MLK, Wobblies, and National Insecurity

MLK Quote

It’s MLK Day, and while there’s much to celebrate, the skeptic in me can’t help but focus on some things we conveniently ignore or write off as ‘no longer relevant’ in King’s legacy. There will be plenty written today, as there should be, about all he said, and did, and the positive impact he had. I’d like to suggest we not forget along the way some lessons to be learned from how the United States and the ruling classes therein responded.

MLK and the Civil Rights Movement in general were treated with hostility and violence, ugly words and ugly actions. Social and political leaders took the lead, demonized those involved, and used the tools of power to subvert those exercising their very inconvenient human rights. While white commoners gladly spouted racist ideology, respectable types were more likely to explain their concerns based on ‘national security’. 

FBI Phone TapsThe FBI tapped King’s phones, and threatened his life. MLK was labeled un-American, a tool of foreign powers intent on subverting our way of life. Government leaders – those specifically chosen as our collective voice – condemned him as a liar, and officially categorized him with other ‘hate groups’. It wasn’t just J. Edgar Hoover or a handful of overzealous individuals; this was policy, from Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy on down. Why? National security, of course. 

Even after it was beyond doubt King was no Communist (and so what if he was?), government policy was to keep pushing this idea in the media through leaks, innuendo, and good old-fashioned name-calling. But it was justified, because… national security. 

When MLK came out against the Vietnam War – a position fairly common in later years, but still somewhat “un-American” at the time – these accusations seemed substantiated. Who but a subversive tool of foreign powers and ideologies would oppose America’s light-shining and democracy-building overseas? Come on, people – national security!

Perhaps the Reverend’s greatest sin in the eyes of the establishment was shifting his focus from racial equity alone to a ‘war on poverty’ in general. It was a dangerous mindset – that perhaps being poor was not a character failing or the natural results of some people being smarter or working harder than others, but rather the results of a corrupt – or at least broken – system. The proverbial playing field was in no way level.

MLK on PhoneToday we celebrate King’s movement for its non-violence, but media at the time fixated on the sporadic exceptions. They painted even those outside the movement who destroyed property or threatened individuals as evidence of what MLK was really about. No matter how often King and others denounced bad behavior, the movement was constantly accused of supporting violence because they didn’t denounce it enough. Clearly they were a threat to… national security. 

The movement wasn’t perfect. There were internal disputes and inconsistencies, as there always are, and individuals and moments which didn’t fit the larger picture, to be seized upon by critics as proof of what they’ve wanted to believe all along.

But most of them didn’t want to hurt anybody, or even break anything. They just wanted to be treated like ‘real Americans’, real humans, and have access to a shot at the same American Dream as everyone else. That in and of itself, however, was a very real change in the established way of doing things. It was threatening to some and uncomfortable for most.

That’s just not how things had ever worked before, no matter what our ideals said. 

It’s important to note that those in power, with access to the bigger picture and far more information than the average citizen, knew that their accusations and fear-mongering were nonsense. While the average racist asshole in the street may at least be painted as a product of their times, those making policy, controlling the courts, and holding most of the guns, were lying in ways that got other people hurt and killed, and doing so for their own comfort and power. Any rationalizing they did about the means serving noble ends was just that – rationalizing. 

Did I say comfort and power? I’m sorry – I meant ‘national security’. 

The I.W.W. is ComingFifty short years before King came into national consciousness, there was a labor organization called the International Workers of the World (I.W.W.) – nicknamed “Wobblies” for reasons long lost. They sought to organize unskilled workers in factories and fields, those marginalized due to limited education and no political power. Unlike other labor unions of the time, they weren’t about protecting certain skilled professions or choosing respectable members – they were the little people even among little people.

The response from both business and government was predictable – demonized in the media, the I.W.W. was constantly accused of being the tool of foreign powers, un-American and dangerous. Government infiltrators joined their ranks, and arrests were made on the most thinly manufactured charges. This was necessary, it was said, to protect national security. 

Their homes and businesses were searched without warrants, and entire blocks of prisoners were promised leniency if they’d testify that various I.W.W. members had confessed nefarious doings to them – even if they’d never met that person, let alone shared a cell. When there were trials, due process was rare – although in a few cases a particularly idealistic judge would hold the line and refuse to allow extensive shenanigans, no matter what his personal loathing for the organization. 

Of course, by the time the process had played itself out, the accused had been held in dark, damp cells with appalling sanitary conditions and inadequate nutrition for months – sometimes years. Because, you know… national security. 

When the Wobblies came out against World War I, government and business had the excuse they needed to up their game. Laws were passed to make the free speech, press, and assembly of the Wobblies state and federal crimes in the name of… national security. 

If I Had A Hammer...All violent acts done by labor or those of foreign descent became I.W.W. violence, no matter how condemned by the group itself, because… national security. And the I.W.W. was essentially a Socialist – maybe even Communist – organization at heart. They virulently attacked the Capitalism around them as more about entrenched power than competition and opportunity. The proverbial playing field, they argued, was in no way level.

When the courts failed to produce the desired results, representatives of the union were whipped, tarred and feathered, their lives threatened and their property destroyed, presumably by “spontaneous” mobs but often with the explicit cooperation of law enforcement. Periodic lynchings of ‘radicals’ were considered very American things to do – tacitly supported by government, vocally supported by the popular press. 

The movement wasn’t perfect. There were internal disputes and inconsistencies, as there always are, and individuals and moments which didn’t fit the larger picture, to be seized upon by critics as proof of what they’ve wanted to believe all along.

But most of them didn’t want to hurt anybody, or even break anything. They just wanted to be treated like ‘real Americans’, real humans, and have access to a shot at the same American Dream as everyone else. That in and of itself, however, was a very real change in the established way of doing things. It was threatening to some and uncomfortable for most.

That’s just not how things had ever worked before, no matter what our ideals said. 

Industrial Unionism

It’s important to note that those in power, with access to the bigger picture and far more information than the average citizen, knew that their accusations and fear-mongering were nonsense. While the average nationalistic goon might have been the product of his times, those making policy, controlling the courts, and holding most of the guns, were lying in ways that got other people hurt and killed, and doing so for their own comfort and power. Any rationalizing they did about the means serving noble ends was just that – rationalizing. 

Did I say comfort and power? I’m sorry – I meant ‘national security’. 

Thankfully in the 50 years since MLK’s assassination, we’ve learned a few lessons, and human nature has fundamentally altered from what it was from the dawn of time until 1968. It’s unthinkable that we’d allow political and business interests to unite against marginalized groups to protect entrenched power, or to give the unwashed masses a target for their frustrations and hatred so as to distract them from their ongoing neglect and overt exploitation by those whose comfort requires their ignorance, and their apathy.

We’d never tolerate gross violations of our highest ideals and explicit laws in the name of protecting those exact same ideals and laws – the irony would simply be too much. 

No, thankfully today we’ve realized that if our ideals are, in fact, so very unique and wonderfully noble – if they have the power we insist they do – then the laws and social expectations based explicitly upon them are more than sufficient to deal with any discomfort, or even the occasional very real danger, which may result from holding to them. The best way to defend our national ideals... is to live by them.

They Came For...

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