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Hurricane Katrina, Martin Luther King, and the Violence of US Racial History
Had Hurricane Irene not intervened on events in Washington, this weekend would have seen an expected quarter of a million people on hand in D.C. to witness the official dedication of the memorial in Washington, D.C. to honor Dr. Martin Luther King. In a nod to civil rights history, planners of the dedication ceremony purposefully scheduled it for this Sunday, August 28, in order that it would coincide with the forty-eighth anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, at which King delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. The looming threat of the storm unfortunately forced the postponement of the event, which will now be held sometime a bit later this fall, but the scheduled date of the event and the organizers’ efforts to entwine the past and the present are nevertheless significant. Within the context of U.S. racial history, the ceremony promised to be of epic symbolic proportions, with Barack Obama—the nation’s first black president and, for many, the ostensible realization of King’s integrationist dreams—providing remarks on the legacies and meanings of King and his fellow civil rights crusaders. Obama-as-the-fulfillment-of-King’s-dream is, of course, an erroneous and reductive formulation, as if the latter’s visions were either so racially provincial or electorally minded as to be satiated by the image of a black man holding the country’s highest office. Obama’s election represents progress, to be sure, but of a bounded sort that does little in and of itself to realize King’s visions of the possible. Indeed, what King fought for, with mounting urgency and an increasingly global and capacious rendering of the “beloved community,” was the revaluation and restructuring of political and social values and priorities. The point was not to see a black man elected to the presidency; it was to fundamentally reconfigure the nature of an increasingly reckless, intransigent, and immoral power structure in the United States.
The path was fraught. Always. The vitriolic response by the majority of the American people to King’s increasing radicalism as he grew more and more condemnatory of America’s national trajectory and priorities provides some of the evidence. His own murder provides more, and he was neither the first nor the last to lose his life in the service of the struggle. Although King is rightly remembered for his outspoken commitment to nonviolence, he had no say in the fact that violence’s ugly potential still hung round him like a shroud. The history of racial violence in the United States was too pervasive for it to have been otherwise. Less than three months before King’s “Dream” speech, NAACP Field Secretary Medgar Evers was gunned down in Jackson, Mississippi. Less than three weeks after the speech, a bomb ripped through the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, killing four young black women between the ages of eleven and fourteen. And even there at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that August 28th forty-eight years ago, King could not help but to have his “Dream” speech infused with the specter of violence. Before he unveiled his dream to the nation (this iconic section of the speech, it will be remembered, contained only King’s concluding and most conciliatory remarks), King turned to speak directly to “you [who] have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality.” King himself clung fast to his nonviolent ethos and exhorted even these victims of violence to stay true to their better selves, but he nevertheless warned that “the whirlwinds of revolt” that characterized that 1963 “summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent” would continue to build in the absence of justice. Violence, he warned, whether physical, social, or economic, would beget violence of its own.
Whether King was aware of the shared date or not, the March on Washington at which he delivered his “Dream” speech fell on the eight-year anniversary of the August 28, 1955 lynching of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi. The Chicago-born Till, visiting family in Money for the summer, was accused of making inappropriate or suggestive overtures to a white woman. For his transgressions, days later the woman’s husband and his half-brother kidnapped Till in the dead of night, beat him mercilessly, gouged out one of his eyes, shot him in the head, used barbed wire to tie a seventy-pound cotton gin around his neck, and threw his body in the Tallahatchie River. The images of Till’s recovered body, bloated and disfigured, were splashed across newspapers in the United States and beyond, and his murder by many accounts serving as a catalyzing moment (alongside the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling in 1954 and the 1955-’56 Montgomery Bus Boycott) for the modern Civil Rights Movement. But if Till’s death was important in looking forward from 1955 into and through the nation’s civil rights period, it was also significant for what it revealed looking backward, for Till was simply one of the most famous in a lineage of literally thousands of black Americans who brutally lost their lives at the hands of white lynch mobs in the twentieth century and before. His late-August murder in 1955 served as an acutely tragic, though hardly exceptional, testament to the long and bloody history of American racial violence.
The ghosts of Till, King, and other civil rights martyrs are not the only ones that hang about us this weekend. Although they would not have been afforded a central presence at Sunday’s Washington ceremonies, the spectral presence of the victims of Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall in New Orleans six years ago August 29, are surely also deserving of our attention. Six years ago, when Katrina pummeled the Gulf Coast, the hurricane’s official death toll eclipsed 1,800, the bulk of these coming from poor communities of color in the coastal parishes of New Orleans. That number rises still further—how much is difficult to quantify—when the devastation wrought by the dislocations of the storm’s aftermath are considered: the physical toll exacted upon those that were flung to disparate parts of the nation, with little chance of return; the extended periods through which people went without desperately needed medicines on account of destroyed supplies, prescriptions, and medical records; the psychological anguish that led still others to take their own lives.
Beyond the storm gales and heavy rains, man-made violence also dramatically shaped the face of New Orleans during and after Katrina. The majority was generally not of the same cloth as the guns-and-bombs type that took the lives of King, Till, and others; but some of it was. As more and more evidence accrued in the days, months, and years after the storm that proved the initial reports of black New Orleanians committing rampant acts of violence to be generally false, counter evidence also mounted that showed a post-hurricane wave of racist vigilante terror on the part of white New Orleans residents who violently and sometimes lethally ejected blacks from white neighborhoods when they ventured there looking for safe ground. Such violence at other times took on the face of the state, as during the Danziger Bridge murders six days after Katrina hit, when members of the notoriously corrupt New Orleans Police Department opened fire on unarmed citizens trying to cross the bridge to higher ground, killing two in the process.
The violence surrounding Katrina also assumed structural forms. The ineptitude of the federal government both to prepare for and in response to Katrina is by this point infamous. Michael Eric Dyson calls the scale of what happened to New Orleans an “unnatural disaster,” a result of shortsightedness in addressing the city’s unpreparedness for a hurricane of Katrina’s caliber, an unwillingness to reinforce the inadequate levees that would need (and failed) to hold flood waters back in the event of such a storm, and the restructuring of the Federal Emergency Management Agency under the Bush administration into a disempowered organization marred by cronyism and incompetence. In gauging the local and national governments’ responses to Katrina, Rebecca Solnit has similarly termed what happened to New Orleanians “death by obstruction.” Moreover, in the wake of the storm, these and numerous other scholars and commentators demonstrated the ways in which NOLA’s grinding poverty—frequently contoured by capital interests, racist ethics, and retrograde public policies—exacerbated the effects of the hurricane. The city’s endemic un- and underemployment; the preponderance of low-wage service sector and tourist industry jobs among those that were to be found; the horrible state of the city’s public school system; the regressive war on welfare waged during the Clinton years—all of these contributed to the city’s breathtakingly high poverty rate even before the storm ravaged the city. Thus it was, for instance, that thousands of Gulf Coast residents found themselves unable to leave the city—whether for want of a car, for fear of leaving their jobs, or for lack of funds to make the hundreds-of-miles trip beyond the disaster zone—when Mayor C. Ray Nagin ordered a mandatory evacuation on August 28, 2005. To be sure, thousands more remained of a belief that the storm could be waited out, but their decisions to stay should not condemn them to their fate. Nor does their stubbornness mitigate the devastation faced by those who wanted to flee but couldn’t.
All of these are victims of violence of one sort or another, whether psychological, economic, physical, and so forth. Violence need not leave visible scars and bruises to be destructive and cause real harm. And violence of the sorts that Katrina’s victims endured can only and has only served to further undermine the faith of poor people of color as regards their condition within the United States. Those black New Orleanians whose lives were swallowed up in the immediacy of the storm or in the various turmoils of its aftermath—to hear their survivors speak of them, they too are victims in the United States’ tragic racial history: a “many thousands gone” of perhaps a different sort, but gone nonetheless. Katrina’s victims live on in the hearts and memories of their families, friends, neighbors, and their city, but they also live on as reminders to us of the limitations of our country’s civil rights triumphs, human testaments to the truncations of the visions King and his contemporaries held for a better United States and a more racially and economically just world.
In the days that the city flooded and in the weeks and months after the waters receded, thousands of graffitied pleas for help appeared on the sides of abandoned homes and businesses in the Crescent City. As if to prefigure Obama’s campaign message for the nation three years later, among these were multiple cries that read: “Hope is Not a Plan.” Six years later, hope still will not rebuild the infrastructure of New Orleans, nor will it restore the city’s character or bring the tens of thousands of predominantly black displaced residents back. Neither will the further evisceration of the city’s public services, already bad for the city’s poor communities of color and significantly worse since Katrina, help the restorative effort. Loyola-New Orleans law professor Bill Quigley recently captured snapshots of this in a piece for the Huffington Post: the thousands of public housing units left bulldozed and unreconstructed; the inadequate support networks for those left homeless and jobless in the storm’s wake; the quasi-privatization of schools that has created what the Institute on Race & Poverty of the University of Minnesota Law School, in a direct throwback to the Jim Crow from which King was born, calls “a separate but unequal tiered system of schools.” The tiers, it nearly goes without saying, are first and foremost racially configured.
None of this is to mention the national-level violent assault on support systems for the poor that began decades ago but whose pace has quickened with breathtaking speed since the Republican electoral victories of 2010. The war on public education, “entitlements,” and so forth, which Obama has not unqualifiedly embraced but has more than tacitly accepted, will only spell further misery for those hit the worst by Katrina and those around the nation that face similar sets of social and economic conditions as pre-hurricane NOLA. Since ascending to the presidency, Obama has been roundly criticized by both the right and the left for myriad reasons—many deserved, others less so. But it does seem undeniable that candidate Obama—who promised hope to many, not least of all “the least of these”—has been supplanted by a President Obama who has shown little ability to deliver on that promise as it pertains to the nation’s poor. Hope, as the victims and survivors of Katrina eloquently remind us, was never a plan. But it was a promise, and that promise is fading. One can imagine that were King the man rather than King the monument with us today, he would be there telling us to remember, to restore, and to rebuild—not just New Orleans, but the condition of our world and the way we relate to it and to each other. And he would perhaps have seen it as fitting that, when there is so much work still to be done to achieve his social visions, another hurricane came along and delayed his memorialization.