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Monday, January 15, 2007 

Fighting to Lose What White Folks Have

Today is recognized as a day of remembrance for Martin Luther King, Jr. This man's whole life, the life of his wife and family and the many twists and turn that the Black Liberation Movement (BLM) went through during the course of some thirteen years becomes "history." Branded for mass-consumption. Cleansed of dangerous politics. Reduced to trite snippets about peace and non-violence in the most ultra-personal of ways.

Dr. King was a complex human being, to be sure, full of infinitely greater depth and detail than any 45 minute television special with plenty of room for commercials can ever do justice. He was one of the greatest mass leaders the U.S. has ever known. He was on the right side when it came to the majority of society's pressing questions in his time. And yet he was often on what most of the readers of this blog ought to consider the wrong side of any number of disputes within the Black Liberation Movement.

Blogging on the anniversary of his birth, attempting to respond to my own general call that we as radicals, socialists, activists and Marxist-Leninists collectively take up issues of white supremacy as our topics for the day, I was thoroughly reminded of Dr. King's complexity. The initial post I had begun last week was much in the vein of what LeftSpot posted yesterday, entitled MLK, the Black Sanitation Workers Struggle in Memphis, and the Ongoing Struggle. I am a Tennessee public sector worker engaged in struggle to win the same rights that brought Dr. King to Memphis in 1968. A day after marching with striking sanitation workers, this trip would ultimately end in Dr. King's assassination. The T.V. specials will leave a large "gap" in King's life and politics that stretches from the 1964 March on Washington to King's death in 1968. They will only briefly mention his work to end the U.S. imperialist war in Vietnam and his work against institutional poverty in the U.S. These aspects of who Dr. King was are consistently excluded when his life is presented as "history." And with my personal connection with the trip that fatefully brought him to my home state of Tennessee, understanding and helping others to recognize this gap has always held special importance for me. But LeftSpot's piece is better written and better researched than what I had planned on posting, so on to plan B.

"Just Fighting to Keep What Little Bit They Had Left"
So although I took a couple of hundred words to introduce the King holiday and Dr. King's story as one of complexities, intentional "gaps" and struggle, this is not really a post about Dr. King. Instead it is one dedicated to him and to the work of those who made him what he was. History, as the Gang of Four lyric goes, is not made of great men. History is the aggregate of millions of lives, each filled with her or his own complexities, struggles and gaps. Together these lives form the narratives of nations, classes, peoples and families during certain historical periods. The story I want to tell is one concerning my own family, and the complexities, struggles and gaps I associate with my great-grandfather.

This past summer my wife and I were staying with one of my uncles. We were up playing cards and talking. The conversations had focused on aspects of family history me and my cousins did not know. Stories about my uncle who died when he was 16, drama between my grandmother and her sisters, and how my dad got kicked out and sent to live with my great-grandparents when he was in his mid-teens. When the subject of my great-grandparents came up, my partner posed the $10,000 question. Was it true, she asked, that my great-grandfather was in the greater Nashville White Citizens’ Council?

She may have felt emboldened by her new status our recent marriage had given her within my family, she may have just been a little drunk. Whatever the reason for her asking, her question (and the negative connotation so obviously associated with the way she asked it) stopped the conversation dead in its tracks. Well, at least momentarily. After the folks in the room had a second to catch their thoughts, and my cousin had begun trying to change the conversation my uncle went into a half-drunken tirade. He was shocked by her "crazy" question, my great-grandfather was a good man, “a man of his community.” (Crazy being the an adjective most women reading this will be all to familiar with being labled after asking blunt, truth seeking questions). He even accused her of participating in some great "liberal" conspiracy to make up so-called white hate groups and denied that the White Citizens’ Council even existed.

Ultimately, my uncle conceded that my great-grandfather's politics were atleast sympathetic to the White Citizens' Council, couching his admission within a thick layer of "he just did what was right for people of his race at the time" bullshit. As far as my unlce was concerned, the familial patriarch and other white folks at the time had simply beem "fighting to keep what little bit they had left."

We were to believe that my great-grandfather wasn't a racist bigot who made tons of money by evicting Black sharecroppers and then selling off land that had been part of his mother’s family’s plantation. He wasn’t a Klan sympathizer, even if his own class status demanded that he engage in more cultured forms of repression against Middle Tennessee's Civil Rights Movement. He was not to be remembered for having a banker friend deny my parents a car loan because my Catholic succubus of a mother had corrupted his grandson by living with him prior to being married. He wasn't the one who refused to attend my baptism because he did not attend papist churches. He was, according to my uncle, a good man.

Drawing Lessons
So why share such a story? My intention is certainly not to perpetuate the argument that racism is a personal evil that each of us must overcome on our own. Recent polling shows how bankrupt such notions are. I share it because where there are complexities there are lessons.

My great-grandfather was in several ways what my uncle tried to describe him as - a good man. He deeply cared for his family as best as he knew how; in time he even came to like my mother most among the women and men that his grandchildren married. He was a man of profound moral conviction, although the definitions he used in determining what was moral were truly horrible. Like his moral convictions, my great-grandfather was a deeply damaged man. He was unable to see humanity is others, and unable to really love others as a result. This is the deceit at the heart of what white privilege offers, the ability to be considered "a person" in our society at the cost of white folks' very humanity.

The reason I was able to make it through college with next to no debt is entirely a result of the money my parents inherited upon his death and the lessons about how to generate wealth he taught my father during the 4 years my dad lived with his grandparents. The field of Wealth Studies has produced mountains of research that shows how society distributes both wealth in terms of inheritance and the skills to develop and manage wealth. Studies like United for a Fair Economy's The Color Of Wealth show how white supremacy as a system shapes these phenomena.

And certainly the vigor with which my uncle felt he had to defend his grandfather's actions reeks of sort of response necessary whenever privilege is challenged. Systems of power and privilege are naturalized to such an extreme that an organization used by wealthy white men to conspire against supporters of the Civil Rights movement by denying them home and business loans, foreclosing on their debts, and cheating them out of wages seemed justified to my uncle. Attacking the economic welfare of a community engaged in struggle for its very survival is nothing more or less than "fighting to keep what little bit [white folks] had left."

Mao challenged us to seek out the general in the particular, and radical feminists have argued that we must see the personal as political for nearly as long. I share this story because more than any other personal experience that I can think of, this exchange between my partner, cousins, uncle and I illustrates several of the key theoretical aspects I have come to associate with the study and understanding of, as well as the struggle against white supremacy.

As the five second memorials to Dr. King are made on day-time talks shows, mid-day news casts and prime-time public service announcements, I will ponder my great-grandfather's life, with all his sins, complexities, failures and successes. And by knowing where my family comes from, I hope I can draw strength that sustains me in the on-going struggle I and other white people must wage in order to destroy this most horrible of systems. That will be my tribute to the life and struggle of Dr. King. That will be my homage to the millions of freedom fighters whose contributions gave us this holiday.

Nelson---thanks for sharing that story about your family. As a fellow Southerner, it's a tale I viscerally understand. My own family history is filled with parallel stories from the other side of the tracks, on the other side of the Blue Ridge mountains.

More than anything else, stories like your great-grandfather's illustrate that white male supremacy has nothing to do with good and bad, and everything to do with domination. If anyone out there still thinks that racism is about bad people doing evil things, you are missing the point. As Nelson's uncle so clearly argued, Great-Grandpa Hawkins believed that he was doing the absolute best for his family and community. As far as he and his were concerned, he was living a good decent life.

White people throughout the Global North are no different today than Great-Grandpa Hawkins was back then. They are still fighting to hold onto what they have, a deadly pacifier and a raw deal that they should have lost a long time ago. 

Posted by Yolanda Carrington

Nelson, Jimmy Higgins has done a summation of the MLK Day Blog on his site and I left him a few thoughts.

What are you thoughts on trying to build on the experiece ?


Posted by haisanlu

Nelson, Jimmy Higgins has done a summation of the MLK Day Blog on his site and I left him a few thoughts.

What are you thoughts on trying to build on the experiece ?


Posted by haisanlu

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