King march lights fire of a class struggle

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The Independent Online
SOME 4,000 marchers commemorated the 30th anniversary of Martin Luther King's death on Saturday by retracing the steps of the martyred black leader's last procession in Memphis, a week before an assassin gunned him down.

As a re-enaction, the event fell way short of the original. The marchers locked arms, sang "We shall overcome" and held up nostalgic banners bearing civil-rights-era slogans, like "I am a man".

But this time there were no accompanying riots. The police were mostly black and friendly, as might have been expected in a city where the mayor is black and so is the chief of police.

This time the message from the speakers was less clear, the thrust less forceful.

The tune was the same but the words were different. Because things have changed in 30 years. The black middle class, tripled in size, continues to grow as more young black people go to college, more black families move in to suburban neighbourhoods that were once lily white. Black people occupy powerful and prominent positions in politics, the law, the army and the police.

Yet one-third of black men in their twenties are in prison, on probation, or on parole. And, as the gap between rich and poor widens and government welfare programmes are cut back, the prospects for black people on society's lower rungs remain bleak.

Jesse Jackson, who led the Memphis march, uttered the appropriate platitudes. ("One bullet that killed the dreamer did not kill the dream. It would be a disgrace to let one bullet kill us all.") But the substance of his message seemed to be that the issue today was less about race than class.

Urging his audience at a rally to ask themselves what King would be doing now if he were alive, Mr Jackson said: "His focus was not merely black and white. It was wrong and right." King would be fighting for better health care and economic equality for all, Mr Jackson said, fighting to close the economic and social gaps that divide Americans today as effectively as race did 30 years ago.

An old woman called Dollie Casey, a civil rights activist since the 1930s, picked up the theme. "It used to be if you got a job, you knew you could stay there for 30 years. But young people can't plan like that today. Get a job today, and you can lose it next month," she said.

The "struggle", she appeared to be acknowledging, is not as clearly defined as it once was. Society is more complex, the answers - and the questions - more elusive.

As the Rev Brooks from Illinois said, shaking his head: "It's like we're stuck in the middle of the road. For every step forward we take, we fall one back. I think Dr King would be confused by it - the way we are stuck here in this rut. I know I am."