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Gary Younge on the far-right in America, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X

Concluding part of our fascinating interview with Writers Against Racism's Gary Younge

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“When they talk about Obama being a Muslim they're talking about terrorism, losing the Iraq war and you know a whole range of insecurities around America’s geo-political place in the world and then of course there is the fact that he’s black and so these things serve as a proxy for race. But the proxies that they represent actually mark a much greater kind of concern I think with immigration, with globalisation."
- Gary Younge

Gary Younge is an author, broadcaster and award-winning columnist for The Guardian, based in Chicago. He also writes a monthly column, Beneath the Radar, for the Nation magazine and is the Alfred Knobler Fellow for The Nation Institute. He has written three books, "Who Are We - And Should it Matter in the 21st Century?", "Stranger in a Strange Land: Travels in the Disunited States" and "No Place Like Home: A Black Briton’s Journey Through the Deep South".

In part three of our interview with Gary he discusses the far-right in America, Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X and his new book which examines the story behind Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.

Do you think that the far-right has become part of America’s mainstream?

“I think yes it has, in part and it’s also been anchored into mainstream politics. In a way if you look at the Republican party, what you’ve got is kind of a UKIP wing within the Conservative party in Britain and that’s the Tea party. In the absence of any real serious agenda on the centre-right, the far-right in America is able to kind of up the stakes by saying the most outrageous things, because the most outrageous things get the most attention. And even though more moderate Republicans may be embarrassed by them it’s not like they have any real response to the moment.

“I mean the truth about America is that the far-right has always been embedded within the political system, it’s not that long ago that America was like apartheid South Africa. It’s only 50 years since the march on Washington, its less than 50 years since black people secured the right to vote in this country, so if you think of what white South Africa would look like in 40 years time, or actually 30 years time it’s still going to be white South Africa, it’s still going to be pretty right wing because they’re still going to be defending enormous amounts of privilege.

“But what the emergence of Obama has done, without him actually doing very much - it’s not like Obama has made huge advances for the poor or the black, or the latino, but his presence has given the right wing a focus. And it’s interesting the way that they have responded, because they’re often just dismissed as racists and of course there are reasons to oppose Obama that are nothing to do with race, even from the right there are. But it’s not just race, when they talk about him ‘not being born in America’ that’s about immigration actually, that’s not something they would say about Jesse Jackson, or it’s not something they ever said about Martin Luther King, that he ‘wasn’t American’. They might have said he was un-American, but they never said he wasn’t American.

“When they talk about Obama being a Muslim they're talking about terrorism, losing the Iraq war and you know a whole range of insecurities around America’s geo-political place in the world and then of course there is the fact that he’s black and so these things serve as a proxy for race. But the proxies that they represent actually mark a much greater kind of concern I think with immigration, with globalisation.

“Republicans are the least likely to support so-called free trade, even though their party is the most likely to and the most anxious about globalisation. So you have this section of the population, white lower and working class concerned about their jobs being outsourced, concerned about the geo-political status of their country, they invest a lot in the notion that they are American, suddenly being American is not what it used to be.

“Demographically they are in decline, this was the first year according to the census, that more white Americans died than were born. They’re going to be a minority in 2042, there or thereabouts. Electorally, the proportion of the white electorate keeps going down and will keep going down for several years. They are losing wars in places that they thought would be a cakewalk. They are worried about immigration. And here comes a black man, of mixed-race parentage, whose father was born in Kenya, who has lived abroad in Indonesia, who has travelled abroad and so on. He represents, in different ways, pretty much every anxiety that they have. Without doing anything, I mean he just has to step out the door, that’s not about his agenda, that’s just about him.”

You touched on Martin Luther King there and I read that your new book will look at the story behind his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, one of the most famous and important speeches ever, arguably. In researching and writing the book was there something that you found more surprising than anything else?

“Yeah there were a few things I guess. The first is interestingly, the degree of ambivalence that there is amongst a certain kind of progressive section of the black population here to that speech. They like him, they do like him, but they hate the way that it’s been co-opted, misrepresented and misunderstood, and the way in which King has been misunderstood through it.

“So when Martin Luther King dies he’s incredibly unpopular when he’s assassinated in 1968. Between the time that he gives the speech in ’63 and ’68, the speech almost disappears from view. It’s very rarely quoted, barely at all in the Congressional records and that’s partly because King moved from civil rights, which after the march, a year after comes the Civil Rights Act, a year after that comes the Voting Rights Act. So kind of legislatively those things are taken care of and he moves to talk about the Vietnam War, he calls America ‘the greatest purveyor of violence in human history’. That does not go down well. And he talks about poverty, and white people and poverty and the need to make alliances around fighting for economic justice.

“He says to Bayard Rustin who organised the march after the Watts riots in ’65, huge riots in the Watts area of LA, ‘I have got these people the right to eat hamburgers anywhere they choose, but they can’t afford hamburgers’. This is the problem we have.

“The problem for a significant section of black progressives with the ‘I have a dream speech’ is that through it America can kind of remember itself as a kind of technicolour, rainbow nation that defeated segregation and that King was this guy who just wanted people to be nice to each other. As opposed to remembering him as a strident pacifist, anti-war campaigner, anti-poverty campaigner who saw segregation as part of an entire problematic system. So there’s that which I had an inkling of, but I didn’t realise how deep it goes.

“Michael Eric Dyson, who is a major African-American academic here, has called for a 10 year moratorium on people listening to or reading the speech. You know, you should listen to his other speeches.

“Another thing; that I didn’t discover in the writing, but I think that most people don’t know which is quite interesting about the speech is that the ‘I have a dream’ stuff was not in the text of the speech. He ummed and ahed about putting it in and the night before, I didn’t know this, one of his key aides says ‘don’t do the ‘I have a dream thing’, it’s a cliché, it’s trite, you know, do something else.’

“He ummed and ahed and decides that OK I won’t do that, he goes with a different riff and towards the end of the speech you can hear him winding down, if you listen to it he says ‘Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, knowing that somehow this will be solved.’

“Mahalia Jackson, the gospel singer, was sitting behind him and she shouts ‘tell them about the dream, Martin, tell them about the dream’, because he’d delivered the dream riff a number of times by then. She’d heard him give it in Detroit and he doesn’t respond and carries on for a little bit longer and then she shouts it again and then in the words of Clarence Jones who wrote the text that doesn’t have the ‘I have a dream’ thing in, but whose standing 20 feet away he pushes the text to the left, grabs the podium and then just starts extemporaneously riffing about the dream, which is an interesting story.

“The one other thing that I did learn about and it just kind of messes with one’s historical head, because of course now it’s the most famous speech in the world, the 50th anniversary, everybody loves the speech. You couldn’t really get by politically saying that you didn’t like it, in America anyway. I alluded to this earlier, but at the time it wasn’t understood to be such a huge thing.

“The Washington Post in its editorial didn’t mention it at all. A number of people that I’ve spoke to that were there on the day said you know, it was a good speech but he gave lots of good speeches and very few people thought it was his best speech who heard him speak a lot. They had no idea at the time that it would become what it now has. And the best explanation I’ve heard from Clarence Jones who wrote the text was; it was a combination of the moment, the day, the atmosphere.

“The technology played a big role because it had only been very recently that you could transmit these things globally and so it could be national news. I think in the ten years before America had gone from 54% of families having TV’s to 94%. Suddenly you could hear this speech, you could see this speech; all of the main news outlets are covering it. That was something that I also thought was interesting, the way in which it becomes one of the world’s greatest speeches in retrospect. While at the time, everybody thought the march was a huge thing, nobody really thought the speech was going to stand out in the way that it did.”

Our final question comes from Twitter. @Asjad7 asks how did the autobiographies of Dr Martin Luther King and Malcolm X affect your work and life?   

“I don’t know that I’d point to either of them as providing an epiphany you know, particularly. I remember kind of struggling as a young activist to keep the two of them in my head together, because they are often set up as being dualistic, diametrically opposed. And kind of coming to the conclusion that they really weren’t.

“I think even though my ideological journey wasn’t the opposite, but went in a different direction, the autobiography of Malcolm X was powerful to me because it speaks of ideological reinvention, of re-examination, of a journey that he makes from being completely politically unformed.

“I grew up in a very political household, I didn’t kind of run amok as he did as a young man, I did not go to jail, you know I did not have any of that. But his evolution as a thinker, the way that he grows into and then out of the Nation of Islam, in his later life his desire to connect black nationalism, black politics, identity politics to class politics, to global politics, to international affairs; that spoke to me, that has always spoken to me very keenly.

“I think the other thing that always spoke to me about Malcolm X in particular was his lack of concern about, in general, what people would think of what he had to say as long as he was telling the truth. I guess in a way more specifically for me, having grown up in Stevenage and then studied in Edinburgh where there were few black people, his indifference to what white people would think of him. That he had things to say and that he would say them.

“Now he was ostracised by black and white together, but that kind of notion that look you may not want to hear what I’ve got to say, but I’ve given it some thought and this is what I’ve got to say. If that upsets you then I’m sorry about that but here it is. That notion of defiance, because when you grow up as part of a discriminated against minority, particularly if you want to get on, there is a not entirely ridiculous desire to shut up; to play the game, to swallow the shit, to take on other people’s concerns as your own.

“Nobody who wants to get through life, nobody regardless of your race, religion or gender, nobody can ignore that entirely. I mean, I’m negotiating all the time. But the sense that, there’s a liberating feeling that comes with understanding that even though what you have to say may upset some people, whoever they are, if you have to say it then you have to say it. And so long as your aim is not to upset people and so long as what you say is based in good faith, in my case is sufficiently well researched or whatever it is, then you have to say it. You can talk about how you frame it to draw as many people in or whatever, but one should not be overly concerned about upsetting people or shifting them from their comfort zone.

“There’s no way I think for me to get through my life in the profession that I’ve chosen or the politics that I have without upsetting people. So the notion that you may upset people, that you will challenge people, you don’t fetishise it, but you understand that’s how it’s going to be.

“Martin Luther King, to be honest his autobiography spoke to me less keenly for the simple reason that in some ways, I grew up in a working class family and he, although not rich, grew up as part of the kind of southern black aristocracy. I guess the moment where I connect with him is the moment at which he shifts in to mass civil disobedience and that desire which I think is very important and kind of balances the Malcolm X thing of being defiant and so on. The desire that King has to reach out and to explain and to engage has also been very important to me and understanding myself and my work. 

“I guess where both of them come to the fore is that they are both unapologetic about what they are doing and who they are. When King’s asked to slow down, he says ‘well of course, there’s never been a right time to do this’. So I guess if I were to talk about the two together the themes that emerge from both their life stories really is how to be a black male in a white society and not to apologise for that. And then, from Malcolm X, how you evolve and from King, how you reach out.”  

Writers Against Racism

Writers Against Racism's Gary Younge on the perception of immigration in the UK and US (part 1 of interview)

Gary Younge on the ‘rise’ of UKIP and the EDL (part 2 of interview)

Gary Younge - Writers Against Racism biography


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