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A losing sophistry

Senator Jesse Helms waged a campaign against a national holiday in commemoration of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. He used an argument that needs to be dissected and understood, because it is the same argument that has gotten the United States into some pretty serious trouble in the past and may well do so again.

His argument was that Dr. King had ''communist associations'' during his civil rights campaign. The full details of those ''communist associations'' aren't on the public record. Therefore, neither you nor I know just how extensive were those ''associations.'' They may have been negligible, and largely hearsay. They may have amounted to a substantial amount of money and active support in the civil rights campaign.

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But the important point is that it does not matter whether those ''associations'' were substantial or negligible or even possibly nonexistent. What does matter is the original nature of the movement.

Was the civil rights movement a manifestation of a genuine, indigenous yearning throughout the black community for civil rights? Any fair-minded person knows the feelings of American blacks at the time Dr. King borrowed from Gandhi's great campaign for independence for India the idea of nonviolent, passive resistance. American blacks had from the Hayes-Tilden election of 1876 been denied their civil rights under the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution. That amendment declared that the right to vote ''shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.''

As a result of the deal made between the Republicans and Southern conservatives after the 1876 election, Union troops were withdrawn from the South and the right to vote was withdrawn from the black community. From then until the Roosevelt New Deal the vast majority of American blacks were pushed back into a segregated and inferior position. Racial segregation did not exist in the North before the Civil War. It did after 1876.

Did the majority of members of the American black community resent the inferiority and the segregation imposed on them from 1876 to the New Deal? Did they yearn for freedom from that condition? Did they rally massively to the prospect Dr. King held out to them of release from inferiority and the freedom to reach for both civil and economic opportunity?

Of course they wanted civil rights, and legal equality, and true economic opportunity.

Their yearning, and their response to Dr. King's crusade, were as indigenous as anything in America. They enlisted in his campaign.

Nothing that happened after that can detract from the fact that it was an indigenous American movement which profoundly altered the relation of the black and white peoples of the United States.

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Did the Communist Party get behind the movement and offer it support? Probably. It would be astonishing if the Communist Party failed to climb aboard a movement of that kind. Any support it gave to it might win some friends and supporters. The party had nothing to lose, something to gain, by climbing aboard a massive and popular movement. But nothing it did or could do could change the movement's fundamental nature.

All over the world communists are on the look for promising, popular movements to join or support in the hope of being able to exploit them. Since World War II they have been particularly eager to locate and join up with any anticolonial, nationalist movement - and gained from doing so.

In Vietnam, in 1945, Ho Chi Minh was leading a native nationalist movement. He received early support from the American OSS (forerunner of the CIA). The OSS recommended that the US continue to support his movement. Had those recommendations been accepted in Washington, the US would have been identified with native nationalism in Vietnam. The French would not have been allowed to attempt to regain their lost colony. The US would not have been sucked into a Vietnam war. In 1945 the US allowed the communists to capture the nationalism movement in Vietnam.

Under Jesse Helms's logic, any cause supported by communists must be opposed. Under that rule many a good cause would be lost to us and won by the communists.

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