Over 500 protests occurred across the United States on and around the Martin Luther King Jr federal holiday this year to #ReclaimMLK. Demonstrators were following in the civil rights leader’s footsteps, engaging in disruption to pursue racial justice. In Cleveland, Ohio, there was a protest in the park where a 12-year-old African-American boy, Tamir Rice, was fatally shot in the stomach by a police officer on 22 November 2014. Security camera footage shows Rice, who was carrying a replica gun that fired plastic pellets, being shot just two seconds after a police car screeched to a halt in front of him. It is impossible for white police officer Timothy Loehmann to have asked Rice to put his hands up three times before shooting him, as police later claimed. Tamir Rice was then left without any medical attention for four minutes (until another police officer arrived on the scene). The 12-year-old died the next day, part of a systematic crisis of police violence and police racism in Cleveland and across the country, a crisis that has recently claimed the lives of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York.
On Martin Luther King Day, 19 January 2015, there was a #ReclaimMLK-related march that stopped in the Cudell Recreation Centre playground where Tamir Rice was shot. Organiser Courtney Drain told Lauren McCauley of Common Dreams: “Some people think that we’re out here just causing problems. MLK [Martin Luther King Jr] marched in the streets, he blocked traffic. He wasn’t convenient.”
Ferguson Action, the protest group formed after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, wrote about the #ReclaimMLK movement: “Unfortunately, Dr. King’s legacy has been clouded by efforts to soften, sanitize, and commercialize it. Impulses to remove Dr. King from the movement that elevated him must end.”
There are two strands here. The sanitising of Martin Luther King’s politics in theory and in action; and “removing Dr King from the movement that elevated him.” Paul Street wrote a concise introduction to aspects of King’s forgotten radicalism on this site recently, responding to the new Hollywood film, Selma. If we take the second strand, there is a famous insight expressed by Ella Baker, an initiator of, and the first executive director of, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which King headed: “Martin didn’t make the movement, the movement made Martin.”
How did King become a nationally-known civil rights leader? By being the figurehead of the Montgomery bus boycott, a 13-month-long campaign from December 1955 to December 1956 that overthrew segregation in the Alabama city. How did King become the figurehead of the boycott campaign? It is easy to imagine that King was the charismatic initiator, or the disciplined organiser of the boycott – easy but wrong.
The bus boycott campaign began, as is well-known, with the arrest of Rosa Parks, a long-standing civil rights activist, late on 1 December 1955, after she refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white person. A key initiator of the boycott was Alabama State College professor Jo Ann Robinson, president of the Women’s Political Council (WPC), a campaign group of black professional women. The WPC had been pushing for a bus boycott to challenge segregation for months. In a 21 May 1955 letter to Mayor Gayle, Robinson had written: “there has been talk from twenty-five or more local organizations of planning a city-wide boycott of busses.” In her memoir, Robinson recalls some notes she made on the evening of 1 December: “The Women’s Political Council will not wait for Mrs. Parks’s consent to call for a boycott of city buses. On Friday, December 2, 1955, the women of Montgomery will call for a boycott to take place on Monday, December 5.” (Rosa Parks was to be tried on Monday 5 December.) Over the next 10 hours, Robinson, a colleague and two students duplicated, cut and bundled tens of thousands of leaflets Robinson had hastily written calling for the one-day bus boycott – the WPC then implemented a pre-prepared plan for distributing the leaflets to around the city.
The WPC had pre-empted any more cautious voices in the African-American community and helped to initiate a boycott supported by 90% of the black community.
Another key figure on 1 December was ED Nixon, a trade unionist and previously a leader at the state and local levels of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). With the help of a white lawyer, Nixon bailed Rosa Parks out of jail on the evening of 1 December, and persuaded her to allow her case to be used to challenge the city’s bus segregation policy. Nixon had been working with Rosa Parks for more than a decade: she’d been secretary to the local NAACP since 1943, during which time Nixon had been president. On 1 December, Nixon spoke to Jo Ann Robinson before she began her marathon leaflet production spree; they agreed on the one-day boycott. Nixon had previously prevented the WPC from launching a bus boycott after other African-American women had been arrested – because the women in those cases had not been as respectable and well-respected as Parks.
Nixon (an agnostic) began contacting local black ministers to invite them to an organising meeting for the boycott. Nixon asked the local NAACP to lead the boycott; the then president of the Montgomery NAACP told him that according to procedure he would have to consult the New York head office before taking any action. Instead, Nixon and two local ministers, Ralph Abernathy and EN French, decided to form a new organisation, which Abernathy named the Montgomery Improvement Association. It was to be an organisation of organisations, leading a new, sustained boycott against bus segregation.
Abernathy invited Nixon to head the MIA. Nixon thought having a black minister as leader made more sense in gaining the critical support of local black churches. (Incidentally, the other boycott initiator, Jo Ann Robinson, also kept out of the limelight, refusing to take an official position within the MIA in order to protect her position at Alabama State College – she and others resigned in 1960 when Alabama governor John Patterson began targeting faculty who were activists in the civil rights movement.)
Returning to the 5 December 1955, the organising group decided to make Martin Luther King Jr, a recently-arrived minister, the president of the MIA. Why was King chosen? He was highly-educated, an impressive orator, and the son of an important local minister. There was another factor. Rosa Parks later observed that “Dr. King was chosen in part because he was relatively new to the community and so did not have any enemies.”
Civil rights leaders in Tallahassee and Birmingham were also new to their communities, Aldon D Morris noted in his ground-breaking study, The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Change. Morris wrote: “A common practice of the local white power structures in the 1950s was to co-opt and control black leaders by giving them personal rewards. This tactic gave whites a chance to gain some control over black ministers, who otherwise were economically independent of the white man. Here again, the newcomer status enabled ministers to be independent of the white power structure in actuality and in the eyes of the community.” As ED Nixon put it, King “had not been here long enough for the city fathers to put their hands on him,” giving him a suit of clothes ‘or somethin’ of that kind.”
Aldon Morris observes that the Montgomery movement, though it came quickly to centre around a charismatic leader, did not follow the model outlined by Max Weber, “where the leader attracts a revolutionary following because of his extraordinary personality and compelling vision.” Morris writes: “In this instance the visions of an uncharismatic and largely uneducated pullman porter [ED Nixon received less than two years of formal education] and members of the WPC and other community organizations were thrust into the hands of a charismatic minister who could play a key mobilizing role because he occupied a central position in the church.”
There’s much more that could be said about the relationship between King and the movement, and the extent to which the movement educated, challenged and transformed its leader – as well as giving him a national and international stage from which to articulate his vision of nonviolent transformation and racial justice. The point I want to make is that King would not have had that platform if there had not been a dense underlay of community organising based on skills, experience, networks and organisations built up over decades. It was organisations such as the Women’s Political Committee and the militant black churches that created the bus boycott and then selected King to occupy the focal point of the campaign that they had built, the organisation of organisations that they had melded together.
In these days where people are looking to create movements as powerful as the civil rights movement of the 1950s, it is important to look at the solid organisational base of that movement. The civil rights movement was not spontaneous, and it was not the creation of one person, however gifted. The movement was fuelled by outrage, no doubt, but it was sustained and organised and rooted in existing institutions that it connected and transformed.
ZNetwork is funded solely through the generosity of its readers.Donate