Today, as the nation “celebrates” the birthday of Martin Luther King, we should remember him as he really was, rather just than as a kindly man who gave a few nice speeches, not an icon, he was a truly great leader of a great movement.
He got his start as a movement leader in the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-6. Originated by a local union leader – E.D. Nixon of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, Nixon helped elevate MLK into the central leader because he – Nixon – was out of town too much for his job. Martin Luther King continued from there. In 1961, he played a major role in leading the boycott/campaign in Birmingham against segregation and official discrimination in that city.
A major aspect of that campaign was the “children’s march.” The long, drawn out nature of
that campaign and the repression against the black community in Birmingham had meant the movement was stalling. Had it fallen back, it would have been a major blow to the entire Civil Rights movement. Into the breach stepped the youth, some as young as pre-teen agers. Resisting the pressure of the black establishment, Martin Luther King saw the necessity of encouraging the involvement of the youth. Then 16-year old Raymond
Goolsby described what happened:
‘Rev. Martin Luther King stood right beside me,” remembers Goolsby, 66. “He said, ‘I think it’s a mighty fine thing for children, what you’re doing because when you march, you’re really standing up; because a man can’t ride your back unless it is bent.’ And, boy, I mean he talked so eloquent and fast, after he finished his motivational speech, I was ready.”
‘On May 2, 1963, Goolsby joined thousands of students who left their classrooms and gathered at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. It was there where they spilled out in groups of 50 to march downtown. “My group was the first of 50 to march,” says Goolsby. “Our job was to decoy the police. We got arrested about a block and a half from 16th Street.”’
Martin Luther King was an internationalist. Against much pressure, including from most
of his most influential “supporters”, he came out publicly against the Vietnam War, first in his 1967 speech in New York City. “A time comes when silence is betrayal.” In Vietnam, said King, “that time has come for us…. Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart, as I have called for radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam, many persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path…. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation and for those it calls “enemy,” for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.”
Just as he continued to speak up against the murderous butcher of the US war against Vietnam, so he spoke up against the regime in apartheid South Africa. “Africa does have spectacular savages and brutes today, but they are not black” he commented in 1965. “They are the sophisticated white rulers of South Africa who profess to be cultured, religious and civilized, but whose conduct and philosophy stamp them unmistakably as modern-day barbarians.”
His move to drawing global conclusions from the struggle he helped lead against official segregation was a mark of a great leader who was able to grow and respond to events surrounding him.
Poverty and Class Struggle
That was equally so as far as the issue of poverty and class struggle. Initially, he pointed out that the Civil Rights movement had not done a lot for the poor black people in the South. He continued from there to start to develop a vision and an understanding of poverty in general. “In the treatment of poverty nationally, one fact stands out: there are twice as many white poor as Negro poor in the United States,” he said. “Therefore I will not dwell on the experiences of poverty that derive from racial discrimination, but will discuss the poverty that affects white and Negro alike.” The result of this view was his planned “Poor People’s March on Washington”.
In these last few years, he had started to see the issue of class struggle and of socialism. Already, in 1957, he was starting to see this point of view. “Privileged classes do not give up their privileges voluntarily,” he said in an interview. “We are engaged in the class struggle…. Maybe America must move towards democratic socialism,” he said.
As he was planning this, he got involved in the struggle of sanitation workers for union rights in Memphis in 1968. It was there that he was murdered.
Learning and developing, but not “perfect”
As with all great leaders, Martin Luther King learned, developed and responded to the events of the day. Also, as with other great leaders, he had his faults and weaknesses. Early on, under the influence of the liberal pacifist left, he allowed himself to be convinced of “non-violence” as a principle rather than as a tactic. (This writer remembers talking with an older black worker in the South in 1969. “I believe in non-violence,” the worker said. Just as this writer was getting ready to argue, the worker added, “to a certain extent.”) Even there, though, according to Charles R. Sims, founder of the “Deacons for Defense of Justice” in Bogalusa, Louisiana, whenever Martin Luther King visited that area, he allowed himself to be escorted by that armed self-defense group. Sims claimed that King would not have survived had the Deacons not escorted him, arms in hand.
And while Martin Luther King never capitulated to the corporate-controlled Democratic Party and never relied simply on the good graces of liberals like the Kennedy brothers or LBJ, he also did not develop a vision of an alternative to the Democrats.
The United States has produced some great leaders of the struggle against oppression and exploitation. These include Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglas, “Big Bill” Haywood, Eugene Debs, and Malcolm X. Martin Luther King, jr., whose birth we celebrate on this day, was right up there with them. He was far more than just a kind, “peace loving” man who gave some nice-sounding speeches. He was truly a mass leader.