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Posts Tagged ‘Martin Luther King Jr.’

Journeys in the Deep South IV:  The Murder of M L King, Jr. and Medgar Evers

The Fact of Being Black:  History, Culture, Politics VII

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is indisputably a world-historical figure.  One cannot say what would have become of him had he not been assassinated in Memphis on the evening of April 4, 1968.  His peer, the slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, is far from being a household name in the United States.  The airport in Jackson, Mississippi, is now named after Medgar Evers, but even in his native Mississippi I found that many did not recognize his name; to the rest of the world, he is all but an unknown entity.  Yet one might still reasonably call Evers an “icon”, since in the histories of the civil rights movement he is justly a celebrated figure.

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Statue of Medgar Wiley Evers, outside the Medgar Evars Public Library at 4215 Medgar Evers Boulevard, Jackson, Mississippi.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

Martin Luther King was 39 years old when he was silenced: I would not say ‘forever silenced’, because he speaks to us still; or, as a cartoonist from the Chicago Sun-Times put it more arrestingly, men such as him have to be assassinated repeatedly. This is something of which assassins are profoundly unaware.  Medgar Evers was not quite 38, yet almost there, when a sniper took his life outside his own home as he returned home around midnight after another day of work organizing his people to equip them to resist racism and oppression.  Evers, born in 1925 in Decatur, Mississippi, had a stint in the US army before he earned a degree in business administration from Alcorn A&M College.  As an insurance salesman working for Magnolia Mutual Life, moving from one house to another, he came to see first-hand what he already knew by virtue of being a black in Mississippi, namely the deep poverty that afflicted most black homes in his native state.  In 1954, he applied, without success, to Mississippi Law School and at once moved to accept the position, which had been offered to him on the basis of ad hoc work that he had already been doing on behalf of the NAACP, of regional field secretary for the same organization.

The murder of Emmett Till the following year would draw Medgar Evers deeper into civil rights work.  His voice was loud and clear in insisting on a civil rights investigation into Till’s murder and Evers was relentless in seeking to bring the murderers to justice.  As Medgar’s wife, Myrlie, recalled decades after, “Looking back, I know that from that time on [that is, after he had resolved to track down Till’s killers,] I never lost the fear that Medgar himself would be killed.”[i] Only months later, Martin Luther King, then a young preacher of little renown, was cast into the limelight when he accepted the call of black leaders in Montgomery and agreed to take leadership of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.  King’s rapid rise to fame has been documented in hundreds of books:  he would go on to become a founding member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and in the early 1960s a series of interventions and engagements —the Albany Campaign, the Birmingham Campaign, the March on Washington—made him indisputably into the public face of the Civil Rights movement.  The conferral of the Nobel Peace Prize was, some reckoned, the crowning glory.

Meanwhile, Medgar Evers, perhaps the epitome of a grass-roots organizer, worked incessantly to bring black voter registration to every hamlet and town in Mississippi.  Such work, in much of the Deep South, was an invitation to an assassination.  In June 1963, shortly after SCLC had commenced a campaign against economic injustice and racial segregation in Birmingham, the situation in neighboring Mississippi had become tense.  White-owned businesses had been targeted for boycott by black leaders; and students from Tougaloo College had initiated sit-ins at Woolworth’s.  On the evening of June 11, President Kennedy gave a televised address to the nation billed as a “Report to the American People on Civil Rights.”  The President affirmed that the “nation was founded on the principle that all men are created equal, and that the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.”  Several hours after President Kennedy delivered his address, Medgar Evers pulled up in the driveway to his home and slid the car under the car port.  He opened the trunk to his car to take out a stack of t-shirts bearing the logo, “JIM CROW MUST GO”—t-shirts that were to be used in a demonstration in the morning in downtown Jackson. Just then, he was felled by a bullet in his back which tore through his chest, shattering the living room window and passing through the kitchen wall before ricocheting off the refrigerator.

 

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The driveway of the Medgar Evers home where Evers was killed in the very early hours of 12 June 1963.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

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Medgar Evers had pulled up in his car and parked behind the family station wagon. Site:  Medgar Evers Home, Jackson, Mississippi.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

 

The bullet hole in the kitchen wall can still be seen in what was then the family home of Medgar and Myrlie Evers and their children.

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The hole in the kitchen wall created by the trajectory of the bullet after it had ripped apart Medgar Evers.  Site:  Medgar Evers Home, Jackson, Mississippi.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

 

The white t-shirts were stained with Medgar Evers’ blood.

The country, too, was indelibly stained—except that the country was never white, not white in fact, in color, in purity, or in nobleness of intent.

Medgar Evers’ killer was a sniper, a former army man by the name of Byron de la Beckwith who served with the Marine Corps in the Pacific theater of the war. He responded to the Supreme Court decision that held segregation in schools unconstitutional by becoming a member of the Citizens’ Council, a white supremacist organization; he also attended Ku Klux Klan rallies.  Twice he was tried for Evers’ killing; on both occasions, an all-white male jury acquitted him.  In Mississippi then, though to what degree this is substantially different now is an open question, the possibility that a white man would be convicted for the death of a black man was impossibly remote.  Not until 1994 was Beckwith, who had over the years openly boasted of killing Evers at KKK rallies, finally convicted.  To the end of his days, Beckwith remained not merely unrepentant:  he described himself as disgusted and repulsed by the touch of a black person, and he tried to ensure that no black doctor or nurse would attend to him at the University of Mississippi Medical Center where he passed on, not a moment too soon, on 21 January 2001.

Beckwith had scouted the neighborhood where Evers lived for days before he finally took his life, shooting him from a home that was set further back diagonally across the street with an Enfield .30-06 caliber rifle equipped with a telescope.  I wonder whether he inspired James Earl Ray, the supposed assassin of Martin Luther King, who also shot the civil rights leader from a building across the street from the Lorraine Hotel, where King had been staying when he was called to Memphis by Reverend James M. Lawson to help with the sanitation workers’ strike.  Ray apparently used a Remington Model 760 rifle with a telescope, and positioned himself in a bathroom on the top floor of the rooming house diagonally across from the hotel:  when King stepped out onto the balcony outside Room 306, he was a sitting duck.  A .30-06 bullet entered his right cheek and ripped apart several vertebrae as it traveled down the spinal cord.

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The bullet that killed Medgar Evers was fired by Beckwith, who had positioned himself in the house, here in the background, diagonally across from the Evers family home.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

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James Earl Ray, or whoever the assassin of King may have been, fired from a bathroom adjoining this window on the top floor of the rooming house across from the Lorraine Hotel, Memphis; the spot where King was standing when he was felled by a bullet is marked by the wreath.  The assassin had a clear view of his target.   Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

 

Both King and Evers were tireless workers for the cause:  they went into the trenches and soldiered on, whatever the setbacks, disappointments, obstacles, and threats.  Evers was almost 38 years old at the time of his murder, and King was just a little older than him when he was felled by an assassin’s bullet.  Neither reached the ripe old age of 40.  There is no controversy as such over Evers’ assassination; the facts of it are well-established.  The same cannot be said of the assassination of King, about which doubts linger on and will surely never be dispelled.  But the modus operandi of the assassinations seems to have been remarkably similar in many respects.  And yet, as I commenced this piece, Medgar Evers is now little known outside his native Mississippi, except to students of the Civil Rights movement, while Martin Luther King, Jr has taken his place among the immortals and has been adjudged alongside Gandhi as one of the supreme exponents of nonviolent resistance.

The contrasting trajectories of Evers and King in the aftermath of their assassination say something perhaps about the vicissitudes of fame. King wanted to be remembered only as a “drum major” for the cause; he didn’t know that he would be credited as the orchestrator, conductor, and drum major of a movement.  Is it King’s oratory that his endeared him to history, or are there accidents of history that pushed him to the fore?  Perhaps we would be better served spending less time trying to probe the conspiracy theories that swirl around King’s assassination and reflecting rather more on how some people enter into history and others in rather similar circumstances become relegated to footnotes. And yet a foonote, as Anthony Grafton reminds us in his marvelous book, The Footnote: A Curious History, is no small thing.  Sometimes it endures when the text it is meant to embellish, illuminate, or explicate has all but vanished.

 

[i] Myrlie Evers with William Peters, “Mississippi Murders”, Civil Rights since 1787, eds. Jonathan Birnbaum and Clarence Taylor (New York:  New York University Press, 2000), 355-57.

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As the United States observes a holiday in memory of Martin Luther King, it is well to reflect on the possibilities of nonviolence today.   Whatever the difficulties that King encountered in his relentless struggle to secure equality and justice for black people, and whatever the temptations that were thrown in his way that might have led him to abandon the path that he had chosen to lead his people to the “promised land”, it is remarkable that King’s principled commitment to nonviolence never wavered through the long years of the struggle.  “From the very beginning”, he told an audience in 1957, “there was a philosophy undergirding the Montgomery boycott, the philosophy of nonviolent resistance.”  His own “pilgrimage to nonviolence” commenced, King wrote in Stride Toward Freedom (1958), with the realization that “the Christian doctrine of love operating through the Gandhian method of nonviolence was one of the most potent weapons available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.”

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Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)

Over the years, even as King encountered determined resistance to his advocacy of nonviolent resistance, both among white racists and black activists who taunted him for coddling up to the white man, his faith in the efficacy of nonviolence intensified.  In his last years, he increasingly embraced the idea that nonviolence would be deployed not only against the oppression of the state, and to arouse the moral conscience of his white opponents, but also to secure greater equality and social justice for the working class in American society.  It was King’s support of the sanitation workers’ strike that brought him to Memphis where, on the eve before his assassination, he delivered the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech with the exhortation to his listeners to “give ourselves to this struggle until the end.  Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis.  We’ve got to see it through.”

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In this March 28, 1968 file photo, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rev. Ralph Abernathy, right, lead a march on behalf of striking Memphis, Tenn., sanitation workers. (AP Photo/The Commercial Appeal, Sam Melhorn, File)

What remains of the grand idea of nonviolence?  If the twentieth century was perhaps the most violence-laden century in recorded history, a time of ‘total war’, it is befitting that the most creative responses to the brutalization of the human spirit should have also come in the twentieth century, in the shape of nonviolent movements led by Gandhi, American civil rights activists, Cesar Chavez, Chief Albert Luthuli in South Africa, and others.  But it cannot be said that the need for nonviolence has diminished, considering that large parts of the world appear to be enflamed by violence and turmoil.  Entire towns in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen have been reduced to rubble, and there is every possibility that all three countries will eventually unravel and fragment.  Over 4.6 million Syrians are officially registered as refugees, but there are many other countries outside the Middle East that have been torn apart by violence, among them Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, and Democratic Republic of the Congo.

 

The United States, far removed as it is from falling bombs, drone attacks, or the refugee crisis, has nonetheless seen its share of discussions about escalating violence.  Though gun shootings are now commonplace, the soul-searching has produced not a new wave of activists committed to nonviolence but rather a substantial upsurge in sales of firearms and ammunition.  What is striking about American political discourse is the ease with which so many people, not just members of the NRA, have accepted the view that they can best protect themselves and their families from random gun shootings by arming themselves to the teeth.  The other central issue around which much political mobilization has taken place, namely police violence against black people, has similarly not spurred activists to the creative use of nonviolent modes of resistance.

 

Some people will point to the “Black Lives Matter” movement to suggest that nonviolent resistance has in fact found a new lease of life.  It is not to be doubted that BLM has mobilized social media, staged marches and demonstrations, and highlighted not only police brutality but even more systemic forms of injustice and discrimination that justify the characterization of the United States as an incarceration state, especially with respect to black people.  But nonviolence, in the hands of its most famous practitioners and theorists, never meant merely the abstention from violence, nor is it encompassed solely by the embrace of tactics designed as ad-hoc gestures to meet the exigencies of a situation.  Intense nonviolence training workshops were an intrinsic and critical part of the movements that shaped the struggle for civil rights in the US.

 

One does not see, within the Black Lives Matter movement, or in the writings and public lives of contemporary African American intellectuals, anything even remotely resembling the kind of extraordinary leadership that characterized the American civil rights movement.  It is not just nostalgia that leads one to ask where are to be found the likes of King, Bayard Rustin, James Farmer, or A. Philip Randolph.  The Rev. James Lawson, now 87 years old, still soldiers on and remains the stellar example of a life dedicated to the idea of nonviolence.  For him, as for King and others, nonviolence was never simply an afterthought, or something that was to be resorted to when all other options had failed.  Nonviolence was stitched into the fabric of their being.  What has become all too common now is to try out nonviolence and shelf it if it does not offer instant results or gratification, and then proclaim it a “failure”; on the other hand, it must be human ingenuity, and an enchantment with violence, which enables people to continue to resort to it even as its horrific toll mounts.  It is well to remember at this juncture, as Gandhi and King insistently repeated, that when nonviolence seems not to have succeeded, it is not because nonviolence has failed us but rather because we have failed nonviolence.

 

 

 

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The enterprise of making a nation is fraught with violence.  People have to be not merely cajoled but browbeaten into submission to become proper subjects of a proper nation-state.  Overt violence may not always play the primary role in producing the homogenous subject, but social phenomena such as schooling cannot be viewed merely as innocuous enterprises designed to ‘educate’ subjects of the state.  One of the most widely cited works to have put forward this argument with elegance and scholarly rigor is Eugen Weber’s Peasants into Frenchmen, where one learns, with much surprise, that even in the Third Republic “French was a foreign language for half the citizens.”  The making of France entailed not only the modernization of the rural countryside but creating, often with violence, proper subjects of a proper nation-state.  The making of the United States offers another narrative of the role of violence in the production of the nation-state, with the extermination of native Americans long before and much after the ‘Revolutionary War’ constituting the most vital link in the long chain of violence that marked the emergence of the United States.

Postcolonial thought, attentive as always to the politics of nation-making and nationalism’s complicity with colonialism, bestowed considerable attention on the various phenomena that can be accumulated under the rubric of violence; however, it had almost no time to spare for a pragmatic, ethical, or even philosophical consideration of nonviolence.  The violence of the nation-state may have always been present to the mind of postcolonial theorists, but generally this was reduced to the violence of the colonizer.  One thinks, of course, of Fanon, Cesaire, Memmi, and many others in this respect.  In those works that have underscored the complicity of nationalist and imperialist thought, a principal motif in the work (say) of Ranajit Guha, the violence of indigenous elites also came under critical scrutiny.  [See, for example, Guha’s Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India, or his programmatic note on subaltern studies in Volume I.]  It is characteristic of most social thought in the West that it has been riveted on violence – here, postcolonial thought barely diverged from orthodox social science, mainstream social thought, or the general drift of humanist thinking.  Nonviolence is barely present in intellectual discussions.  We see here history’s continuing enchantment with ‘events’; nonviolence creates little or no noise, it merely is, it only fills the space in the background.

One of the many genuine insights at which Gandhi arrived was the recognition that the practitioners, theorists, and ardent believers in nonviolence in Europe and America had become entirely marginal to dominant intellectual traditions of the West.  The Tolstoy who turned to anarchism and nonviolence was seen as having betrayed the finest humanist traditions that he had once embodied; Thoreau was dismissed as a freak; and Edward Carpenter was reduced to obscurity.  That the supreme novelist of 19th century Europe, feted and celebrated not only in aristocratic and learned circles but in the much wider and emerging public sphere, should have turned to philosophical anarchism, renouncing his own works and embracing a political view of Christianity that put him in the path of confrontation with the church, is something that passed the comprehension of Tolstoy’s contemporaries.  Gandhi was similarly inclined to view Christianity as a firm repudiation of Christ’s teachings on nonviolent resistance, though what role Tolstoy had in shaping Gandhi’s conception of Christianity remains uncertain.

The point cannot be reinforced enough:  nonviolence has never had any salience in Western thought, and postcolonial thought has in this respect scarcely deviated from the intellectual traditions of the West.  Once we leave aside Indian scholars such as Partha Chatterjee and Ashis Nandy, for whom Gandhi perforce has had an inescapable presence, we find that postcolonialism in the Western academy never had the slightest truck with the histories and practices of nonviolence.  The fetish for violence manifested itself in a sustained interest in Fanon among postcolonial theorists; but Gandhi has long seemed, shall we say, unsexy in the extreme.  The case of Edward Said is instructive:  though he had gotten in the habit of furnishing lists of anti-colonial thinkers and texts to his readers, Gandhi remained singularly uninteresting to him.  It is informative that in a voluminous collection of interviews with Edward Said, edited by Gauri Viswanathan and published in 2004, the name of Martin Luther King, Jr. appears twice:  but where King is remembered around the world chiefly and justly as one of the chief architects of the civil rights movement, the preeminent prophetic voice of an aggrieved black America, Said mentions him both times only (and I should say without any just cause) as an unequivocal supporter of Zionism.  Many have pointed to the fact that the oppression of the colonizers was much more visible to Said than the resistance to colonial rule; but, even within the canvas of resistance, the idea of nonviolent resistance, and its histories, was not even remotely on Said’s horizon.  Nonviolence has been a gaping hole in postcolonial thought, and this alone points us to the irrepressible and uncomfortable truth of the deep structuring of violence in the entire edifice of modern Western thought.

See also related previous posts:

Thesis Three: Postcolonialism’s critique of the nation-state remains inadequate

Thesis Two: Postcolonialism has had nothing to say about the imperialism of categories

Thesis One: Postcolonialism never mounted an effective critique of history

The Politics of Culture and Knowledge after Postcolonialism: Nine Theses (and a Prologue)

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