I was born in the south, the daughter of a Southern feminist and a preacher whose parish stretched over seven tiny congregations in Madison County, North Carolina.
When I was 11, my mother took my brother and me on a trip through the Carolinas. I still remember our shock at seeing Black men working in chains beside the road while white men stood over them, cradling their shotguns with the air of the master race.
That summer marked the beginning of my political education. After we moved west, I received further instruction from John Birchers and McCarthyites in southern California and union-busters in the Los Angeles school district where my mother taught.
When I was 20, my schooling was taken in hand by the white people of Carthage, Mississippi, where I registered voters and tested public accommodation laws for the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee. I graduated from Mississippi’s Academy of Terror and Bullying convinced there was a fundamental sickness in this country, having to do with economics and race and sex.
Years later, I discovered Radical Women, a group that gave me a name for the disease — capitalism — and launched me on a lifetime of higher learning about Marxist theory and the quests of oppressed people for liberation.
In April, I returned to the South for the first time in more than 20 years. I was invited to speak on behalf of United Front Against Fascism at a two-day symposium in Memphis, Tennessee, commemorating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The event was hosted by the National Civil Rights Museum, housed in the Lorraine Motel, the site of King’s assassination.
Called “March On: A 25th Anniversary Tribute to the Life, the Man and the Movement,” the event included a march by AFSCME Local 1733 and a 5,000-person rally and concert at Mason Temple, the last place King spoke publicly.
King, the critic of capitalism who was planning the 1968 Poor People’s March on Washington at the time of his murder, had come to Memphis in response to a desperate appeal from the striking sanitation workers of Local 1733. He was intent on forging a coalition of labor, anti-war, and civil rights forces to challenge the economic inequality at the heart of the racial caste system in this country.
The conference brought together legendary civil rights and labor organizers — Julian Bond, David Dennis, Bill Lucy, Jesse Epps, Bob Moses, Dorothy Cotton, Cornell West, Reverend C.T. Vivian.
Their message: The civil rights struggle had been a movement — not a personality — filled with passion, hope and colliding political viewpoints.
But the sense of urgency which marked King’s life and death was lacking from this gathering. There was more looking back than forward.
Progress was measured by the increased number of Black elected officials. But as one of the few community people present pointed out, these politicians “overcame right on over the top of me” and are now part of the problem.
The voice that was missing in Memphis was that of a radical Black leadership with a critique of the profit system and a program for reigniting poor people’s freedom struggles.
But that voice is bound to be heard again before this bigoted century ends. Necessity demands it.
Today the Nazis and KKK infest the emerald woods of the Northwest. The old South of my childhood may be gone, but in its place is the new Northwest, with skinheads and hate crimes for all. It is no longer possible to pretend that incipient fascism is a Southern problem.
And with the system in permanent crisis, neither is it possible to pretend that capitalism is good for all the people. The basic unreformability of the social machinery is evident.
The time is coming when educated people will make an educated decision to junk this worn-out way of life for a new one based on sharing wealth and opportunity instead of hoarding it. That is when we will be able to bury the Master Race ideology once and for all.
Guerry Hoddersen of Seattle, Wash., is National Secretary for the Freedom Socialist Party and a United Front Against Fascism founder.