‘Desanitising’ Martin Luther King

HUGO PIERRE reviews a recent book that looks at both the life and the political struggles of US civil rights activist and anti-racist campaigner Martin Luther King.

King: The Life of Martin Luther King

By Jonathan Eig

Published by Simon and Schuster, 2023, £25

Martin Luther King the pacifist, the compromiser and reformist, the acceptable face of the civil rights struggle versus Malcolm X, the revolutionary, the uncompromising face of the struggle for Black liberation – or this is how it has been portrayed. A section of the US establishment effectively ‘cannonised’ King to prevent a new generation of Black youth from discovering the mass militant methods of struggle he supported and unleashed from the mid-1950s until after his death.

King became fully immersed in these methods which brought him both an audience and in bitter conflict with the highest levels of the US state. Jonathan Eig’s biography aims to reconnect King with the militant insurrectionary movement King took part in and led at various points, the vicious attempts of the state to repress him and the movement, and explores the ideology that inspired his tactics.

The book also gives us a glimpse into the personal struggles and, importantly, the political struggles within the movement King faced. For Marxists an understanding of these events, the role and programme of characters within them, and the organisations they built to pursue that struggle, are rich in lessons. For anyone who wants to know about this important period in US history and the fight against racism, this book gives a good overview of one of the key characters and events, although without drawing the full necessary conclusions.

Eig makes it clear from the outset that King “announced at an early age that God had called him to act”. His book also deals with many personal issues that remove the mystique, “King was a man, not a saint, not a symbol”. Some of his personal ‘indescretions’ continued even though he knew the “FBI was tapping his phones and bugging his hotel rooms, trying to destroy his marriage and reputation”. Eig was able to use recently released FBI and government files as well as testimony from friends and associates, including unpublished memoirs and audiotapes to produce this book.

Ideological beginnings

King, whose father was a successful preacher, studied theology at university but rejected the literal and fundamentalist approach that many southern US preachers had to the bible. King instead decided that the texts could be used for social change. Whilst rejecting the “unfairness of capitalism”, King rejected Marx and communism because he believed “that there is a creative personal power in the universe who is the ground of all reality – a power that cannot be explained in materialistic terms”. With his upbringing, King had yet to experience the events that would test this ideological stand.

The book recounts some of King’s experiences as a young man growing up in a segregated Atlanta. He realised that segregation, brutally enforced, went hand in hand with extreme economic inequalities. Even though he was from a middle-class family, and didn’t particularily suffer economic hardship, his parents would have recounted tales of their struggle out of the harshest poverty and he would have witnessed the same conditions amongst those of his childhood friends and playmates. Marxists would argue that these material circumstances were the basis for his future development, and not simply the ideas that he found at university or in the scriptures.

After the Montgomery Bus Boycott against segregation in 1955, King wrote a book on the events, Stride Towards Freedom, including a chapter on his inspiration and the ideas that dictated his methods of waging that struggle. Unfortunately, at that time the ideas of genuine Marxism were a small current within the workers’ movement. Instead, the false ideas of Stalinism were more dominant, flowing from the degeneration of the revolution in Russia, the consolidation of a bureaucratic dictatorship under Josef Stalin, and the elimination of democratic workers’ control of the state planned economy. At the same time, sections of the ruling class in the US were implementing a vicious anti-communist campaign, which involved both the witch-hunting of the McCarthy show trials, involving imprisonment and ‘blacklisting’, along with the brutal repressive regime enforced by the FBI chief, J Edgar Hoover.

King rejected capitalism and the idea pushed of the American dream on the basis of which consumerism would force men to concentrate on “making a living rather than making a life”. Whilst he studied Marx and read his ideas, the post-war period would also have had a material affect on his consciousness. Capitalism worldwide feared the potential rise of the working class in the immediate post-war period, in which Stalinist Russia was strengthened internationally as an alternative system to capitalism. Revolutionary upheavals took place, especially in the colonial world.

On this basis, with the economy in the more advanced capitalist countries in an upswing, the ruling class felt compelled to make some concessions to workers demanding change. King acknowledges this himself. When talking about modern American capitalism, he explains that it had “greatly reduced the [wealth] gap through social reforms”, but he then goes on to counter “there was still need for a better system of distribution”. The post-war boom obscured his studies of Marx, preventing him from seeing both the revolutionary struggles for change and the inherent contradictions within capitalism, and how these were dialectically interconnected.

‘Non-violent’ struggle

King was not the first to look at the revolutionary struggles taking place in the colonial world for inspiration, and he certainly wouldn’t be the last in the struggle for Black liberation in America. His philosphical studies brought him to pacifism. He rightly rejected what he called ‘passive non-resistance to evil’ and just turning the other cheek. Studying Ghandi’s non-violent protest movement in the inter-war years he became an advocate of a non-violent struggle that had “as much vigour as the violent struggle”.

King’s initial adoption of ‘non-violence’ as the method of struggle for the civil rights movement was a pragmatic one. He explained to one of his pastor’s that the revolution would have to be non-violent for the minority to succeed; it was “just a matter of arithmetic”. But after Montgomery he believed that this “love” or “truth” would be a “courageous confrontation of evil” that would eventually lead to “develop a sense of shame in the opponent, and thereby bring about a transformation and a change of heart”. King accepted Hegel’s view that growth comes from struggle.

King candidly explained that he did not think he would be involved in a crisis in Montgomery, nor that he would start it or suggest it. In his own words, he “responded to the call of people for a spokesman”. This was true. The book reveals King was hesitant at first in his support for action. But once he committed he threw himself fully into activity.

The struggle in Montgomery had been taking place for some time. Several women had already been arrested, but Rosa Parkes’s boycott started what became a mass campaign. Parkes herself was influenced by the acitivities of the Communist Party and was already a seasoned campaigner. The Women’s Political Council in collaboration with local trade unionists called for the boycott and asked the local Black newspaper and the churches to help organise and spread the campaign.

The success of Montegomery convinced King that the methods of non-violence were both correct and would define future struggles to end racism in the US. But the desegregation of the Montgomery buses, which had operated segregated seating under local laws, didn’t happen because the bus companies were shamed into submission by ‘love’. They received 75% of their custom from Black workers travelling to and from work. Rosa Parkes only used the bus sparingly because of a previous incident of racism at the hands of the company. The regulations were removed because after over one year of struggle the Black workers’ boycott caused massive economic destruction to the city’s bus owners.

However, in future battles King would come to realise that it was the state and the defenders of segregation that would use violence to defend by any means necessary their version of capitalist exploitation.

Mass struggle

Community, trade union and church leaders met, and King came forward and was elected as the leader of the newly formed Montgomery Improvement Association. The book describes a scene familiar to many activists, of his panic in preparation for the first mass meeting to agree to continue the boycott after the first successful day. The book further describes the meticulous and ingenious methods Black workers used to maintain the boycott.

King argued for non-violence but also for militant mass struggle. Years later whilst in jail in Birmingham, Alabama, he wrote a letter to preachers in the church who urged him not to demonstrate, not to break unjust laws, and to wait for a more appropriate time to struggle. King explained that the only way to rid the US of racism was to “create a tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood” – through non-violent direct action.

In the years immediately following the Montgomery bus boycott success King was proved correct. The main Black anti-racist US organisation, the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), had fought racism through the courts with legal challenges. They had chosen this after winning a supreme court case that forced the racial desegregation of schools.

King’s organisation, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), wanted to continue the work of non-violent mass protest. Initially through a voter registration campaign. However, Black youth inspired by the success of the bus boycott took matters into their own hands.

The lunch counter sit-in movement began when a group of Black students that were refused service stayed on the premises until closure, then came back day after day to protest until eventually they were desegregated. This movement spread like wildfire in many towns in southern states. The SCLC helped organise this movement and many young people were brought into activity and prominence as a result.

However, the SCLC itself as an organisation was limited. It was top-down with no democratic structures – on some occasions no decision-making structures to speak of – and while activists were drawn into struggle, there was little or often no local structure for them to participate in. At the top of the organisation there was very poor organisation and, ironically, women, who were at the centre of the Montgomery bus boycott, were largely excluded from leadership.

Eig’s book reveals that the youth were allowed to organise independently of the SCLC. King was persuaded of this by Ella Baker, the SCLC executive director, one of the very few women in a position of power in the organisation. In 1960 the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was formed which further transformed the participation of youth. A mass civil disobedience movement, a direct action movement – in many respects an insurrectionary movement – was launched by the youth throughout the southern US states.

King’s SCLC was made up of Black church leaders. But his two main advisors were Bayard Rustin and Stan Levinson – both former Communists. This brought King increasingly to the attention of the CIA. They infiltrated King’s offices, hotel rooms and his home, and threatened to reveal evidence of affairs to destroy his reputation and the mass movement.

Despite this King launched an audacious campaign to desegregate Birmingham, Alabama, at the beginning of 1963. The sit-ins and marches were met with police violence, with the use of dogs and water hoses, and mass arrests, including of King himself. Pictures from the protests went viral in the world’s media. Eventually, with the intervention of president Kennedy, phased segregation was achieved.

State and racist violence

Whilst in prison in Birmingham King further explored his thoughts on the non-violent movement, defending it as previously explained, endorsing it’s militant nature, but also romanticising its influence. King believed that “privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily”. He had, however, previously ascribed things to the non-violent movement about Indian independence which were not the case. For example, he claimed that independence was “won without violence on the part of Indians” and that the “hatred and bitterness that usually follows a violent campaign is found nowhere in India… Mutual friendship based on complete equality exists between the Indian and British people”.

Of course, this was never true, even in King’s time. The horrific partition of India, the national confrontation between the two new states of India and Pakistan, the suppression of language movements that would eventually lead to a further war of independence for Bangladesh and other national conflicts that still exists today – in Kashmir and many parts of northern India – alongside huge levels of endemic poverty, did not create equality or stability for the Indian masses. On the basis of capitalism all the contradictions of society remained. But in a time of two global superpowers and the fear of a powerful working class at home, concessions were made by British imperialism, giving up absolute control of its ill-gotten colonial gains. Subsequent Indian regimes took advantage of this by trying to play the two world superpowers – the US and the Soviet Union – against each other, in order to enrich a new Indian elite.

The youth, who took the brunt of beatings from the state, now started to have different views on non-violence and the nature of the campaign for racial equality. Whilst 1963 saw victories for King’s desegregation campaign in Birmingham and the March on Washington, it also saw the most vicious beatings and the murder of four young girls sheltering from racist mobs in a church in Birmingham. And 1964 would get worse. There were mass mobilisations of young people through SNCC and other organisations for a grass-roots ‘Freedom Summer’, as it became known in Mississippi. One estimate claims 30,000 individuals took part. The beatings and arrests and bombings by white supremacist gangs continued. So too did the murders; three Freedom Summer volunteers were killed in Mississippi by a gang that included the local sheriff.

Anger spilled out in northern cities too: Chicago, Philadelphia, and Jersey City were all scenes of rioting, as was Harlem in New York. King found himself at odds with the youth who increasingly believed his ideas of non-violence and strategies for winning change by trying to force elected politicians to do the right thing, weren’t moving quickly enough. This would become more defined when Stokely Carmichael became the chairperson of SNCC from 1966.

Whilst King maintained non-violence, many massacres – including in Selma, Alabama – were prevented because the state in the form of the National Guard was forced to intervene on the side of the marchers and against the racist local forces. In many counties, however, the local police force and the Ku Klux Klan – the white supremacist terror organisation – were interlinked. From 1964 onwards the Klan organised ‘cross burnings’ across the state of Mississippi to signify their intention to kill and maim civil rights activists.

Armed self-defence

This was met with armed self defence in some towns. Civil rights activists in Jonesboro, Louisiana as early as 1964 had formed armed guards to defend integration and sit-in protests from Klan attacks. At one demonstration a Klan member was shot. This became a formalised self-defence group, The Deacons for Defense and Justice. It was initially formed mainly of ex-marines dedicated to protecting civil rights activists. In 1965 the Deacons were called on to protect Congress of Racial Equality activists threatened with arson and murder in Bogalusa, Louisiana.

Carmichael became associated with their work. He argued for their inclusion in the March Against Fear in 1966, which King conceded to on the grounds of unity. Violent Klan activity in the deep south meant that once national organisations left, changes were unsustainable. However, where chapters of the Deacons were involved this often resulted in unprecedented victories and sustainable organisations.

For Marxists, the state is comprised of ‘armed bodies of men’, which under capitalism are ultimately there to preserve the economic and political power of the ruling capitalist class. The working class in pursuing their demands will often come up against the violence of the state. The civil rights movement, especially in the deep south, had mobilised tens of thousands to combat segregation and racism. The violent intimidation and harassment, often co-ordinated by local state forces and white supremacist terror organisations, could only be stopped by a united movement prepared to defend itself with arms where required. This lesson was quickly learned by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale when they formed the Black Panther Party for Self Defense in 1966.

King knew that economic exploitation was at the heart of segregation. He had tried to link up with ‘poor whites’, and his March on Washington was not just a platform for civil rights but also a march for ‘Jobs and Freedom’. He believed that the economic plight of Blacks in the northern US states was proof of the inherent racism of ‘white liberals’ in the north.

King had worked with trade unionists from the beginning in Montgomery. The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was co-sponsored by the United Auto Workers, a major US trade union. In Selma in 1965, during the marches to oppose the blocking of the right of Blacks to vote, King would call on the trade union leaders to refuse the transportation of goods to Alabama.

Organised working class

King then turned his campaign to segregation in the big urban centres – Chicago, Los Angeles, New York. But he maintained his top-down organisational approach. He met with political leaders seeking reforms to end segregation, poverty and joblessness. He also vigorously opposed the war on Vietnam. Eig’s quotes from research by Tommie Shelby and Brandon Terry, who explored King’s political philosophy: “King never called for the end to the capitalist regimes. He was not a socialist though he called for a fairer distribution of wealth”. They go on to say that “King extolled Marx as a champion of the poor but criticized communism for its inattention to individual rights” and that “he called for higher workers’ wages and stronger unions”. King’s views would be considered left social democrat.

In many ways the tragedy of King’s political development was that the one force in society that had the potential to achieve the aims of a ‘non-violent’ transformation of society, both against racial segregation and against poverty, was the organised working class. In his march against poverty in Memphis (where he was assassinated), King was supporting striking sanitation workers – Black workers on strike for better pay. King called for all Black workers to go on strike in the city, whereas a serious mobilisation of the whole trade union movement to that cause would have transformed the situation.

Stanley Levinson, one of King’s key advisers, argued that “Selma and Montgomery made [King] one of the most powerful figures in the country – a leader not merely of Negroes but millions of whites… [and that] this had been done without a political party, a labor union or a wealthy backer”. The ex-communist had misadvised and misdirected King. Just when King needed the power of the working class he was advised that the American people “were ready to undertake… perhaps major reforms, but not to make a revolution”.

But King was making a revolution by the mass mobilisations of Blacks and young people for a fundamental change in US society. Allied to trade union struggle, there was the possibility of new mass working-class political formations emerging, especially as the post-war boom for US capitalism was coming to an end and a period of radicalisation in the working-class was opening up.

Eig writes that whilst King has streets named after him in almost one thousand towns and cities, in those same places “poverty and segregation rates remain much higher than local and national averages”. He implores us to read “the flawed King… the radical King”. The book brings King clearly out of the sanitised box he’s been placed in. His belief in the power of mass mobilisation and not compromising with power are still inspirational. But this had to be allied with a struggle to remove from power those with the wealth who require the perpetuation of inequality, divide and rule, and exploitation. King didn’t realise it before his death but he had nothing to fear from genuine socialist ideas that would harness the collective power of the working class to end capitalism and be the key to ending racism once and for all.