What Really Made Martin Luther King and Malcolm X Great

Thought for the day:

The two greatest prominent leaders of the last 75 years were Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. What made them great was their willingness and ability to change. They achieved prominence based on ties with somewhat conservative forces. In Martin Luther King’s case, it was a layer of middle class ministers. At one turning point in the civil rights movement, that movement was stalling. Over the objections of many of his associates in the SCLC, he turned to the youth, teenagers barely out of childhood, and encouraged them to mobilize. That drove the movement forward. Later, despite the urgings of many, he denounced the Vietnam War and, maybe even more important, he started to link up the issue of racism with class politics. That was the meaning of his building of the Poor People’s Campaign and his support for the striking sanitation workers in Memphis.

Malcolm X made a similar transformation. He started as a representative of the conservative Nation of Islam, but then broke with them. He turned against capitalism. “You show me a capitalist and I will show you a bloodsucker,” he said. “You cannot have capitalism without racism.”

For both of those leaders, the change could only have come with a willingness to struggle with – and even break with – their closest associates.

The question is: Where and how will the next leader, or leaders, emerge? Who will be the next leaders who are willing to transcend their present base and take it further? Recently, I heard Van Jones on CNN talk about how Black Lives Matter had successfully registered black voters and gotten the out to vote in this election. Where and who are the coming leaders who will use their present base to lead a movement for a working class alternative to the Democratic Party? That internal struggle – within oneself and with one’s closest associates – is the most difficult of all. It’s also more necessary than ever.

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