Martin Luther King, Jr

A short article by Martin Glaberman about MLK's legacy of nonviolent tactics.

Submitted by Juan Conatz on February 1, 2012

Martin Luther King rose to national prominence as a Negro leader as a consequence of a particular mass struggle, the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

The Montgomery movement adopted the tactic of non-violence out of necessity and it suited the needs of the struggle. Non-violence did not mean non-resistance. It meant the total mobilization and organization of the Negro community of Montgomery to carry on both the struggle for integration of the uses and its own community life. And it meant the opportunity of attracting national attention, and gaining national support, financial or otherwise.

To King, however, non-violence became not a tactic but a principle. That oversimplifies King’s philosophy but it nevertheless indicates its fundamental basis. King’s doctrine of non-violence, because it was more than a tactic, involved a kind of dependence on the enemy (the white racists) to respond properly in all situations. But more significantly, it involved a dependence on allies, that is, white liberals, politicians and others, who, presumably, could only be influenced by moral force.

This philosophy resulted in a contradiction in the public life of Martin Luther King.

On the one hand it divorced him from many of the concrete struggles that developed. It began with conflicts within the movement, resentments on the part of SNCC people and others at what appeared to be a willingness to compromise, to refrain from, going all the way. But it also extended to the Negro masses themselves. It first made its appearance in Birmingham when King went around to the pool rooms to cool the anger of young blacks who were ready to counterattack against the racist police and government. It stood cut sharply in Watts where King was jeered and booed after the riot of 1965. It got worse in the summer of 1967 when King advocated the use of police and national guardsmen in Detroit to put down the popular upheaval before a discussion of grievances, etc., could take place. (As sometimes happens, a principled position of non-violence against the capitalist state can develop certain inconsistencies.)

At the same time, although large numbers of Negroes were obviously not prepared to follow King wherever he might lead, it remained true that King was the most popular Negro spokesman in the country. This was, of course, a reflection of his remarkable eloquence, of his personal courage, of his clarity in citing the wrongs done to Negroes in a way that anyone in the country could understand. But it was also a reflection of something else. Although the urban Negro masses rejected non-violence, their violence was directed toward transforming the existing society, not toward removing themselves from it. Although the violence of the ghetto rejected any compromise with the existing social and political structure, it was directed, not toward secession but toward a new social structure. As a result, although King was rejected as a tactician and avoided as a leader, he remained valuable as a spokesman because a means of communication to the American people as a whole was an integral element of the violent upheavals.

Unlike Gandhi, King led no mass organization. The United States in the sixties was far different than India in the thirties. He never achieved total commitment to himself and to his philosophy among great masses of people. And yet, he remains an authentic spokesman and leader. He also gave to the movement an overall unity which it did not seem to have because it was not represented by a single organization.

It would be very easy to forget the contradictions and mourn the assassination of King as that of a leader cut down in his prime. It would be almost as easy to insist on his ideological errors and limitations. In either case, the chief loss would not be an objective understanding of King and his proper place in history. The main loss would be an objective understanding of the Afro-American people and their needs and demands in a continuing and mounting struggle. They made King what he was and without understanding King you cannot understand them.

Originally appeared in Speak Out (April 1968). Taken from