Michael Honey: In Grim Times Like These Remembering Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King Is Helpful

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Michael Honey teaches American history at the University of Washington, Tacoma, and recently held the Harry Bridges endowed chair in labor studies at the UW. He has published two previous award-winning histories of labor and civil rights in the South, and his book on Martin Luther King Jr. and the Memphis sanitation strike is forthcoming from W.W. Norton.]

In recent months, southern freedom fighters Rosa Parks, Coretta Scott King, and most recently, Anne Braden, a less-well known, white opponent of racism, all passed from the scene. Each of these women had a close connection to Martin Luther King, Jr., and the black freedom movement. Each of them, like King, modeled a life-long resistance to racism, militarism, and extreme materialism. Each of them stood up for democratic freedoms and against government despotism.

The best way to honor their legacy is not just to remember their example, but to put our commitment to creating a better world into action, as they did. We are, as they were, in a time of great peril for American democracy, losing many of the freedoms they fought to win. To take one example: after President Richard Nixon illegally wiretapped Americans and bombed Cambodia without a declaration of war, he was forced to resign from office in disgrace. Congress rejected unilateral military intervention by the Executive, and also enacted the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) in 1978 to stop future presidents from conducting surveillance without a court order.

But in our own day, Senator Majority leader Bill Frist says it is allright that President Bush broke the FISA law because he did it with the best of intentions, and Republicans now want to revise the law so presidents don’t have to bother with the courts at all before wiretapping us. And hardly anyone in Congress speaks of the international laws Bush has broken by invading and bombing Iraq or kidnapping and torturing people in the Middle East and even within our own borders.

We face arguably the most corrupt, incompetent, and arrogant administration in our history, one that is fast undermining every area of progress made in the last one hundred years. God help us when the Avian flu finally hits, given the Bush regime’s utter disregard for our health and well being.

Where do we get the strength to fight this? Too often, people think we cannot possibly do what a presumably more heroic person (Dr. King comes to mind) has done to change the world. But it is worth remembering that those heroes and heroines of the past also lived in a time of frightening repression and fear, when many of those in power seemed hopelessly out of touch with reality and humanity. Not just Republicans, but liberal Democrats like Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson placed this nation on a militaristic, bloody path that patriotic Americans have long had to resist. Racism and materialism know no party and have always cast a huge pall over the promise of democracy in America.

Hence, people like Mrs. King, Rosa Parks, and Anne Braden all made commitments to resist wrong as a part of their daily lives, and they often did it under worse circumstances than we face today. They realized that no progress ever occurs without organizing movements from below, and in various ways they set their minds to doing that. If we wish to honor and their pioneering examples, we must make similar commitments to alter our government’s addiction to militarism, racism, and putting profits before people. But how do we do it?

Coretta Scott King, to take one example, made her commitments one at a time. She did not have quite the insulation from racial violence and poverty that Martin’s more middle-class family life afforded him. Whites burned down her father’s sawmill and her family remained nearly as poor as most black southerners in rural Alabama. Coretta became the only second black person to attend Antioch College (her sister was the first), based in part on her great singing ability. But while there, she rather boldly supported Henry Wallace, the Progressive Party candidate for president. He was bitterly attacked as a Communist and traitor for practicing integration in his campaign and for advocating a foreign policy of peace and non-intervention in the affairs of other countries.

The magnificent baritone Paul Robeson, blacklisted for his leftist politics in the 1950s, encouraged Coretta to undertake a career on the concert stage as a soprano. She continued to sing, but chose to marry Martin Luther King and to return with him to her native Alabama to fight segregation. They paid a heavy price for doing so. In 1956, racists bombed the King home, nearly killing Coretta and her daughter Bernice, and many threats, arrests and physical attacks followed. The Kings did not stop. They traveled to India together as peace pilgrims, to Scandanavia when Martin received the Nobel Peace Prize, and marched together on the dangerous road from Selma to Montgomery.

As they watched television coverage of President Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas, in 1963, Dr. King told her, “This is what is going to happen to me.” She accepted this reality not morbidly but as a fact of life. She told a Seattle audience in 1965, “You realize that what you are doing is pretty dangerous, but we go on with the faith that what we are doing is right. If something happens to my husband, the cause will continue. It may even be helped.” She did not flinch, and raised four children in the context of two lives absolutely committed to changing the world.

Coretta opposed the Vietnam War, and prodded Martin to publicly speak out against it, and he came under increasing attack as a traitor to his country when he did so. She took her husband’s place leading peace demonstrations in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., and presided at a Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom conference where she declared, “All women have a common bond – they don’t want their husbands and sons maimed and killed in war.”

An assassin finally snuffed out her husband’s life on April 4, 1968, while he led a strike of 1,300 black sanitation workers, the working poor of their day, to demand the right to have a union. Many whites in Memphis, calling King a Communist and racial agitator, said they were glad he was dead. In this frightening atmosphere, Coretta and three of her children led some 20,000 marchers, holding signs that read, “Honor King: End Racism,” “Union Justice Now,” or, simply, “I Am A Man.” National Guardsmen lined the streets, perched on M-48 tanks, bayonets mounted, as helicopters circled overhead.

Her quiet courage and composed demeanor renewed people’s sense of pride, courage, and respect for the peaceful principles the Movement stood for. In the wake of King’s death, r iots spread to 125 cities, leading to the death of 43 and arrest of over 20,000 people, with the deployment of 60,000 National Guards to suppress the rebellion -- the largest military intervention in domestic affairs since the Civil War.

Coretta’s quiet dignity and fortitude helped to stabilize the nation, and though everyone expected Memphis to blow up, it was the one city that remained peaceful.

Led by Coretta and her children, t he march of workers, unionists, students, religious and civic leaders, Black Power and civil rights advocates represented the interracial “coalition of conscience” that King always sought to build, and it is the same one we so desperately need today. She challenged the crowd to go on from that day forward to “make all people truly free and to make every person feel that he is a human being. His campaign for the poor must go on.” Only in conclusion did her voice break, as she asked, “How many men must die before we can really have a free and true and peaceful society? How long will it take?”

We might ask Mrs. King’s questions now. How long will it take for our government to stop its military aggression, killing, torture and spying? When will it take up the anti-racism and anti-poverty struggle that has been so abandoned under the Bush Administration? In the wake of King’s death in 1968, President Johnson urged aid to the cities, manpower training, equal opportunity measures in jobs and housing, more aid to schools, and Rep. John Conyers called for an $80 billion Marshall Plan for the poor. In subsequent years, almost none of that came to pass.

Now President Bush proposes spending more than half of the federal budget on expenditures related to current, past and future military action, while cutting funds for health care, schools, and human needs. Bush’s promise to end poverty in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, typically, has given way to his perpetual mania for tax cuts for the rich and subsidies to wealthy corporations.

During the 38 years since her husband died fighting for the right of poor workers to organize a union, Mrs. King continued to speak in support of workers, unions, and the poor. She held high the dream of nonviolence, she spoke out unequivocally for gay rights, and she remained a consistent supporter of women’s rights, of peace, and of ending nuclear weapons and military build up.

It is up to us now to carry on the legacy of the Kings, of Rosa Parks, of Anne Braden, and others who pioneered in the human rights movement in support of workers, the poor and the oppressed, and for the future of us all.

In her first pronouncement after her husband’s death, Mrs. King said, “He gave his life for the poor of the world, the garbage workers of Memphis and the peasants of Vietnam. The day that Negro people and others in bondage are truly free, on the day want is abolished, on the day wars are no more, on that day I know my husband will rest in a long-deserved peace.”

The same can be said for her. But there can be no rest for those of us who follow the dream.

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