King’s funeral. “It was difficult to leave. The police were everywhere. There were riots across the country in the days after he was shot”
Mary Mitchell (right) and Luella Marshall in Orange Mound, Memphis. Mitchell decided with a group of friends to travel to Atlanta for King’s funeral. “It was difficult to leave. The police were everywhere. There were riots across the country in the days after he was shot”

National fable

Jeanne Theoharis, professor at Brooklyn University, agrees. Her most recent book A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History, warns against romanticising the civil rights movement.

“The civil rights movement has become something of a national fable, with figures like King and Rosa Parks at the centre. There is a sense that most Americans embraced him, supported him at the time, but in fact the opposite was the case.

“I think we have got to a point where we think about King in a way that makes us feel good about ourselves and the progress we’ve made. It has become a celebratory tale, not a challenging one – not one that asks us to take a look at ourselves and assess where race relations now stand.”

Concerns about the inequality that still exists in American society have been on the rise in recent years. Ironically it was during the presidency of America’s first black president, Barack Obama, that new flashpoints in the debate about racial equality opened up, with movements such as Black Lives Matter emerging in response to the killing of black citizens by police officers and racial profiling.

Just this week protests erupted in Sacramento, California, over the killing of an unarmed 22-year-old African-American by police.

A Pew Research poll from 2016 found that four in 10 black Americans were doubtful that the US would ever achieve racial equality.

Their fears appear to be borne out by statistics. Lawyer and scholar Michelle Alexander set out some of the hurdles still facing black Americans in her groundbreaking book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

New tactics

Alexander argues that the structures and systems of Jim Crow – the system of state segregation laws introduced in the south as a backlash against the abolition of slavery – still exist in American society, but in different ways. “In each generation new tactics have been used for achieving the same goals,” she writes.

She predicts that one in three young African-American men will serve time in prison if trends continue,while in some states black men have been admitted to prison on drug charges at rates 20 to 50 times greater than those of white men. It is a trend that can be linked to the explosion in America’s prison population and the privatisation of the prison system since the 1970s.

Alexander argues that the disproportionate number of black men in prison cannot be explained by crime rates, but that racial discrimination is present at every stage of the criminal justice system, from the initial stop-and-search to the sentencing phase.

Similarly, the US bail system is to blame. With people unable to meet bail payments, they instead opt or are forced to stay in prison, often for minor crimes.

The issue of mass incarceration – which is also explored in the documentary film 13th, a reference to the 13th amendment to the constitution that abolished slavery – also has a knock-on effect on voting and political representation.

Under US law convicted felons are prohibited from voting. It means that “an extraordinary percentage of black men in the United States are legally barred from voting today, just as they have been throughout most of American history”, according to Alexander.

Voting rights

Of equal concern is a move in some states to restrict voting rights in a way that disproportionately affects black voters in some regions, whether by changing ID requirements or voting rules.

The issue of racial gerrymandering is not just an argument of black activists – it is a live legal issue in the United States. In 2016 federal judges ruled that North Carolina lawmakers had racially gerrymandered districts when they redrew a congressional map in 2011.

The supreme court is due to rule on a case involving alleged racial gerrymandering in Texas this year, as well as partisan gerrymandering in Wisconsin and Maryland.With most African-Americans voting Democrat, the racial politics of voting rights can have a significant bearing on electoral results.

Here in Memphis, a city which is 63 per cent black, evidence of racial disparity is present if you look closely enough. Step outside the civil rights museum and within a few blocks you enter a desolate neighbourhood filled with empty car lots and abandoned buildings.

The once thriving downtown area is tired and run down save for the constant flow of tourists drawn to the city’s blues scene and bars and restaurants on Beale Street.

Like many US cities Memphis underwent a downturn in the 70s. The phenomenon of “white flight” – whereby wealthier white citizens moved out to the suburbs – took root, reinstating divisions that were supposed to be abolished with the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Income lines

Today Memphis – just like cities such as Washington DC – is in many ways effectively segregated along racial and income lines, with black communities living together in one part of the city and wealthier whites in another, a trend that is reflected in the make-up of the school population.

A study by the National Museum of Civil Rights in conjunction with the University of Memphis earlier this year found that in Shelby County – a region that encompasses Memphis and the surrounding area – the median income of blacks is still 50 per cent below that of whites.

Similarly, half a century after King travelled to Memphis to support local sanitation workers who had gone on strike after two employees died on the job, members of the union representing garbage workers only last year won a fight to claim pension entitlements.

An empty pedestal in a Memphis park after a statue of Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest was removed. Photograph: Getty Images
An empty pedestal in a Memphis park after a statue of Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest was removed. Photograph: Getty Images

Mary Mitchell (81) and her friend and colleague Luella Marshall are proud residents of Orange Mound in eastern Memphis, one of the oldest African-American communities in the country. They recall where they were the day King was shot.

“I was working at the hospital,” says Mitchell, “and all of a sudden there were sirens, chaos. I tried to get back to my kids, but the city was in lockdown, state troopers everywhere.”

Mitchell finally made it home, and four days later she decided with a group of friends to travel to Atlanta to the funeral. “It was difficult to leave. The police were everywhere, there were riots across the country in the days after he was shot.”

A group of male friends picked up the group of four women, then in their early 30s, and they drove to Atlanta overnight. “It was worth it. To be there to give thanks for this man who the Lord sent to us was special.”

Our prayers

Mitchell, who now works as the honorary historian for her community, welcomes the changes she has seen in the past 50 years. Does she believe that Donald Trump has had a negative impact on race relations?

“To be honest I think he is sick, mentally deranged,” she says in slow, steady tones. “He needs our prayers.”

Tami Sawyer, is a Memphis native and local activist who is running in upcoming county elections as a Democrat. She was part of the campaign that successfully campaigned for the removal of two confederate statues from Memphis parks.

The statues – symbols to many of the pro-slavery ideals held by the confederate, slave-owning southern states in the American civil war – were taken down late last year, though the move is now subject to legal proceedings.

In part she believes that Trump’s victory was a reaction against the Obama presidency. Unlike some in the black community, including prominent members of Black Lives Matter, who queried whether Obama had done enough for race relations during his eight years in power, she remains a strong supporter of Obama.

“The problem is not just Donald Trump, it is the people around him. They are just giving voice to something that has been there under the surface since Obama’s election, a resurgent white nationalism.”

She says she was not surprised at the display of white supremacy that horrified so many last August at the demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia.

More division

Terri Freeman of the National Civil Rights Museum agrees. While reluctant to comment on political matters, she does say of the Trump presidency: “I would say this, I think that in any organisation or institution the tone is set by the person at the top. The tenor and the tone of our democracy is not the tone that allows people to come together. It creates more division.”

As for the events in Charlottesville, she says: “There are very few black people in America who thought that had disappeared. We’ve been in enough rooms to hear the inappropriate comments, but what was disturbing was that instead of people wearing hoods and sheets they were wearing khakis and polos. There was no sense that it was inappropriate to be fully identifiable, saying ‘Jews will not replace us.’ That’s what was so disturbing.”

Nonetheless, Freeman is optimistic for the future. “Those young people marching in DC last weekend to protest about gun crime, of all colours and creeds, gives us hope – that Dr King’s belief that ideas of justice, equality and fairness could be achieved by non-violent means.

“That is the message we need to bring forward in our lives and our communities.”

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