From the Archive | Letter on meeting Martin Luther King, Jr

After a lunch with the civil rights leader, CLR James wrote about how the Montgomery Bus Boycott, started on this day in 1955, and compared it to recent mass action in Ghana.

Martin Luther King Jr and Coretta Scott King visited CLR James in London in 1957. James wrote a letter to King a couple of weeks later, explaining that he had sent a copy of The Black Jacobins to Louis and Lucille Armstrong, with instructions to send it to King after they had read it. This report on King’s visit, containing James’ analysis of the role of mass action in the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Ghanaian independence movements, was an addendum to a letter to his comrades in the United States, and is part of the Martin Glaberman and Jessie Glaberman Collection in the Archives of Labour and Urban Affairs at Wayne State University in Detroit. It was published in the 12th issue of the Sojourner Truth Organisation’s journal Urgent Tasks (Summer 1981) and is here reproduced thanks to the extraordinary Sojourner Truth Organisation Digital Archive.

Yesterday the Rev Luther King and his wife had lunch with us and stayed here from 12.30pm until nearly 5pm. With us was George Lamming, the West Indian writer who has just received a distinguished literary prize, the Somerset Maugham award of £500 for his book In the Castle of My Skin. The award demands that the winner must travel and he is going to Ghana. There was also with us Dr David Pitt, who is likely to be the first West Indian or African to run for Parliament in England. His constituency is likely to be Hampstead, and of course he is running as a Labour Party candidate. He also was in Ghana.

After about two hours of general conversation, Luther King and his wife began to speak about the events in Montgomery, Alabama. I shall include a chapter on their experiences in the book on Ghana, and as I give you an account here of what he said, I shall introduce one or two parallels from the Ghana experience. The more I look at this the more I see that we are in the heart of a new experience which demands the most serious analysis.

One Thursday, on a day in December, a woman was arrested for travelling on the bus in a seat reserved for white people. In Montgomery, Alabama. The woman resisted, and to this day she says she does not know why she did. Thousands of negroes had obeyed the regulations for many years. A local trade union leader went down and bailed her out and called up Dr King, suggesting that they should “do something”. It was the kind of statement that is made a hundred times a month in various parts of the South whenever one of these outrages takes place. This time, however, King called up a few of the better class negroes and parsons in the community and they called a meeting for the Friday. About 60 of them, upper class negroes, got together and they decided to call for a boycott. The idea was not entirely new, because some months before, a girl of 15 had defied the bus regulations and people had spoken of the necessity of doing something and had talked about the boycott, but it passed, as so many of these things pass. They decided to call for the boycott and started off at once to inform people by phone. They also prepared a document telling the people not to travel on the buses from Monday morning. The news spread, and on the Monday morning there began one of the most astonishing events in the history of human struggle. The negro population of Montgomery is about 35 000. From the Monday morning and for about one year afterwards, the percentage of negroes who boycotted the buses was over 99%. The Commissioner of Police and the head of the bus company have stated that never on any day did more than 35 people ride the buses.

In addition to calling for the boycott, the committee had called for a meeting on Monday evening at the church of the Rev King. When they saw the tremendous success of the boycott, they were nervous about going through with the meeting. King says that they thought along these lines.

The boycott has been a tremendous success, and if we have a meeting now and nobody turns up, or very few people, then the whole movement will be exposed as a failure (and at some other time I shall give my own experience of what the failure of a movement in the South can mean. It is usually the signal for fierce reprisals by the whites).

King and the others, however, decided that they would go through with the meeting. From about 3 o’clock in the afternoon there were people waiting to get into the church for the meeting at 7pm. The church itself could hold only a few hundred people, but there were thousands packed around it, but luckily the church had loudspeakers so that they could hear. Half an hour before the meeting began, King, who had been elected chairman of the committee, left the company and went outside for half an hour’s meditation. He recognised that this movement had to have some political policy to guide it. He had had no idea whatever of being a leader for the struggles of his people. He was a young man of 28 years, but he had read philosophy and he had also read the writings of Gandhi, but with no specific purpose in view. In the course of the half hour’s meditation, however, the idea came to him that what was needed to give this movement a social and political underpinning was the policy of nonviolence. But as he explained, nonviolence as he conceived it, had nothing passive about it. While it stopped short at armed rebellion, it is incessantly active in its attempt to impress its determination and the strength of its demands upon those upon whom it is directed.

King worked out his policy in that half hour and submitted it to no committee. There was no time. When he was called upon to speak, without any notes, he delivered his address, and from that moment he became the guiding principle of the movement.

King was elected chairman of the committee by a unanimous vote. He himself had had someone else in mind to propose. It turned out that they had thought of him as chairman because in his preaching he had always emphasised a social gospel, that is to say preaching with an emphasis on the improvement of the social situation of the community, and not with the emphasis on individual salvation. That was all, but it had singled him out in the minds of his fellow preachers, and other members of the upper class negro community who formed the committee.

After that, the movement was on its way and for one whole year never looked back until victory was won.

It is one of the most astonishing events of endurance by a whole population that I have ever heard of. There are other details which on another occasion I shall go into. But there are a few points I want to make at once.

1) The always unsuspected power of the mass movement.

Some of you may have beside you George Padmore’s book, Africa: Britain’s Third Empire. Now Padmore is one of the most forward looking and inwardly confident of all who have interested themselves in Africa, and if you look on page 207 of this book which bears the date, May Day 1948, you will see that Padmore is still thinking that “the strained relationship which existed between the chiefs and intellectuals … is giving way to a united effort between the chiefs and people”. I do no injustice to Padmore when I say that as late as 1948 he shows no knowledge or indication of the tremendous power of the mass movement, which the CPP [Convention People’s Party in Ghana, headed by Kwame Nkrumah] would soon unloose. At that time the movement had taken the form of the boycott of European and Syrian merchants, and later the march of the ex-servicemen who had been shot down. Nkrumah and five others were arrested and deported for six weeks. It was only one year later in June 1949 that the CPP was formed and launched with a rally of 60 000 people, and when it did get underway, just as the masses in Montgomery, Alabama, it never looked back.

2) The significance of the leadership.

(a) At first sight it would seem that Nkrumah had had a long training. Whereas King had had none at all. (This is undoubtedly true and the question of the various trends of thought which went to the development of Nkrumah is an extremely important one which in the book I shall go into in detail.) But with all due regard to the small scale of the Montgomery occasion and much larger scale of the action of the CPP in Ghana, the similarities between the two, in my opinion, are greater than the differences. King’s programme was created on the spur of the moment, so to speak. Further, in Chapter 10 of his autobiography, it is obvious that if even Nkrumah was clear in his own mind as to what positive action meant, not only the Government did not understand it, but the public did not either, and on pages 110 to 112 you can see the frantic haste and the circumstances in which Nkrumah wrote down for the first time a pamphlet with the significant name, “What I mean by Positive Action”.

In other words, both of them put forward decisive programmes which the crowd caught up almost in passing.

You will note how close the idea of positive action is to King’s spontaneous conception that nonviolence was in reality the opposite side of an unceasing attack upon the enemy.

(b) The critical moment in the history of the CPP is the decision at Saltpond to break with the UGCC [United Gold Coast Convention]. All who have studied this episode, a highly important one, know that Nkrumah and the leadership had more or less decided for the time being not to break and it was the rank and file delegates and the crowd outside who practically dragged Nkrumah from the conference hall and told him to go inside and resign. I am positive that at these and other critical moments when the leadership seemed to waver, it was always the demonstration by the mass of its force and determination and its confidence in them, that enabled them to take the forward step.

You note the precisely similar situation with the Montgomery committee on the Monday afternoon when they were ready to call the whole thing off, but were impelled to go on by the thousands who were lining up since afternoon for the meeting that they had called that night.

(By the way, just as in Ghana, the historical accidents are for the most part on the side of the advancing mass movement, and some of them, as in Ghana, are as funny as hell. A coloured servant took one of the leaflets to her white mistress on the Saturday morning. The mistress called up the local newspaper and the whites, anxious to know what these negroes were up to, published it. A lot of negroes who had not heard anything and could not possibly have heard in time learnt about what was involved from this gratuitous stupidity of the white newspaper.

Rumour spread that some negroes were intimidating others from riding the buses. The Commissioner of Police, in order to prevent this, appointed two motorcycle riders to go along with each bus. The sight of them scared off all those negroes who may possibly have had the idea of taking the bus.)

This letter was first published by Viewpoint Magazine.

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