Charleston, the Republican right, and the lessons of Martin Luther King

It’s a hard life, it’s a hard life
It’s a very hard life
It’s a hard life wherever you go
If we poison our children with hatred
And there ain’t no place in Belfast for that kid to go

A cafeteria line in Chicago
The fat man in front of me
Is calling black people trash to his children
And he’s the only trash here I see

And I’m thinking this man wears a white hood
In the night when the children should sleep
But, they’ll slip to their window and they’ll see him
And they’ll think that white hood’s all they need

It’s a hard life, it’s a hard life
It’s a very hard life
It’s a hard life wherever you go
If we poison our children with hatred
Then, the hard life is all that they’ll know
And there ain’t no place in Chicago for those kids to go

– Nanci Griffith, “It’s A Hard Life Wherever You Go”

By now few people, perhaps with the exception of the talking heads on FOX, are claiming that there was anything random or mysterious about the brutal murder of nine innocent African American people on the hallowed ground of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. The facts are in and irrefutable. A 21-year-old white man poisoned by racist hatred decided that he was going to murder African American people in a sacred and historic place and he proceeded to cold-bloodedly do it.  

What isn’t so obvious is what made Dylann Roof into someone who would commit such a horrific act of hateful bloodletting. No one is born a racist murderer. He grew into one. Surely many things explain his evolution from an innocent child to a hard-core racist seething with rage in his teens and then a few years later into a remorseless, dehumanized murderer. But any accounting has to include the poisoning of the political discourse and atmosphere upon the election of President Obama in 2008, and the subsequent impact on public attitudes and actions.  

When the first African American president began his first term in January 2009, it was reasonable to think that his adversaries would show him some respect and a willingness to search for common ground. That would have been the normal, decent, and sensible thing to do, especially in the midst of the deepest economic depression since the Great Depression. Instead, Obama met a wall of supercharged racist hostility and opposition to even the most innocuous of his political initiatives.

Nothing, no matter how untrue, vile, or provocative, was out of bounds when it came to attacking the new president. Unrelieved vilification, obstruction, “nullification and interposition” – in hiatus since the days of Jim Crow – became the Republican playbook. Any taboos on the use of racist invective, images, and threats of violence against President Obama were lifted.

It was “open season” on our country’s first black president.

The voices of hate, violence, and glorification of guns included, of course, the white supremacist fringe. But if it were only the fringe it would have been no more than a faint noise in the echo chamber of U.S. politics. What gave this noxious message its reach, traction, and amplification was a much larger choir of “upstanding citizens,” occupying prominent positions in the Congress, the courts, business circles, pulpits, think tanks, and mass media, especially talk radio. With a mix of subtle and crude racist diatribes, Sarah Palin, Sean Hannity, Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, Laura Ingraham, Rush Limbaugh, Mitch O’Connell, and many others of their ilk mobilized a resentful, angry, overwhelmingly white mass constituency into shock troops of racist hate and obstruction of Obama’s generally progressive agenda.

Not just marginal beer-drinkers

In other words, the architects of this full court press on the president and his policies weren’t a bunch of young, marginal, beer-drinking, country-listening white males, sitting at their computers and posting racist screeds online. There were such people, and no doubt they had a part in the racist provocations against President Obama and African American people in general. But major figures in the right-wing establishment were the lead actors and major interlocutors.

Not surprisingly, the flood of lies, misrepresentations, and malevolence targeting the nation’s first black president and the African American community found an especially receptive audience in the South – including in South Carolina. There Dylann Roof, not yet 15, was “coming of age” as Barack Obama was elected the country’s 44th president. Whether Roof’s mis-education began in earnest at this time, or before, or a while later, it is certain that at some point he began to inhale and absorb the racial hatred, slanders, and stereotypes that were thick in the air at the time. While no one could have predicted back then what the exact path or endgame of Roof’s socialization process would be, he was surely egged on by the megaphones of the “respectable” right wing in high places.

Thus, Dylann Roof wasn’t the singular author of his own life; none of us is. He had a hand in his own making, but not the main hand. He was not a “lone wolf” as some would like to claim.

Nor was he simply a product of the Internet rants of white supremacist organizations, or of the original sin of slavery. Nor can we chalk up his evolution to institutionalized racism alone and be done with it.

A coterie of “mainstream” right-wing extremists

All these were factors, certainly. But he was also a product – and I would argue considerably so – of the particular set of racial dynamics that evolved in the wake of the 2008 elections in which, as mentioned above, a coterie of “mainstream” right-wing extremists attacked without pause the country’s first African American president and, in doing so, created an environment that facilitated the transformation of a white youngster in South Carolina into a remorseless killer of black people before he was barely a young man.

Fear and hatred among a white minority

That a spike in racist hatred and violence coincided with the election of the first African American president in our nation’s history may seem contradictory. But only at first glance. On deeper inspection, the election of Barack Obama was rich in symbolic meaning for white people, but – and this is what we have to appreciate – in contradictory ways.

For many white people it was an exhilarating and transformative moment, much like it was for African American people and other people of color. When the president and his beautiful family walked onto the stage in Chicago’s Grant Park on Election Night, tears of joy poured from the eyes of millions of Americans of all races and nationalities. It felt like an insurmountable barrier had come down and a new era worthy of our nation’s best ideals and promises was commencing.

But for other white Americans Obama’s election was traumatizing. Their world was turned upside down. Their way of life – the natural order of things, in which their status and sense of well being rested on the permanent assignment of people of African American descent to an inferior and subordinate status – was crumbling fast before their eyes. It felt like “end times” were near. If a magnetic, young, democratic-minded African American is the occupant of the highest position in our land, what’s next?

The election of Barack Obama was for a significant minority of white people destabilizing at best, a nightmare at worst. It spiked their racial anxieties and resentments. It turned some of them into an irrational and frightening mob at times. “Take back our country” and “Impeach the president” became their rallying slogans.

And this near-existential panic intermingled and interacted with other strands of capitalist class ideology that exacerbated divisions, promoted hatred, and caused the dumbing down of the American people – “immigrants steal jobs and feast on government benefits,” “government is too big and out of control,” “taxes kill jobs and incentives to work and invest,” “unions are wrecking the economy and infringing on the rights of workers,” “private is better than public and markets should arbitrate everything,” “liberal elites and the left are soft on terrorism, hostile toward religion, and contemptuous of America,” “gay culture is corrosive of marriage and family values,” and so on.

History lessons

That the right wing would employ this destructive and deadly strategy should probably have been anticipated if history is any guide.

A quick glance at some earlier episodes in our history – the Civil War, post-war Reconstruction in the former slave states, and the civil rights revolution of the 1960s – tells us that defeated white ruling elites were at first shocked and knocked off balance by the loss of their power, deferential treatment, wealth, and privilege, but not for long. They quickly regrouped, blocked radical reform and democratic development, and moved full throttle to restore (not always successfully) their former dominance.

And each time, force and displays of force, mob violence, public lynchings, and political assassinations were the favored weapons of the restorationists. Their purpose wasn’t only to intimidate, inflict pain, and in many instances kill innocent victims. It was also a lesson to white as well as African American Southerners, warning them not to do anything that might either challenge or interfere with the efforts to reestablish the old social arrangements of racial and class subordination and exploitation there.

Ruling classes prefer to govern with the consent of subordinated classes and peoples, but when necessary their monopoly on the instruments of violence allows them to employ state-sanctioned violence or turn a blind eye to extra-judicial violence to either maintain or reimpose their rule.

While the present doesn’t repeat the past, it also doesn’t take a historian to find echoes of the past in the struggles of the present.

Charleston massacre part of a larger canvas

Thus, the massacre in Charleston, as horrendous as it was, is a piece of a larger canvas of extra-judicial and state-sanctioned violence against African Americans and other people of color in recent years as well as earlier periods of U.S. history.

And much like the past, its purpose was to police and discipline the living as much as steal the lives of its innocent victims, to restore by force old racialized political and social arrangements.

What makes Charleston unique, however, is its scale, its setting, its indisputably racist nature, and the immediate rejection and denunciation of it by a broad cross-section of white people including politicians.

The killer fantasized that his action would trigger a race war. But he was wrong. It not only became a wake up call to the entire country to resist racism, but it also threw the right wing – the main purveyors of the climate of racist hatred and violence – on the defensive.

We can draw cautious optimism from the broad insistence, including from public figures across the political spectrum, that the Confederate flag, and other symbols of the Confederacy displayed in public places, come down – coupled with the Supreme Court decisions upholding Obamacare and legalizing marriage equality, the rise of a number of promising social movements, and, not least, the enthusiastic reactions to the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders.  

White people have stake in defeating racism

But whether the possibilities of the present materialize into a new burst of freedom in the future rests in no small measure on turning an anti-racist moment into a sustained and many-sided campaign against racist ideology and practices. The moment, in other words, has to be seized and stretched out by the words and actions of every democratic-minded person and especially the broad coalition that elected and re-elected President Obama. Significant numbers of white people have to step to the plate. Not as a favor to their brothers and sisters of color, but in their own interests and for their own future well being – moral and material. 

Racism strikes people of color the hardest. About that there is no question. As a pervasive ideology and material practice, it denies them equality, security, freedom, and even life. But racism also heightens exploitation of working people irrespective of race and nationality, sustains other forms of inequality and oppression, destroys substantive and participatory democracy, impoverishes white people morally and culturally, and hangs like an albatross on the nation’s progressive development.

Racism confers some relative advantages for white workers that are real. But those aren’t so substantive or so durable, especially in this era of capitalist development, for them to sit out the struggle against racism or, even worse, to think that they have a stake in the maintenance of racism. Much like for workers of color, a society resting on the firm ground of substantive equality and solidarity will give new meaning to and enhance the quality of their lives as well. The only losers will be the main organizers and beneficiaries of racist exploitation, oppression, and ideology – the white ruling elites and their bidders.

King’s legacy

At a moment like this when horror and hope mingle closely together, it is useful to reflect on the the life and legacy of Martin Luther King. He believed racism was neither natural nor eternal. He considered it to be a debilitating and deadly social, political, economic, and ideological construction that had to be uprooted. And that, he knew, took more than people’s good will and piecemeal changes. It required deep-going alterations in the structure, dynamics, and values of society.

” … we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act,” King said in a speech at Riverside Church in New York in 1967. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice, which produces beggars, needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth.”

At the center of King’s political strategy and moral vision to make such changes was nonviolence and mass nonviolent action. In his view, there was nothing cleansing or salutary about the use of violence. Nonviolence as a philosophy and practice may not change the hearts of the perpetrators of violence, but its moral witness, its generosity of spirit, and its affirmation of the preciousness of life, he believed, attracted new supporters to the cause, preserved and asserted our humanity, and prefigured a fully human society that is begging to be born.

By contrast, the use of violence by opponents of oppression, he believed, narrowed down popular support, shifted advantage to the prosecutors and upholders of racism, ruptured the community long into the future, and dehumanized its practitioners no matter how just and righteous their cause.

King and his coworkers never locked people into tightly constructed categories. Instead, they gave space to people to shed old views and embrace new life-affirming ones. All of us, King understood, possess a complicated and contradictory mental makeup. Thus, when people found their better angels, he welcomed it – not grimly, not cynically, not with qualification, not with faint praise, not with “about time,” but rather as the gospel instructs, with open arms and grace, with an understanding that the changing of one heart is a sign, if not a guarantee, that other hearts are close behind, and behind that sometimes lies a tipping point where people en masse will be swept into embracing new values and living anew.

Nor did King have any issue with associating his sacred cause with allies that were unreliable, temporary, and not in the struggle all the way. He resisted the pressures to narrow down the movement to only those who were fully on board and disposed to the most militant forms of action. Instead, he and his coworkers created a range of entry points to allow people with different levels of commitment and understanding a way to participate in the struggle against racism and for substantive democracy.

He also mastered the difficult dialectic of pressing his vision, demands, and tactics while at the same time maintaining unity and cooperation among the diverse actors in the civil rights coalition. Majorities, not active minorities, he knew from experience, were the main guarantee to dismantling the deeply entrenched edifice of racism and inequality on Jericho road.

Moreover, King didn’t stand aloof from politics, but constantly interacted with the White House and Congress at each stage of the civil rights struggle. The notion of disengaging from electoral and legislative work in the name of some abstract political principle was anathema to him and his associates.

At the same time, King never entertained the idea that his oratory or political acumen or ties to people in “high places” alone was the key that unlocked the door to an an emancipatory future. He strongly believed that any hope of progress in the end depends on ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

While King appreciated that any serious and sustained challenge to racism takes a good measure of righteous indignation against racism, he also believed that this can’t substitute for broadly, soberly and flexibly constructed strategies and tactics. Nor can it take the place of a network of broad-based organizations with mature and experienced leaders able to move, unite, and energize broad multi-racial majorities of the American people on “freedom’s highway.”

Were King alive today, I suspect, his anger and genius would be directed not so much at Dylann Roof, but at Roof’s enablers in high places as well as the institutional structures and the priorities that sustain racism in its multiple forms.

He would insist that the websites and organizations of hate and violence come down, that gun control laws be enacted, that the criminal justice and prison system be thoroughly transformed, that restorative justice become the norm for dispensing justice, that jobs with living wages become a right, that the structures of all forms of inequality come down, and that a culture of guns, violence, and militarism be displaced by a culture of equality, human solidarity, and peace here and worldwide.

His voice would echo in the idiom of faith and scriptures – an idiom that resonates deeply in the South and other regions of the country. He would appeal to his fellow white clergy to do the same. He would give a revitalizing labor movement a front row seat in the freedom struggle. He would assist in the elaboration of tactics that maximize unity and draw in the hesitant and cautious. He would lift up the struggle for women’s, immigrants’, and gay rights. He would combine street action and political action. And at the core of his political practice would be nonviolence, nonviolent mass action, and a conviction that ordinary people, when challenged to live up to what is best in their humanity, will do extraordinary things.  

Scaling up and out

King and his travelers on freedom’s highway scaled a movement up and out politically and morally to the point where it became, I would argue, the most notable and successful movement of a mass, progressive, and radically democratic character of the 20th century. They did it with equal parts of creativity, compassion, courage, faith, and enduring commitment. To their regret, they didn’t reach the “Promised Land,” nor create a “beloved community.”  Nevertheless, what they did was history making, and the legacy they leave us we would be foolish to ignore as progressive humanity in decidedly new conditions  attempts to reach new vistas of freedom.

Photo: “It Seemed Like Reaching for the Moon” – Virginia Civil Rights Memorial, Richmond, Va., commemorating protests that helped bring about school desegregation in the state.

The memorial, designed by American sculptor Stanley Bleifeld (1924-2011) and dedicated in 2008, is located on the grounds of the Virginia State Capitol. It features 18 statues of leaders in the Virginia civil rights movement.

Two quotes are engraved on the memorial:

1. “It seemed like reaching for the moon.” – Barbara Rose Johns (1935-1991), a civil rights leader who in 1951, at the age of 16, organized a student strike for equal education at Moton High School in Farmville, Prince Edward County, Va.

2. “The legal system can force open doors and sometimes even knock down walls. But it cannot build bridges. That job belongs to you and me.” – Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall (1908-1993).

The memorial is not far from a statue of Harry F. Byrd, Sr., U.S. senator from Virginia from 1933-1965, who was the architect of the “massive resistance” movement against Virginia school integration in the 1950s and 1960s.

Ron Cogswell/Creative Commons


Sam Webb
Sam Webb

Sam Webb is a long-time writer living in New York. Earlier, he was active in the labor movement in his home state of Maine.