King was Always a “Radical”

‘‘We came to see that, in the long run, it is more honorable to walk in dignity than ride in humiliation. So … we decided to substitute tired feet for tired souls, and walk the streets of Montgomery’’ — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

For 13 months the community of Montgomery, Alabama, in response to the catalytic arrest of Rosa Parks and organizing efforts of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), boycotted the city transit system.

Dr. King was elected president of the MIA because of his leadership potential, his rhetorical abilities and, according to Rosa Parks, he was not in the community long enough to have developed any strong friends or enemies.

The Montgomery Bus Boycott is a watershed moment for non-violent struggle, for community organizing on a citywide scale, and for strategic and tactical flexibility in the face of determined opposition. This is Dr. King’s first foray into public ministry and leadership.

Here are three elements which contributed to the success of this movement:

  1. There was a simple message which resonated with everyone affected and clearly articulated goals focused on one aspect of public policy. The message of dignified, fair treatment on buses could be understood and carried by anyone, even children. And those principles were powerfully articulated in ways which further convinced participants in the movement that despite arguments to the contrary, they were right, their cause just and truth was on their side. “And we are not wrong.… If we are wrong, the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong. If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United States is wrong. If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong.’’
  2. There was an organization, with leadership and committed followers at every level of the effort. That organization was committed to the goals of the campaign and to supporting people in practical, effective ways to maintain long term sacrifices. Not only were there mass meetings with powerful music and inspiring, encouraging sermons, the MIA organized a well planned carpool system with 300 cars which transported people where they needed to go.
  3. The commitment of leaders, supporters, and rank and file community members was strong enough to weather sustained, malicious and strategic attacks designed to undermine the effort at every level. From one-on-one attempts to bribe and intimidate to organizational wide onslaughts intended to decapitate the movement. Women working as maids were threatened with unemployment. Black taxi drivers were attacked because of their involvement with the supplemental transport plan. King and E.D. Nixon’s homes were bombed. The carpool system was halted by court injunction under an 1921 law prohibiting “conspiracies that interfered with lawful business”. In the final month of the boycott people there was no carpooling, no taxis, and no transportation for anyone without their own car.

Dr. King is misunderstood by those who would usurp his legacy and by those who would clarify his standing because of misinformation about his role and impact.

King was no more “radical” in 1968 than he was in 1956. He progressed along a difficult course fraught with disappointment, failures, apparent successes, betrayals, detours, confusion, poverty, and danger. And he grew and matured.

But the fruit he produced in his courageous stands against the Vietnam War and for economic justice for black people germinated from the seeds of his original ministry which began in 1956.

The bus boycott, the March on Washington, his speech“I Have a Dream” are just as revolutionary, confrontational and “radical” as anything he said or did post-1966.

By rejecting the whitewashing of King, people have accepted as a foregone conclusion that the objects of this redefining (sanitizing “I have a dream…”) are themselves suspect.

The attempt to redeem King and his message does not in fact require us to divide his legacy into pre- and post- March on Washington eras with the former “docile” and the latter “radical”. We don’t have to split the difference with agents of the status quo.

Therefore we should rethink some assumptions about Dr. King.

For example, Dr. King and Malcolm X were not moving toward each other, with King becoming more “radical” and Malcolm rethinking his views on race.

First, the legacy of Malcolm X being mentioned in the same context as that of King and the civil rights movement is a mistake.

Dominque Wilkins was a great basketball player, a member of the NBA Hall of Fame. He should have been included in the NBA 50 greatest of all time. But no one mentions him in the same breath as Magic, Bird, or Jordan. That takes nothing away from Wilkins’ skill or contributions to the game. But he never reached that level.

Malcolm X should be admired for his sharp mind, powerful oratory, and keen insights into the consequences of racism in America. He consistently grew and matured, so much so that he outgrew the Nation of Islam.

But prior to his break with them, Malcolm X was essentially a brainwashed disciple of a self-serving cult leader. That leader was hypocritical, autocratic and for all the radical talk posed no real threat to the status quo.

During this time Malcolm X delivered some great speeches with powerful themes. But it was not until he broke from the Nation that he begin move in a direction much closer to the one he previously denounced. This is when he more fully recognized the importance of organizing and coalition building, lessons which King had been perfecting since 1956.

Only at this point was Malcolm X beginning to fulfill his potential as a leader leading an aspect of the movement which could effect personal lives and public policy. As he begins to move along the same trajectory of Dr. King and the civil rights movement, he captured the attention of the FBI and other forces who now saw him as a threat.

Prior to his break with the nation, Malcolm X only embodied one aspect of the three elements which made the 1956 bus boycott a watershed: the ability to articulate a message.

King learned how to embrace and embody all three (and much more). It wasn’t until Malcolm X in effect became el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz that he began to recognize the import of rhetoric/message, organization, and collective commitment in making changes in public policy as well as personal belief.

Malcolm’s example of consistent progression and growth are worthy of study. But can you name any aspect of public policy, any cultural norm or any organizing strategy which was changed or influence by a effort he led?

It has become fashionable to remind everyone of King’s personal flaws and failings. It is important to never place any human being upon a pedestal. But some, in knocking off King, have replaced him with others whose flaws they are content to go unexamined.

One thing which should be more widely understood is that Malcolm, directed by the Nation, opposed nearly every effort of the civil rights movement. On nearly every area of public policy, legislation, and protest strategy, prior to becoming more independent, Malcolm was wrong. While this should not taint his legacy, it should inform our comparisons between King and X.

King’s later focus on economic equity and the military industrial complex was not a corrective due to neglect of those issues or a change of mind. Rather these concerns rose from the natural progression of growth after other necessary battles had been engaged and largely won.

Dr. King was more than a speech maker, more than a media figure and more than fund raiser. He was an organizer, a strategist, a moral leader in the crucible of controversy and peril, a lightning rod who took the brunt of blame and became a focal point for anger.

And he was a follower and learner, who also knew how to stick to his role and stay in his lane. He understood that he was a member of the movement and a leader in the movement but that he could never be the movement.

And we, as a nation and as a community, have misunderstood much of his work and the movement which produced his legacy. This misunderstanding causes many to underestimate the level of collaboration, organization and work it takes to cultivate systemic change.

By relegating King’s work as a leader and organizer within a fully formed, if segmented, movement to a weaker, less radical phase, the opportunities to learn from him; how to follow, how to lead, how to organize, is lost. This is especially true when organizing within a Christian church context.

The NFL boycott is an example of this problem.

Less than a year ago various leaders, including many pastors invoking the civil rights movement, called for a “blackout” of the NFL. They wanted a sustained, focused and hard-hitting effort that would force the league to treat its players more fairly and respect their first amendment rights of speech. Everyone was urged to not watch football, not to attend games, and not to support NFL businesses in any way.

Yet in less than a season many of those leaders have gone back to rooting for their favorite teams, posting game commentary on social media and buying NFL tickets and merchandise.

Did anything change? Has the league reformed?

The NFL boycott is an illustration of how difficult it can be to sustain advocacy which calls for even minor sacrifice. “Without struggle there can be no progress” is a truth that applies to both systemic and personal change, a truth which makes every phase of Dr. King’s work and the legacy of the civil rights movement all the more radical, revolutionary and confrontational.

“The revolution” cannot be improvised and the most radical change begins with ourselves.

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