This year on January 15 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. will be 79 years old. On that day in 1929 one of the last century’s most outstanding and influential Black leaders came into the world of white racism in the United States. Dr.Martin Luther King, Jr., the man who would become the embodiment and conscience of the Civil Rights Movement, was born in Atlanta, Georgia, to a religious Black middle class family. In fact, he was the grandson of the Rev. A.D. Williams, then pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church who was also the founder of Atlanta’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). It was this family tradition of Christian social activism that would eventually shape King’s adult life and catapult him into the leadership position of the national Black Civil Rights Struggle.
While many of King’s detractors have criticized him for his non-violent Ghandian-style civil disobedience strategy that he pitted against a hostile, belligerent State apparatus, there can be little doubt that he eventually achieved the grudging respect of an American Establishment more comfortable with the use of violence, than with non-violent means against violence. And even today many still have not fully grasped the tremendous racial inequalities that King was a witness to in the segregated south. Few today would have been able to live in the intolerable conditions of “separate and unequal” that was the slogan and forced, institutionalized apartheid of the South.
For example, there were separate Black and white schools, churches, neighborhoods, restrooms, libraries, drinking fountains, elevators, cemeteries, motels, cafes, hotels, restaurants and transportation systems. Blacks, right up to 1963, could not vote and the legal system was clearly biased in favor of whites - separate and unequal. Blacks existed under conditions of intolerable and brutal neo-slavery; in this case the chains were the inhuman and racist system that defined and embodied the South and dehumanized an entire Black population. Whites literally got away with murder as the United States government cast a blind eye on the brutal excesses and summary, extra-judicial executions of Blacks by white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, and the connivance and collusion of local white officialdom.
It was onto this stage that Martin Luther King, Jr. stepped. And in many respects his religious upbringing and experience of racist conditions in the South were to play pivotal roles in his strategy of liberation for his people. Firstly, King was a staunch believer in the role of the Black Church as an instrument of organization and social change. He therefore saw the Black Church as a revolutionary organization and the de facto leader of Christian social activism.
King’s contact with Benjamin Mays and others who subscribed to and advocated Christian social activism was to also influence him. At Morehouse College and Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, King further sharpened his brand of social activism that he would use to guide the Black Civil Rights Movement. He completed his education at Boston University where he earned his doctorate in theology in 1955.
But King did not just get up and decide to lead the Black Civil Rights Struggle. As a matter of fact shortly after he took up a pastorate in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks lit the fuse that ignited the civil rights struggle when she refused to give up her seat to a white person and sit at the back of the segregated bus. And so the world, in 1956, as the bus boycott continued, got its first glimpse of this newly minted Moses of his People when King was named the president of the Montgomery Improvement Association and demonstrated his oratorical skills and principled positions from the streets and the pulpit. America and the world also got its first look at his courage as his home was bombed and the local white racist authorities arrested him on false charges.
As King was gaining national and international attention due to a movement that coopted him, he recognized the need to form alliances and to build strong grassroots organizations. In 1957 King and southern Black ministers formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SNLC) and began pushing for Black enfranchisement. Travelling all over the country King consistently called for the passage of a law that would allow Blacks to vote. But King faced a strange dilemma: the focus of the Black liberation struggle kept shifting. In response to this dynamic King moved cautiously and did not mobilize mass protests in the first five years after the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Many Black scholars have been highly critical of King because they saw this as evidence of his indecisive leadership.
But that was not the case. The Black liberation movement was and still is an amorphous, non-hegemonic movement that responded to different soci-economic and political stimuli depending on the specific conditions on the ground at the time. The movement essentially lacked class and political consciousness and was defined by reaction to socio-economic and political conditions, rather than by philosophical or ideological positions. But this was soon to change. In April 1960 militant students, dissatisfied with King’s cautiousness formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and helped expand and widen the Black protests. However, the conflict between the SNCC and the SCLC far from retarding the Black struggle gave King the impetus to organize protests, marches, and sit-ins that heightened racial tensions and lifted Black political consciousness.
It was out of these many skirmishes with the police that led to the August 28, 1963 March on Washington that attracted more the 250,000 people and had the effect of shaking up the white power Establishment for the first time in US history. And it was a direct result of these actions that saw the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But the lessons of the struggles of 1961 to 1963 also clearly demonstrated that while King was achieving national stature as the leading proponent of the Civil Rights Struggle, clear divisions and new detachments of the Black Liberation Movement were emerging. The growing militancy of the SNCC and leaders like the charismatic Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) and the rise of the Black Muslims led by Malcolm X, who advocated a different brand of struggle and resistance, further sharpened and defined the Civil Rights Movement.
In contrast to King, Malcolm X initially preached a message of militancy and direct self-defense that found acceptance in the angry Black urban ghettos of both the north and the south. These urban Blacks smarting from the problems of unemployment and exhibiting a new class and political consciousness, rallied around the teachings of the Black Muslims and Malcolm X. Black Nationalism as articulated by Malcolm X and other groups like the Black Panther Party was more attractive to Blacks whose political consciousness was galvanized around Stokely Carmichael’s call of “Black Power.”
These formidable and serious challenges nonetheless, King held true to his conviction of non-violent protest. Since his return from India in 1958 King was convinced that the most effective way for the Black race to struggle for dignity and respect in the United States was by the use of Ghandian non-violent strategies. It was a conviction that he was willing to sacrifice his life for. King shared the pain of the police beatings, the arrests, the water canons and the racist slogans hurled at the movement. He led by example. In a manner of speaking, he was no arm chair civil rights general. He daily led protests on the picket lines and was the first to face the hostility of the organs of state power. And he bore all these hostilities unflinchingly.
Indeed, King’s legacy remains the development of the non-violent form of struggle as a tool in the arsenal of the Black Liberation Movement. His contribution was and is a useful addition to the other weapons of struggle that Blacks can utilize as they fight for equality and fairness at all levels of society. To King’s detractors who thought that non-violent activism was a particular brand of pacifism and cowardice the evidence suggests the opposite. King was a brave and courageous man. It took a strong individual to face the brunt of police batons, water canons, dogs and white mobs with rope in their pockets and blood in their eyes, to react with calm and good neighborliness.
King’s calmness and confidence was born from his deep and abiding Christian convictions and from the fundamental belief that humans are essentially good and decent. In striving to reach the Christian ideal of agape, or unconditional Christian love, King translated this ideal into practice. For him non-violence was nothing more than love in action. This required that this unconditional love be not necessarily recripocated by the object on which it was targeted. Thus, King lived the Christian behest of “Love Thine Enemy” and “Forgive 70 times 7.” For it is in these admonitions that non-violent ideology is rooted.
To those like Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown and Eldridge Cleaver who differed with King, their objectives were the same, only the paths were different. Malcolm X too was a Moses of the Black Liberation Movement, and he too was as much a product of repressive and racist society as was King. But King was nothing, if not a shrewd tactician, and he used the system to further the Black cause. In the process he earned the international recognition of many and was the inspiration for many of the oppressed peoples of the World.
Rather than lock horns with reaction, he chose compromise and reason. Rather than direct and open confrontation, he chose peace and civil disobedience. Rather than shed blood he opted for dialogue and compassion. He pitied the oppressor and the white racists, but he also believed that they too were children of God. But King was a realist. In his famous 1963 speech “I Have A Dream” King clearly outlined the realities of the American Nightmare. It was King who accused America of forcing Blacks onto a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. It is the same thing that is happening today.
In 1964 King was named Time’s “Man of the Year,” and in December of that same year he received the Nobel Peace Prize. Yet King will be remembered for his pioneering efforts to get Blacks the right to vote and to make discrimination and racism crimes. Admittedly, United States society still has a far way to go until King’s dreams can come true and the struggle today, in 2008, is more acute and vicious as ever. But if Blacks are to triumph over the obstacles placed in their path by adversity, then it might be wise to revisit King’s blueprint for action.