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Gary Younge
Lifting as you climb

There can be few better times to examine the legacy of Martin Luther King than the inauguration of the 43rd president of the United States. For the mixture of ethnic diversity and political conservatism in Bush's administration brings into sharp focus so much of what King said but which was rarely heard.

For the most part, King's fight for equality is seen as beginning and ending with civil rights. You would think that his political relevance was over in 1963 with his "I have a dream" speech and that his dream ended with "sons of former slaves and sons of former slave-owners sitting down together at the table of brotherhood". True, King wanted a seat at the table. But he wanted to see the menu. Having led the battle to ensure that black people could eat in a restaurant of their choice, he knew that this important victory would remain academic if they didn't have the money to pay for the meal.

"In the past in the civil rights movement, we have been dealing with segregation and all of its humiliation; we've been dealing with the political problem of the denial of the right to vote," he said just a week before he died. "I think it is absolutely necessary now to deal massively and militantly with the economic problem."

His targets were moving from race to class, which is how it came to be that he was killed while in Memphis supporting a strike by dustmen over pay, conditions and union recognition.

The 60s were a heady and, at first sight, apparently contradictory time for African-Americans. On the one hand, in 1967, there were riots in Boston, Cincinnati, Tampa, Buffalo, Newark, Memphis, Detroit and Milwaukee. But a year later there were major breakthroughs. In Cleveland, Ohio, Carl Stokes was elected the first black mayor of a major American city. In Washington DC, Thurgood Marshall became the first black member of the US supreme court. But King stuck to the local dispute in Memphis because he knew that so long as progress remained with a few judges and mayors, then the sacrifices of the many would have enabled the success of just a few.

In the last speech he made he said: "Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis. We've got to see it through. And when we have our march, you need to be there. Be concerned about your brother. You may not be on strike. But either we go up together or we go down together."

Which brings us neatly on to Bush's incoming administration. For while we can see, more than 30 years later, that black Americans did not go up together, it is also clear that they did not stay down together either. Illegally employed nannies and cleaners notwithstanding, Bush will have the most ethnically diverse cabinet in the history of America. Its secretary of state will be General Colin Powell, (Jamaican-American); the national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice (African-American); the transport secretary, Norman Mineta (Japanese-American) and the energy secretary Spencer Abraham (Arab-American). Bush's conclusion on this is the following. "It shows that anyone who works hard in America can get on." Now, given the levels of incarceration, execution, unemployment, infant mortality and so on among African-Americans we know that is not true.

But that doesn't mean that the diversity in his cabinet is not a good thing. It is no good arguing for years that more black people are needed in positions of authority and then complaining when it happens. It does count that Bush has a diverse administration. If diversity is to be generally regarded as a good thing then diversity at the highest level of politics must be a good thing. It just doesn't count for much - yet.

Colin Powell provides an excellent illustration of why our expectations must be tempered. It's not because he's a Republican. Someone's got to be a Republican. African-Americans have spent years complaining about how the Democratic party takes their support for granted. Maybe this will force the Democrats to work that bit harder to woo their most loyal bloc of voters.

I have a problem with Republicans but I don't have a problem with Colin Powell being a Republican. He has as much right to be wrong-headed in his politics as anybody else. He should neither be spared criticism meted out to other Republicans or attract special criticism just because he's black.

But his professional and political rise does tell a story that is illustrative of a pattern in black America which we could easily see here.

First there is how he got there professionally. He got there through the army. And how did black people get to get ahead in the American army? Well of course they had to be good. That goes without saying. Regardless of the attempt that is made to link affirmative action with lowering standards, the truth is that more often than not black people still need to be twice as good as white people to get half as far. That is what racism is all about.

But being able never used to be enough. It took a threat by Philip A Randolph, the head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a black union for those who worked the railroads. In 1948, Randolph threatened to stage a march on Washington and a nationwide campaign of civil disobedience unless President Truman agreed to desegregate the armed forces. Truman reluctantly obliged. That's how America got to let black and white people mix while carrying guns before they would ever let them mix carrying schoolbooks or hamburgers.

Were it not for the unions and the civil rights movement, there would be no Colin Powell rising through the army. So I think we're going to need to see what he and his colleagues do about union rights and civil rights before we talk about whether his appointment is a real step forward for African-Americans.

The second story is how he got there politically. He owes his position to a man who won an election in which black people were systematically denied the right to vote. One-third of black men in Florida were not even able to register because they were convicted felons. Many others were simply turned away at the polls in Florida. About 90% of those who would have voted, if they could, would have voted for Gore. It is because they couldn't that George Bush won and could then nominate Colin Powell.

So Colin Powell got where he is professionally, thanks to the political struggles of those who went before him which won black people their civil rights. And he got where he is politically thanks to the loss of the civil rights of those who might come after him. The success of a few, does not always signify advancement for the many.

• This was extracted from the Martin Luther King lecture, sponsored by the Guardian, delivered on January 20.

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