“The biggest job in getting any movement off the ground is to keep together the people who form it. This task requires more than a common aim: it demands a philosophy that wins and holds the people’s allegiance; and it depends upon open channels of communication between the people and their leaders. All of these elements were present in Montgomery.” Stride Toward Freedom, p. 84
“A solution of the present crisis will not take place unless men and women work for it. Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable. Even a superficial look at history reveals that no social advance rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals. Without persistent effort, time itself becomes an ally of the insurgent and primitive forces of irrational emotionalism and social destruction. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.” Stride Toward Freedom, p. 197
How piercingly relevant are these words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. from his first book, published in 1958! This is Dr. King’s story of the historic, victorious, Montgomery, Alabama, African American bus boycott. It is truly living history, still relevant to our conditions today.
Stride Toward Freedom is one of the six books written by Dr. King. I’ve just finished reading all of them, doing so after being challenged by Zayid Muhammad, a strong Black leader in New Jersey, at a rally in Newark on January 15th, Dr. King’s 94th birthday. During Muhammad’s speech he spoke of these six books and asked how many of us had read all of them. My recollection is that only one person, Larry Hamm, chair of the People’s Organization for Progress, raised his hand.
I had read only one of them, King’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail, which is more of a booklet than a book. So I decided Zayid was right, that more of us should check out this historic figure’s writing, and so I did.
One thing which struck me as I read King’s books was how smart he was organizationally and strategically. I realized that my understanding of the man had been incomplete. I knew him as a brilliant orator, a prophetic religious leader, a person willing to give his life for the freedom of his people, of all people, a personal hero who, more than anyone else, inspired me to a life of activism both through his too-short life and his abrupt death on April 4th, 1968.
The Martin Luther King, Jr. that I discovered in the five books—Stride Toward Freedom, Why We Can’t Wait, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, The Trumpet of Conscience and Strength to Love—was a national and international leader who understood not just systemic racism but the issue of class. During his teen years, for example, he wrote about how “I worked two summers, against my father’s wishes, in a plant that hired both Negroes and whites. Here I saw economic injustice firsthand and realized that the poor white was exploited just as much as the Negro.” Stride Toward Freedom, p. 90
King was critical of “monopolistic capitalism” where there is “more concern about the economic security of the captains of industry than for the laboring men whose sweat and skills keep industry functioning.” Strength to Love, p. 23
In Stride for Freedom King writes for several pages about how, “during the Christmas holidays of 1949” he read Das Kapital, The Communist Manifesto and other “interpretative works on the thinking of Marx and Lenin.” His overall verdict was mixed. He concluded that both Marxism and capitalism represented a partial truth. “Nineteenth-century capitalism failed to see that life is social and Marxism fails to see that life is individual and personal. . . [what is needed] is a synthesis which reconciles the truths of both.” pps. 92-95
Throughout his books King wrote about the importance of Mohandus Gandhi and the theory and practice of nonviolent action. He particularly emphasized the importance of MASS civil disobedience, that there must be “a force that interrupts its [society’s] functioning at some key point. . . conducted by large masses without violence. Mass civil disobedience as a new stage of struggle can [transform rage] into a constructive and creative force.” Trumpet of Conscience, p. 15
But King was not a doctrinaire pacifist. He wrote in Where Do We Go From Here that “the right to defend one’s home and one’s person when attacked has been guaranteed through the ages of common law.” p. 57
King was very clear that in order to effect transformative social change the Black community must engage in alliances with others. In Trumpet of Conscience he writes positively about “the Negro and white youth who in alliance fought bruising engagements with the status quo,” p. 47. In Where Do We Go From Here he says that “a true alliance is based upon some self-interest of each component group and a common interest into which they merge. . . Each must have a goal from which it benefits and none must have an outlook in basic conflict with the others,” pl. 159. Elsewhere in that book he writes of how a “coalition of an energized section of labor, Negroes, unemployed and welfare recipients may be the source of power that reshapes economic relationships and ushers in a breakthrough to a new level of social reform.” p. 150
King appreciated that mass nonviolence alone as a tactic was not sufficient. In Where Do We Go From Here, written in 1967, he writes: “the only answer to the delay, double-dealing, tokenism and racism that we still confront is through mass nonviolent action and the ballet,” p. 137. But he also understood the critical necessity of “permanent groups” which worked on a day to day basis on behalf of their members. “Mass nonviolent demonstrations will not be enough. They must be supplemented by a continuing job of organization. To produce change, people must be organized to work together in units of power. These units may be political, as in the case of voters’ leagues and political parties; they may be economic, as in the case of groups of tenants who join to form a union, or groups of the unemployed and underemployed who organize to get jobs and better wages. . . [This work] is necessary for meaningful results.” p. 139
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had much, much more than a dream. His overall body of work, his activism, organizing and public speaking, as well as his clear and compelling writing, is literally a gift that keeps giving to all who will take the time to listen, read and learn.
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