March 30, 2008

Forty years after the shot rang out, race fears still haunt the US

Life has changed beyond recognition for many Americans since an assassin's bullet killed Martin Luther King in 1968. Yet despite the rise of a black middle class and Barack Obama's challenge for the White House, the racial divide still exists - and for an urban underclass, things have only got worse.

Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel in downtown Memphis, Tennessee, looks frozen in time. The sheets of the beds are rumpled, undrunk coffee stews in cheap cups, a meal seems half-eaten. It is a re-creation of the room as it was at 6.01pm on 4 April, 1968. That was the moment when, on the balcony outside, the room's most famous guest, Martin Luther King, was shot dead.

King died four decades ago at the end of an era of civil rights victories that ended racial segregation and won black Americans the vote. It was a struggle that finally cost him his life, felled at the Lorraine by a white assassin's bullet from across the street.

But though Room 306 - preserved as part of a museum - is unchanged from that bloody day 40 years ago, black America itself is almost unrecognisable from King's time. It has been transformed, both for the better and for the worse. Some positive developments would have been unimaginable for King. Senator Barack Obama is running for President and could become the first black person to hold the job. Black politicians hold top offices in cities and states across the continent. They are buoyed by a large black middle class every bit as wealthy, suburban and professional as its white counterpart.

Yet, since 1968, much of black America has also been beset by disaster. A vast underclass inhabits America's ghettos, mired in joblessness, drugs and gang violence. In the inner cities half of all black males do not finish high school. Six in 10 of those will end up in jail by the time they reach their mid-thirties. These people grow up in an environment often more segregated, more hopeless and more dangerous than the Jim Crow era of the Deep South.

It is perhaps one of the greatest paradoxes facing modern American black leaders such as Charles Steele, now president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which King founded and used as his tool to bring civil rights to America. 'If Dr King was alive now, he would be distressed and disappointed in America,' Steele said. 'America is still racist to a large degree. More so perhaps. It's subliminal and embedded in the system.'

That is pretty much the view of Thelma Townsend, 68, who should be retired but still works as a nurse in the suburb of Orange Mound. The suburb is a landmark in Memphis, built for black Americans more than 100 years ago on the 5,000-acre site of a slave plantation. Once it rivalled New York's Harlem as a centre of black culture and economic power. But now it has been hit hard by drugs and gangs and unemployment. Many houses are dilapidated and abandoned. Townsend snorts in disgust at the past 40 years in black America. 'It ain't changed for the better that I can see,' she said. 'Drugs are rampant, so killings are rampant. If anything, it's got worse around here.'

This is the bad side of black America since King died, and it exists in cities across the country. In Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Washington, Kansas City, St Louis and many other places, once proud black neighbourhoods have fallen prey to the ravages of crime and drugs. Even King's hometown neighbourhood of Auburn Street in Atlanta is a wreck and shadow of its former self. Orange Mound and other black Memphis inner-city suburbs are typical. Gangs with such names as Vice Lords and the Gangster Disciples boss the local drugs trade. Killings and shootings are common. Drug addicts seem more common than jobs.

The roots of this decay partly lie in the fatal shot that felled King. His murder sparked race riots in 125 cities that left 46 people dead, 2,600 injured and 21,000 arrested. Entire black and inner- city neighbourhoods were burnt down overnight. Many never recovered. The violence quickened the process of 'white flight', destroying the tax base of many city cores.

At the same time new civil rights laws allowed the black middle class to flee too. What was left behind became the underclass, deeply vulnerable to the wave of drugs such as crack and heroin that invaded in the Seventies and Eighties and hit by the decline in manual jobs as America's manufacturing industry disappeared overseas.

Statistics indicate that things are getting worse. More black people are being jailed than a decade ago. Only 31 per cent of black children born to middle-class parents earn more than their parents, compared with 68 per cent of white children. More than half of black workers are stuck in low-paid jobs.

Many experts think there is little prospect of the underclass's plight changing at all. 'The outlook is very bleak,' said Professor Jerald Podair, an expert on civil rights history at Lawrence University. near Appleton, Wisconsin.

Yet that is also far from the whole picture. Obama's run for the presidency has energised even those with little hope. 'Obama does make me proud,' said Townsend. But it also shows the successes of the black middle class, fulfilling King's dream of black Americans taking their rightful place in the nation.

For Obama is far from alone in seeking high office. New York state and Massachusetts boast black governors despite both states being in New England, far away from traditionally southern centres of black population. Big cities such as Atlanta, Washington, Philadelphia and Newark have black mayors who have based their appeal on the same sort of 'post-racial' consensus that is powering Obama's campaign.

At the same time, the successes of such mayors and governors have undercut the traditional power of 'old style' black leaders such as the Reverend Jesse Jackson and the Reverend Al Sharpton, whose roots lay in black churches. Now modern black politicians are perhaps more at home in the boardroom than the pulpit. They self-consciously - and successfully - woo white voters as much as they appeal to their black base.

Now Obama is trying to make that case on a national scale. Though recent weeks have seen Hillary Clinton's supporters and Republicans try to raise race as an issue, Obama has fought back with a bold speech challenging America to have a frank and open debate about race. 'Race is the question in America that has still never really been asked,' said Podair.

Not everyone is ignoring it, though. Wendi Thomas, 36, is asking the race question in Memphis. She is a local black columnist on the city's Commercial Appeal newspaper who deals with racial issues. Now she is setting up a project called Common Ground to encourage Memphis citizens of all races to come together at weekly meetings and talk frankly about the race issues that bother them. At the end of it the 'graduates' will be encouraged to go out into the rest of the city and break down racial boundaries. Her first pilot scheme with 200 places has rapidly filled up and will begin meeting on 24 April. 'I just wanted to actually do something, rather than just write about it,' Thomas said.

Memphis is a city much in need of such a project. The city is split almost 50-50 between black and white. Yet it feels like a segregated place whose two halves rarely meet, maintaining their own neighbourhoods, schools and parks. It is a city where the issue of race lies constantly under the surface, boiling below a patina of tourist-friendly Southern charm. 'Race underlies everything in this community. We need to have these discussions, even though they are painful and messy,' Thomas said.

That is true. The fact remains that even middle-class black people and whites have fundamentally different perceptions of America. While many whites are flocking to Obama's campaign on the base of its post-racial appeal, that is not how many blacks see it. As he sweeps up more than 90 per cent of the black vote in the Democratic race, there is a clear feeling of racial pride in his candidacy. Indeed fervour and hope for Obama have become a keystone of black America in 2008. 'It is unreal. It is surreal. I hate to hope too much. But I genuinely think that King would be bursting with pride,' said Thomas.

But there are many other points on which black and white Americans differ. Many whites were outraged when Obama's former pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, said the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington were 'chickens coming home to roost'. They saw his words as conspiracy-minded, unpatriotic and anti-white.

But many blacks reacted with a collective shrug, pointing out that much of what Wright said - even some outrageous claims about government conspiracies - were fairly common in some urban black churches and always had been.

The news would have come as less of a shock if black and white Americans (both of which groups are deeply religious) worshipped together. But they do not. Thomas, a Memphis native, has spent years looking for a racially mixed church to go to each Sunday. 'I still have not found one,' she said. That sort of de facto segregation has kept black and white America very much apart. After all, both have had such a different experience of the country. With the black middle class there is still a certain ambivalence about America; about whether they have truly been accepted. And there is a lot of evidence to say they have not been,' said Podair.

Ironically, one of the main reasons blacks and whites may start addressing race is in the growth of the Hispanic community in America. Hispanics are now America's largest ethnic minority, overtaking blacks, and numbering about 44 million people. They have pioneered communities all over the US, fundamentally changing the dynamics of race in a country that has long seen itself in terms of literal black and white.

Even in Memphis the issue has begun to appear. It is thought the number of Hispanics in the city could top 50,000 people. One in 10 babies in the city born last year was Hispanic. There is a Spanish-language local newspaper, Spanish radio stations and churches offer Spanish-language services. If black and white Americans really want to have a discussion about race, some think they need to hurry up and start talking before the conversation changes entirely.

For Steele, the man who now wears King's old mantle as head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, such concerns are for the future. On Friday, he, the leadership conference and dozens of other groups will be holding ceremonies to remember King. Though many whites despised or feared King when he was alive, he is now a national American hero.

Those memorials will now take place against the backdrop of Obama's bid for the White House and it might be tempting to see a straight line linking the two. But for Steele many Americans were missing one of the most overlooked points of King's career. The fact is, by 1968, King himself had moved on from purely racial issues. Yet again he was ahead of his time. His final campaigns were focused on fighting poverty and labour disputes. He came to Memphis in support of striking workers.

'He was killed in Memphis because he had started to focus on poor folks, regardless of their colour,' Steele said. That was 40 years ago. As Obama's campaign changes the American political landscape, it might be wise to remember that race is not the only controversial issue that mainstream politics still tends to shun. There is the thorny issue of class, too.

'If you thought having a talk about race was difficult in America, then having one about class is even harder,' said Podair. Yet 40 years ago King tried to start that debate as well. A bullet cut short his ambitions. Room 306 at the Lorraine was not the only thing his death left frozen in time.


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