By Dion D’Silva
“I’ll be honest with you, I was terrified. I owe my life to that preacher and so do all the other white people who were there.”
So spoke a policeman outside the home of Martin Luther King in Montgomery in January 1956. King’s home had just been firebombed. Yet, as he surveyed the damage, he spoke to an angry crowd that had gathered: “We must love our white brothers no matter what they do to us... what we are doing is just — and God is with us.”
The birth of the modern Civil Rights Movement was the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955/56. The local preacher, Martin Luther King, threw himself into organising and leading the boycott of buses which had separate sections for white and black passengers. The black churches were the only arena where black people could gather in number quite freely, and discuss tactics and strategy.
The boycott was the first of many that spread across the towns and cities of the American South. There were demonstrations, sit-ins, voter registration drives and freedom rides involving thousands of people. In 1963 there were over 930 protests in 115 cities, with more than 20,000 arrests. The undisputed national leader was Martin Luther King.
His strategy was guided by his Christian belief in non-violence. He sincerely believed in “loving your enemy”. If confronted with violence you should “turn the other cheek”. He was also greatly influenced by Gandhi’s campaign of civil disobedience for Indian independence. The activists involved in demonstrations at lunch counters which refused to serve black people were obviously brave individuals who believed in this idea of shaming their oppressors. Their official guidelines were:
Show yourself friendly at all times
Do sit straight and face the counter
Don’t strike back if attacked
Don’t laugh out loud
Don’t hold conversations.
Malcolm X was quite scathing of this approach: “Be peaceful, be courteous, obey the law, respect everyone: but if someone puts a hand on you, send him to the cemetery. That’s a good religion. In fact, that’s the old time religion.” Malcolm reflected the anger of the northern ghettos.
The predominantly southern Civil Rights Movement was not so confident. Often they looked for the help of the Federal Government to sort out the racist political leaders of the South. These racist Dixiecrats had control of the local state, police force and media. Violence, even in self defence, was ruled out as impracticable. Black people would come off the worst.
Even though Martin Luther King looked towards help from Washington and the outside world, he was prepared to put pressure on them by organising mass demonstrations. He always stayed true to this even though he played a balancing act between the conservatives and radicals in the movement.
The ever-so-liberal Bobby Kennedy tried to buy him off. Kennedy wanted the civil rights movement to concentrate on voter registration — hoping for more votes — rather than organising demos and sit-ins.
It culminated in the march on Washington in 1963. Over 250,000 people marched and heard Martin Luther King’s famous “I have a dream” speech. However, the more conservative elements objected to any radical statements critical of the Democratic Party. These same people saw the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act as the pinnacle of their achievements. For them it was now “out of the streets and into the suites”, meaning the executive suites of top companies.
At the time Malcolm X was in the Nation of Islam. He referred to the “farce on Washington” as a one-day integrated picnic. Nevertheless, Malcolm’s split with the Nation was due to his wish to get involved in the movement more directly. The notion of civil rights seemed rather limited to him. He argued for “human rights” and the involvement of emerging independent African nations through the United Nations.
Even after he was murdered in 1965, Malcolm’s idea had a resonance in the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King talked about tackling the root causes of racism. He realised that the movement needed to spread its support to the North and, in particular, black workers. But even he was shocked by the reaction he received when trying to organise in Chicago.
King began to distance himself from the Democratic Party. There was even talk about him standing independently in the 1968 elections. He recognised the need for a social programme and came out clearly against the Vietnam War. The movement organised campaigns for social welfare for poor whites, blacks and Hispanics. Significantly, King was killed in Memphis in 1968 while he was supporting a strike of black dustmen.
Spike Lee ends his film Do The Right Thing with quotes from both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. The old man character in the film seems to represent the worthy but old-fashioned ideas of Martin Luther King, whereas the angry youth are the continuation of Malcolm X’s ideals. The message is: Martin Luther King was okay for his time, but now we should look towards Malcolm X and his legacy.
The attempt to stress the continuity and similarities between King and Malcolm X is understandable. The official, liberal view has always portrayed King as the honourable black leader and Malcolm X as the dangerous and violent one.
Malcolm X has made two important contributions. Firstly, his stress on self-defence. His comment on this bears a resemblance to Trotsky’s remark “for every lynching, we should kill 20 lynchers”. The official movement never mentioned self-defence, indeed they often looked to the support of federal troops.
Secondly, Malcolm was hostile to the state and its institutions. He castigated black people for voting Democrat. However, the organisation he built after he broke with the Nation of Islam, the Organisation for Afro-American Unity (OAAU), was always rather small, and a black, independent organisation is not in itself progressive.
Martin Luther King was often criticised for being an “integrationist”. Malcolm X’s widow, Betty Shabazz, argued that the slogans “Black and white together/We shall overcome” were no longer relevant: “Integration has failed — now we have to rule ourselves.”
But socialists share a type of “integrationist” approach. We can learn from Martin Luther King’s attempt to build a mass movement of black and white for social progress. In the late 60s, there was tremendous potential. A movement that built links between King’s Poor People’s Campaign and the Anti-Vietnam War Campaign, and had answers to social problems of black, Hispanic and white workers could have been a threat to the racist Democratic and Republican parties.
When Martin Luther King was shot in 1968, many US cities erupted in anger. Malcolm X had said “the white man had better be glad that Dr King is leading a non-violent revolution. There are those who are waiting for him to fail. Then the revolution will begin”. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen in 1968.