By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
“At the very same time that America refused to give the Negro any land, through an act of Congress, our government was giving away millions of acres of land in the West and the mid-West, which meant that it was willing to undergird its White peasants from Europe with an economic floor. But not only did they give the land, they built land grant colleges with government money to teach them how to farm. Not only that, they provided county agents to further their expertise in farming. Not only that, they provided low interest rates in order that they could mechanize their farms. Not only that, today many of these people are receiving millions of dollars in federal subsidies not to farm. And they are the very people telling the Black man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps. And this is what we are faced with. Now this is the reality. Now when we come to Washington, in this campaign, we are coming to get our check.”
Excerpt from a speech made by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in 1968.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was born Michael King Jr., on January 15, 1929 to the Reverend Michael King and Alberta Williams King. Reverend King later changed his name and his son’s name (reportedly in 1934) to Martin Luther King and Martin Luther King Jr., respectively. The speech quoted above was made when Dr. King visited rural African-American communities in the southern states in a bid to gain support for his planned “Poor People’s Campaign”.
In this video (www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Doi_U0f8OA), Dr. King is seen and heard speaking with members of an African-American community in Mississippi who spoke passionately about the level of poverty in the African-American community. Dr. King commiserated and empathized and then spoke about the American government’s policy of giving land to White people and training them to farm the land by building special colleges for this purpose. At the time White people were receiving these special favours (1850s) African-Americans remained enslaved.
The idea of publicly funded agricultural and technical educational institutions in the U.S. was brought forward by Jonathan Baldwin Turner as early as the 1830s. In the 2001 book, Together We Can: Pathways to Collective Leadership in Agriculture at Texas A&M, White American authors Steven Lee Bosserman and Edward Allan Hiler write: “In the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s Jonathan Baldwin Turner developed and tirelessly promoted a plan to achieve universal education for those who did not normally have the opportunity to pursue it – the sons and daughters of what he called the working class.”
This brilliant idea of course did not include African-Americans who were enslaved and whose unpaid labour would underwrite the education of the White “working class”. During slavery it was illegal for African-Americans to read and write and any enslaved African who was literate was risking their life. The first land-grant bill was introduced in Congress by Representative Justin Smith Morrill of Vermont in 1857 and became law in 1862. Africans in America gained their freedom in 1865 and have never been compensated, or received reparations. The 40 acres and a mule they were each supposed to receive never materialized.
However every White person (even those who never owned a “slave”) benefited from the coerced labour of enslaved Africans. This is put in perspective by T.D. Allman, a White American historian in his 2013 book, Finding Florida: The True History of the Sunshine State, where he writes: “In America, Irishmen, Jews, Russians, Italians even Turks and Arabs could be Americanized. Even as they were devastating Native Americans and enslaving Black people, Americans were announcing to the world that the ‘wretched refuse of your teeming shore’ was welcome, but it had to be White.”
Dr. King’s words of encouragement to the group of African-Americans gathered in that church just a few weeks before he was assassinated probably caused much alarm to the American government who preferred the August 28, 1963 “dreamer”. A King speaking about reparations for the descendants of enslaved Africans was a threat. A King speaking about the extreme poverty of African-Americans and linking that to the advantage (including unearned privilege) that was handed to White skin people regardless of when they arrived in the U.S. was threatening to White America.
To this day, in the 21st century Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is co-opted by the most dreadful racist White supremacists. Not the entire speech but these 35 words: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.”
As we approach January 15, the date that would have been Dr. King’s 85th birthday, Dr. King has been reduced to a dreamer whose words are frequently used to justify White supremacist/racist rhetoric. The Dr. King who wrote in 1964, Why We Can’t Wait, seems to have been forgotten: “Whenever this issue of compensatory or preferential treatment for the Negro is raised, some of our friends recoil in horror. The Negro should be granted equality, they agree, but he should ask for nothing more. On the surface, this appears reasonable, but it is not realistic. For it is obvious that if a man enters the starting line of a race three hundred years after another man, the first would have to perform some incredible feat in order to catch up.”
In an interview with Alex Haley (author of Roots) which was published in the January 1965 issue of Playboy magazine, Dr. King is quoted: “Can any fair-minded citizen deny that the Negro has been deprived? Few people reflect that for two centuries the Negro was enslaved and robbed of any wages – potential accrued wealth which would have been the legacy of his descendants. All of America’s wealth today could not adequately compensate its Negroes for his centuries of exploitation and humiliation.”
These are not the words of the dreamer whose birthday has been observed with a national holiday on the third Monday of January since 1986. Some states, including Alabama, Arizona, Mississippi, Virginia, Wyoming and New Hampshire, resisted observing the holiday to honour Dr. King until (New Hampshire) 2000.
The 29th official Martin Luther King Jr. Day will be observed on January 19, 2015 throughout the U.S. with a holiday when Americans are expected to honour the life and legacy of Dr. King. The day is usually spent exploring the life of Dr. King and his contribution to the Civil Rights movement. With the research and the availability of books written about the Civil Rights movement and Dr. King’s life, hopefully there will be more than his “I Have a Dream” speech featured in newspaper articles and other media.
On May 8, 1967, approximately 11 months before he was assassinated, Dr. King said in an interview: “I must confess that that dream I had that day in many points turned into a nightmare.” (www.youtube.com/watch?v=sHhJYKPWb8k) The nightmare continues with the constant instances of African-American men, women and children killed by White police who suffer no consequences.
During this United Nations declared “International Decade for People of African Descent” beginning in 2015 we can work to ensure Reparations for the descendants of enslaved Africans become a reality. We can shine the light on the continued and sustained abuse of Africans in North America. Shining a light on these abuses may help to make the perpetrators scatter like so many dangerous rodents and other pests.