Martin Luther King

by Dan Georgakas

I did not share Martin Luther King’s belief that the innate essence of our species is harmonious cooperation. If that were so, however, non-violent resistance amounted to a fundamental change in human consciousness that was itself the desired revolution. I doubted non-violent resistance would have been successful against a murderous regime such as Nazi Germany.

King’s movement was paralleled by massive public rioting and groups open to armed struggle. Armed African American groups such as the Deacons for Defense were needed to protect the non-violent protestors in the South from the KKK and other aggressive segregationists. The American government that King confronted defined itself as a liberal republic, but it took King’s assassination for it to meet some of his movement’s demands.

My Greek community in Detroit existed in an environment where racist groups to the right of the KKK flourished. Local radio host Father Coughlin, an Irish priest, attracted six million listeners with racist, xenophobic, anti-Semitic, and anti-labor rants. The Polish community ruled a suburb surrounded by Detroit that barred black residents while Italian mayors concentrated on maintaining segregated housing and schools.

Greeks had a different pattern. Since its emergence in the early 1900s, Greektown had had a peaceful relationship with the adjacent black ghetto. Greektown restaurants were the only ones in Detroit that served African Americas in the 1940s as well as hiring them. A major black church was a block away from Greektown’s kafenia (coffeehouses). This relationship did not involve Greeks socializing or doing political actions with African Americans as they did with Armenians and Arabs, only that there was a pattern of civility, not virulent hostility. Greeks were absent from organized hate groups. One factor influencing Greeks was their cultural memory of their oppression under the Ottomans. Another was that the discrimination they had personally experienced in Detroit was often rooted in the groups most avid in curtailing the rights of African Americans.

Archbishop Iakovos’s decision to march with King in Selma was not upsetting to our Greek community. We thought Iakovos acted as did due to his personal history with Turkish oppression. We did not know he had formed a personal relationship with King during interfaith gatherings. His closest advisors were justly concerned that his distinctive profile made him an ideal target for would-be assassins enraged by “outside agitators.” He rejected their pleas not to participate. Happily, there was no violence.

Detroit Greeks were delighted to see Iakovos featured on the cover of Life magazine with auto union president Walter Reuther, and King. But Iakovos did not go on to initiate interactions between Greek and African American congregations, clergy, or political action groups that may have been possible in Detroit.

Today, Greek America is viewed as a European ethnic group that dominant American culture has accepted as being “white.” That acceptance required Greeks to endorse the mainstream’s cultural values. What needs scrutiny is what currently constitutes “whiteness” and how ethnic cultures have had an impact on that perception. What is fascinating is that contemporary Greek Americans genuinely embrace as a fellow Greek, basketball star Giannis Antetokounmpo, who has Nigerian parents. That would not have been the case in 1965.

Dan Georgakas is director of the Greek American Studies Project at the Center for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, Queens College (CUNY).