Martin Luther King, Jr. was a revolutionary whose work as a civil rights leader came to be revered by people all over the world. President Ronald Reagan begrudgingly chose to give in to calls to honor King each year. Yet, what we celebrate, as many liberals or progressives understand, is a sanitized version of King. Americans celebrate his “dream” but rarely discuss his opposition to militarism.
Americans rarely discuss King’s resentment toward the liberal establishment, as the establishment accepted “token” victories instead of pushing fully for radical change that could meaningfully address poverty and racism.
In the 1960s, King had four essays published by The Nation magazine. Two of the essays outlined King’s philosophy about the critical role grassroots organizations play in creating change.
Published in March of 1965, “Let Justice Roll Down” illuminated the power of demonstrations and offered analysis on what it meant to be a “consensus president.” King believed the civil rights movement should not end with civil rights legislation. King also critically examined the “high respect” President Lyndon B. Johnson earned as he sought to advance civil rights.
By the time this essay was published, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act but had yet to sign the Voting Rights Act. (*Note: Ava DuVernay’s film, “Selma,” presents King when he was grappling with getting voting rights for all black Americans).
“The New York Times in a perceptive editorial on December 20 asked if Mr. Johnson really means to be a “consensus President.” It pointed out that such were Coolidge and Eisenhower, who “served the needs of the day but not of decades to come. They preside over periods of rest and consolidation. They lead no probes into the future and break no fresh ground.” The Times then added, “A President who wants to get things done has to be a fighter, has to spend the valuable coin of his own popularity, has to jar the existing consensus….No major program gets going unless someone is willing to wage an active and often fierce struggle in its behalf.”
The Times is undeniably correct. The fluidity and instability of American public opinion on questions of social change is very marked. There would have been no civil rights progress, nor a nuclear test-ban treaty, without resolute Presidential leadership. The issues which must be decided are momentous. The contest is not tranquil and relaxed. The search for a consensus will tend to become a quest for the least common denominator of change. In an atmosphere devoid of urgency the American people can easily be stupefied into accepting slow reform, which in practice would be inadequate reform. “Let Justice roll down like waters in a mighty stream,” said the Prophet Amos. He was seeking not consensus but the cleansing action of revolutionary change. America has made progress toward freedom, but measured against the goal the road ahead is still long and hard. This could be the worst possible moment for slowing down.
King grasped what could happen to movements if progress was slow. The American public would lose interest, and as the struggle dragged on, they would question why change was taking so long.
The civil rights leader knew that people—even liberals—would accommodate power unless a vibrant movement was keeping the fire of revolutionary change alive. He recognized the importance of presidential leadership, especially because such leadership could make it evident that the need for change was urgent.
But King cautiously warned against leaders who constantly sought to be consensus leaders:
A consensus orientation is understandably attractive to a political leader. His task is measurably easier if he is merely to give shape to widely accepted programs. He becomes a technician rather than an innovator. Past Presidents have often sought such a function. President Kennedy promised in his campaign an executive order banning discrimination in housing. This substantial progressive step, he declared, required only “a stroke of the pen.” Nevertheless, he delayed execution of the order long after his election on the ground that he awaited a “national consensus.” President Roosevelt, facing the holocaust of an economic crisis in the early thirties, attempted to base himself on a consensus with the N.R.A.; and generations earlier, Abraham Lincoln temporized and hesitated through years of civil war, seeking a consensus before issuing the Emancipation Proclamation.
In the end, however, none of these Presidents fashioned the program which was to mark him as historically great by patiently awaiting a consensus. Instead, each was propelled into action by a mass movement which did not necessarily reflect an overwhelming majority. What the movement lacked in support was less significant than the fact that it had championed the key issue of the hour. President Kennedy was forced by Birmingham and the tumultuous actions it stimulated to offer to Congress the Civil Rights Bill. Roosevelt was impelled by labor, farmers and small-businessmen to commit the government in revolutionary depth to social welfare as a constituent stimulus to the economy. Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation under the pressure of war needs. The overwhelming national consensus followed their acts; it did not precede them. [emphasis added]
King, if he were still alive today, would likely regard President Barack Obama as a technician. As former policy director for Obama’s senate campaign Raja Krishnamoorthi told the Financial Times in 2008, “He has the rare ability to cut to the heart of issues very quickly and make decisions that synthesize the various views on the table. It is really something to behold. It is not an instinct everybody has.” However, King would not have been too fond of this “instinct.” There was no part of King that was going to seek consensus with proponents of the white power structure, who fueled the oppression of black communities.
The outcome of Obama’s efforts to achieve health insurance reform would have been markedly different if King’s wisdom had been followed. Republicans engaged, and continue to engage, in wholesale sabotage and obstruction of efforts to give Americans better access to healthcare. Single-payer healthcare, or Medicare for All, was removed from the discussion almost immediately. A “public option” was dangled as a way to keep some Democrats hoping health reform would not merely deliver new consumers to health insurance companies. When Obama signed the legislation, it further entrenched the for-profit system, which had created the problems he had pledged to fix.
“Let Justice Roll Down” was also instructive on the power of a grassroots movement. Nowadays, many are skeptical of the utility of activism or resistance. People question why people even try to take on the elites or oligarchy through protest because they do not see it making a difference.
King confronted that skepticism:
Are demonstrations of any use, some ask, when resistance is so unyielding? Would the slower processes of legislation and law enforcement ultimately accomplish greater results more painlessly? Demonstrations, experience has shown, are part of the process of stimulating legislation and law enforcement. The federal government reacts to events more quickly when a situation of conflict cries out for its intervention. Beyond this, demonstrations have a creative effect on the social and psychological climate that is not matched by the legislative process. Those who have lived under the corrosive humiliation of daily intimidation are imbued by demonstrations with a sense of courage and dignity that strengthens their personalities. Through demonstrations, Negroes learn that unity and militance have more force than bullets. They find that the bruises of clubs, electric cattle prods and fists hurt less than the scars of submission. And segregationists learn from demonstrations that Negroes who have been taught to fear can also be taught to be fearless. Finally, the millions of Americans on the sidelines learn that inhumanity wears an official badge and wields the power of law in large areas of the democratic nation of their pride.
King confronted the role of the police, which functioned as keepers of the white power structure. He would have strongly supported the Movement for Black Lives, which has focused attention on police brutality, particularly since Michael Brown was gunned down by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson.
Americans find it difficult to understand the protest and riots that spring up in communities as a response to the violence. They cannot understand the sense of empowerment black Americans enjoyed as they found the courage to resist systemic racism in the 1960s.
The legislative process cannot produce the same climate that demonstrations produce. The legislative process is in Washington. Demonstrations can be in all fifty states in various cities and counties with thousands of people participating at any given time. They can be in the largest cities or they can be in the smallest towns. They can appear on the local news or they can create a conflict that echoes throughout the national media, calling attention to the demonstration itself and sometimes the focus of the demonstration.
Demonstrations may be limited in the future, but contrary to some belief, they will not be abandoned. Demonstrations educate the onlooker as well as the participant, and education requires repetition. That is one reason why they have not outlived their usefulness. Furthermore, it would be false optimism to expect ready compliance to the new law everywhere. The Negro’s weapon of non-violent direct action is his only serviceable tool against injustice. He may be willing to sheath that sword but he has learned the wisdom of keeping it sharp.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of Americans have allowed tools against injustice like non-violent direct action to become dull. Large parts of the population concerned with the future of the country rely on elections and hope for legislation to correct the problems of society. The tool of voting can only be wielded on an annual, bi-annual, or quadrennial basis, depending on the office up for election. Not many Americans can wield the tool of legislation; it is a tool that only those bought and paid for by corporate and special interests in Congress can wield. On the other hand, protest can be wielded whenever, wherever, and however.
Finally, King’s “The Last Steep Ascent,” provides a window into what King thought about the aftermath of civil rights legislation. King’s final essay published by The Nation suggested how blacks and others dedicated to economic emancipation could continue to win social justice victories.
“[a] poverty program, which in concept elated the Negro poor, became so embroiled in political turmoil that its insufficiencies were magnified by paralyzing manipulations. Big-city machines felt threatened by it and small towns, particularly in the South, directed it away from Negroes. Its good intentions and limited objectives were frustrated by the skillful maneuvers of experienced politicians. The worst aspect of these negative experiences was the doubt cast upon the program as a whole and the discredit SIX- tained by those Negroes involved directly in its administration. To launch a program with high-minded goals and to fail to safeguard it from opportunists and enemies amounted to sabotage, whether deliberate or undeliberate. It should have been obvious that Negroes, who alone were under pressure for results, would encounter difficulties in administration. They were ill prepared to handle the complexities that attended any novel and wideranging program. Yet they would have been successful even with their limitations if their efforts had not been impeded in so many instances by hostile municipal officials. At almost every turn malevolent press reports and irresponsible charges denigrated the projects that Negroes headed. Rumors and suspicions of corruption and waste proliferated until it became a hazard to assume responsibility.
Americans might consider how insufficient the health and financial reforms were. They might point to how those reforms omitted or failed to address key social problems. Their “high-minded” visions for those limited victories might be more reasonable if they were guarding the beginning stages of radical change from “opportunists” and “enemies.”
It’s easy to say that the Obama Administration should have been ready for “complexities” that would arise, but the people who want change should be willing to step up and take responsibility. That is how they can truly own the moment of change, fully preserve small victories and take steps to grow those victories into much larger changes.
Finally, King offered this warning:
The danger of this period is not that Negroes will lose their gains. History will not repeat itself in a simple cycle. It can, however, fail to move forward and can become stalled on a higher plateau without prospect of reaching the summit.
The white power structure had to remake the South, and black elites seized the moment of change to advance their own self-interests.
Many blacks have risen up from the ranks, not with the ranks, and left behind masses of black people, creating a class division that has helped the white power structure keep society suspended in a post-civil rights era. Power will respond to movements for change only when it is worried the movement might reshape society in a way they would be unable to control. Such a movement requires a class-based understanding of organizing and power to achieve success.
If anything is to be learned from King, it is that citizens cannot wait for some consensus to form between Obama and Wall Street or the next President of the United States. The people cannot stand by for a consensus between the military industrial-complex or national security state and a president’s administration. The people have to create a situation where it is politically challenging for a presidential administration to side with Wall Street or those powerful interests, which hold parts of government captive, if the people wish to resolve key problems plaguing society.
As King wrote about confronting institutions of government, commerce, industry, and social patterns in the South, which rested upon what he described as the embedded institution of segregation, “Change is not accomplished by peeling off superficial layers when the causes are rooted deeply in the heart of the organism.”