Racism, war and poverty today – echoing MLK’s Newcastle speech in 1967
October 24th 2017, Idea Store, Whitechapel
‘There are three urgent and indeed great problems that we face not only in the United States of America but all over the world today. That is the problem of racism, the problem of war and the problem of poverty.’
View the full transcript of the speech.
Arianna Assenelli, JtoJ volunteer, on racism today
I would like to start my reflection with the definition of racism that Martin Luther King gave when he spoke in Newcastle in 1967. “Racism is exactly what it says. It is a myth of the inferior race; it is the notion that a particular race is worthless… It is the idea that the very being of a people is inferior”.
In terms of tackling racist prejudice we have definitely come a long way. After the Race Relations Act, we don’t encounter signs like the “No Black, No Irish, No Dogs” anymore, but has the belief that some individuals are inferior than others actually been eradicated from our society? What about equality? Have we come a long way?
I believe today the journey is even harder because it is easier to hide behind the belief that things have come a long way, it is easier to hide behind the veil of what is lawfully right in our country. But I believe it’s exactly that structural racism embodied in our communities that we should tackle and condemn. We live in a country where the unemployment rate for ethnic minorities is still more than twice as high as their white counterparts. We live in a country where the most prestigious education institutes still to this day have granted 79% of their offers to a specific elite. We live in a country where black people are more disproportionately represented in prisons compared to the US. We live in a country where following a religion can make you feel ashamed. So what direction are we taking? In this globalised world where sharing a thought with the rest of the world is a lot easier, where the most diverse organisations in the world are the most successful, are we able to recognise every single human being as such, and give each one of them the same opportunities, the same starting point from which he/she can develop?
Jack Madden, JtoJ trustee, on war:
MLK over the course of his career moved from reform to radicalism, as through his experiences in the movement began to see the links between strands of oppression. WAR. RACISM. POVERTY.
The Vietnam was a huge part of that for him, as he saw a generation of black, but also white, and poor, and disenfranchised young men, sent across the world to fight a foreign war on the orders of white men, for defence of a capitalist system which oppressed.
His response was to bring the war home, organising in every community opposition to the war, alongside countless others.
The same structures persist and war continues today, for example in Yemen.
Who knew that Yemen is the largest humanitarian disaster on earth today? Who knew that our government had sold 3.5billion quid of weapons to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen? Most of the country don’t know, but when they do, opinion polling finds them massively against our government’s actions.
Our response is the same… Educate, agitate and organise to create the pressure for change which is needed.
As MLK reshaped his understanding, he realised it was about more than any one of these issues, that the cause which links everyone is the struggle for freedom. I don’t want to say things haven’t gotten better, they have. I also don’t want to say it is the nature of history to progress, it isn’t. Progress comes from struggle, and recognising the links just as king did. It is a struggle for freedom
So I wanted to end with a song taught to me by a civil rights organiser that I think helps summarise what King was saying in this speech, and what the movement meant, and continues to teach us today.
Pass It On.
“Freedom doesn’t come like a bird on the wind
It doesn’t come down like the summer rain
Freedom, freedom is a hard-won thing
You’ve got to work for it, fight for it
Day and night for it
And every generation got to win it again
Pass it on to your children, mother
Pass it on to your children, brother
You’ve got to work for it, fight for it, day and night for it
Pass it on to your children
Pass it on.”
And that’s the point really of everything organising is about – you have to stand up for your own freedom, and the freedom of everyone else, and when you’ve won your freedom, you help the next person, and teach them how to fight for their freedom, and you make sure that you pass it on. Always pass it on.
If that’s not a lesson worth learning, I don’t know what is.
Mahzabin Ahmed, JtoJ volunteer, on poverty today
Many of us come from disadvantaged backgrounds and have felt some form of discrimination because of it, whether it has been directly or indirectly – and this had been an issue Martin Luther King felt strongly about. He devoted his final book to helping those who faced deprivation and he referred to this campaign as the ‘Poor People’s Campaign’. In 1968 King held a march to bring poor people to Washington D.C., as it would force politicians to face them and rethink about their needs:
“We ought to come in mule carts, in old trucks, any kind of transportation people can get their hands on. People ought to come to Washington, sit down if necessary in the middle of the street and say, ‘We are here; we are poor; you have made us this way…and we’ve come to stay until you do something about it.”
These powerful words had a transcending effect on issues concerning poverty and class divisions in the 1960s, however similar problems are still prevalent today. The needs of the poor are often still ignored. The devastating fire in Grenfell Tower may illustrate how, despite being situated in one of the most affluent boroughs in London (Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea) the home of a large number of economically disadvantaged people was neglected for so many years. Back in 2013, the residents’ organization Grenfell Action Group frequently expressed their concerns about fire safety within the building, however they were ignored. The livelihood of those living in Grenfell had not been a priority of the Council, and only after the fire took place did they get immensely criticized for their lack of action. Hence why I believe despite much of the progress that has been made since the 1960s, class inequality and poverty are issues which need to be addressed more adequately.