James Boggs’ essay on Martin Luther King’s assassination was published in the Italian collection Lotta di classe e razzismo (Laterza, 1968), and then appeared in Racism and the Class Struggle: Further Pages from a Black Worker’s Notebook (Monthly Review, 1970), now out of print.
The essay is reproduced with the kind permission of Monthly Review Press. Boggs’ The American Revolution: Pages From a Negro Worker’s Notebook, and Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century (co-authored with Grace Lee Boggs), are both available from Monthly Review.
A few days ago Dr Martin Luther King was gunned down in Memphis, Tennessee, where for the second time in less than two weeks he was getting ready to lead a united black community in a march to demonstrate support of the garbage workers. The garbage workers of Memphis, like those throughout the South, are predominantly black, and 40% of their number could qualify for welfare rolls on the basis of their pay.
For nearly two months the Memphis garbage workers had been on strike for union recognition and better pay and working conditions. The key issue was union recognition, which the city administration refused because that would mean recognising the right of blacks to organise their power. The mayor, in fact, had been elected by whites, in a city that is about 40% black, on a programme for keeping the blacks in their place (“law and order”). On 25 February 1968 he had created the official climate for crushing any struggles by black people by violence when he refused to negotiate with the garbage workers and had the police beat and spray with MACE the black citizens of Memphis, 1 000 strong, who had come to the city council chambers to demonstrate their support of the garbage workers.
During the first march some relatively minor violence had erupted when youngsters broke windows and hurled bricks, and the police had immediately over-reacted by clubbing and tear-gassing peaceful marchers. The excessive counter-violence and the subsequent bringing in of the National Guard gave further official encouragement to counter-revolutionary assassins.
King was murdered in the presence of over 150 policemen and other witnesses. The white man who was seen dropping a rifle and fleeing after the shooting has as of this date not been apprehended, or if he has been, the fact has not been made public. During the weekend following King’s brutal murder, blacks erupted in over 100 cities. Scores of these cities were set to the torch, and many of them were then put under military occupation and dusk-to-dawn curfews reminiscent of the blackouts of Britain and occupied Europe during World War II. National Guardsmen, state police, and federal troops patrolled the streets in caravans of police cars and tanks – even in a city like Detroit, where the number of fires had been less than that during routine periods. A national crisis existed.
Since the Watts rebellion of 1965 there has been more warfare between blacks and the authorities, spontaneously erupting over incidents of police brutality or cold-blooded killings, than during the two years preceding the first Civil War. Each and every eruption could be traced to some overt or covert form of brutality by some facet of US authority or by some white fascist who knew he had white official support. King’s assassination, whether it came from those opposed to his support of a local black community or his stand on the Vietnam war (the difference being only one of national or international racism), has broken the last link of the chain binding whites and blacks. When or if some new link will be forged remains to be decided by the historical development of the struggle.
In assessing the reason why King was murdered, it is not important that King was the leader of a non-violent movement. King is dead because he acted, and as every schoolboy knows Plato talked and no one cared, but Socrates acted and was driven to his death. Realising that this brutal murder has broken the last link between blacks and whites, the white power structure from the president’s office down through governors, mayors and liberals has coopted King in order to emphasise his strategy of non-violence and belief in the legislative process and the fundamental redeemability of whites. They are trying to convince the black people that this is the only way to black liberation. The murder of King and of the scores of other blacks who adopted King’s approach is disproof of their every utterance.
On the other hand, the murder of Malcolm, who refused to restrict the movement to non-violence and had no illusions about the white man, demonstrates that it is not enough just to repeat Malcolm’s famous dictum of “by all means necessary”, as so many black nationalists do. The most important issue is not violence or non-violence. The black movement in this country will continue to pay the heavy price of assassination of its leaders until it has enough power to establish its own law and order in specific areas. The issue is whether and when the movement can build an organisation strong enough to struggle by all means necessary to win this power, sometimes violently, sometimes non-violently, sometimes retreating, sometimes attacking, sometimes on the defensive, sometimes on the offensive, but always retaining sufficient initiative to maintain a momentum toward its objective of power, deciding what it can achieve at each stage of the struggle in terms of its goals and objectives just as any military general in war sizes up his opponents and elects when to fight and when not to fight.
A revolution is not just constant fighting. There are times when it is necessary to develop the cadre and the people by engaging them in certain political struggles to advance their knowledge and develop their talent for engaging the enemy as well as for leading not-as-yet-engaged sections of the community into the fray to strengthen its social force. In fact, the rhetoric of the black movement today is far beyond its leaders’ capacity to produce. This rhetoric not only exceeds the movement’s organisational strength and structure to implement. It also tends to disguise the lack of clarity as to the kind of Black Power which blacks are seeking. For this reason alone the movement has and will continue for some time to take the form of spontaneous eruptions.
To evaluate King one has to look back to where today’s struggle started, keeping in mind that all revolutions start with demands for reform by an oppressed group. If those demands are granted, the movement may stop and the period is called a “reformation”. However, if the demands of the reform movement are not granted or if they do not achieve what the people interpret them to mean, the people usually go on beyond and make a revolution, recognising that only by taking power from those in power can they make the changes and achieve the rights that they have come to believe are theirs.
When Mrs Rosa Parks refused to yield her seat in the front of the bus 13 years ago in Montgomery, Alabama, she did what no black in the South had done since Reconstruction and what none of today’s black militants in the North would have done if they had been in the South at that time. For that, if nothing more, Mrs Parks is the mother of the present-day struggle.
Martin Luther King was pushed into the leadership of the movement because he was young and because he had not antagonised any of the old Southern preachers who, like their Northern counterparts, were serving the white power structure by pacifying black workers and domestics on Sundays so that they could be ready to go back to work on Monday and endure another week of indignities and brutalities. The community thought he could work between the preachers and the people, never recognising that he would go far beyond their wildest dreams.
In the weeks and months following his baptism to the wrath of the white racist – the bombing of his home, the police harassment, the efforts to sabotage the struggle by the courts – King caught the imagination of black people, both North and South. Up North there was not a single one of today’s black nationalist leaders and militants who did not feel a relation to King’s movement, if he was old enough at the time. Any militant old enough to attend a rally sang “We Shall Overcome” with as much fervour as any of King’s followers in the South. For in this period no Northerners were carrying on any serious struggle. The Muslims, who had been developing a philosophy of blackness, were only active internally. Other nationalists dreamed of going back to Africa “some day”. There were some blacks up North working in the Fair Employment Practices committees of the labour movement, but not one of these old labour activists had advanced even as far as King.
There can be no question that King’s movement was a reform movement and that it had as its intent the reformation of white people. His philosophy was one which could have been revolutionary in the sense of displacing those in power only if it had been developed in a country like India, where the oppressed were the overwhelming majority struggling against a small colonialist ruling minority. An oppressed minority, however, can win only by revolution. Actually, of course, all revolutions are started by minorities who in the course of the struggle either win over or divide the majority sufficiently even if they are all one ethnic grouping.
In the United States, blacks are a minority. However, because four-fifths of the world is black and in a revolutionary or prerevolutionary stage of development, blacks in the United States are not a minority in the usual sense of the word. They are also one of the largest minorities that a country has ever had inside itself. And in the largest cities all over the country they are very close to a majority. Because of their strategic positions, both physically and socio-psychologically, they have the capacity, if organised, to create bases of power for themselves in various areas and at various points of division among the enemy.
King’s movement, based as it was on the reclamation of the white man, did not intend to be a revolution. It was revolutionary, nonetheless, in the sense that from its inception it went further in confronting whites and in creating conflict between black and white over issues than any blacks, North or South, had ever dreamed of trying to go before. And even though civil rights are only the normal common rights that a nation should grant to its citizens, the civil rights struggle in this country was a revolutionary struggle because blacks had been denied these normal rights.
Any movement, reformist or revolutionary, has to have concrete objectives, a general strategy to achieve these objectives, and a cadre organised around these. King’s movement fulfilled these needs. His objectives or demands consisted of legal guarantees of black people’s rights to equal access to public accommodations, to register and vote, and to other forms of civil rights. His offensive strategy was based on the method of confrontation. Blacks, convinced of the rightness of their demands, confronted whites who either had to yield to these just demands or expose themselves as defenders of the indefensible. His organisational structure was geared to achieve these objectives by this method. True, he also believed that whites could be redeemed through the heroic suffering of black people. Borrowing from Gandhi, his strategy included non-violence, but behind the rhetoric it can be seen that this served mainly as a means of discipline among the demonstrators. His cadres were effective because of this discipline, but they were also disciplined by the precision of his objectives, his method of offensive struggle for objectives, and an organisation built around the objectives and offensive methods. His organisation brought together clergymen, businessmen, professional men and students. They raised money and planned the sit-ins, the campaigns for voter registration, and the innumerable demonstrations by which black communities hacked away at segregationist resistance and lowered the barriers against blacks in the political, economic and social life of the nation.
Maintaining a continuous offensive, King also had what few black leaders have exhibited up to this date, an instinct for the right time to attack, which is the test for any leader, revolutionary or not. This is reaffirmed by his last act, the move into Memphis to engage in a struggle which the labour movement had ignored because of its racism and because of its fear of antagonising the political structure, and which the Black Power groups could not help because they have not yet devised a strategy for confrontation in order to create the conflict, and thus the gathering momentum, necessary to a movement.
King’s critics of today and yesterday point out that many of King’s actions did not achieve results, referring particularly to Albany, Georgia; Birmingham, Alabama; and Chicago, Illinois. This is true, but even in failure King’s movement achieved success in that it exposed the brutality of the white power structure and, like the Muslims, gave black people a sense of confidence in themselves and the courage to hack away at the long-held feelings of self-hate, complete frustration and despair of ever being anything but just “another nigger”.
Although history will record King’s movement as the most vital in the period of reformation, there are certain things that the revolution owes him. His courage against odds, his sense of timing and his readiness to assume the political risks that leadership imposes make him the father of the present-day movement. The movement today has gone beyond King and reformation. But in 1955 when others were only talking about leaving the South and boasting of how they would not live down South and how much better off they were up North, King acted by assuming leadership of a struggle which no other black man then dared to lead. For that, history not only will enshrine him but will absolve him of some of his failings. And even after black folks have forgotten what he did for them, they will still remember that he was violently killed by a white man and in the presence of at least 150 police officers.
This excerpt was first published by Viewpoint Magazine.