Notes on "Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Promise of Nonviolent Populism" by David Levering Lewis
Unlike black churchmen in the South who had traditionally played an intermediary role between blacks and whites, King was a militant black protest leader whose broad popular base enabled him eventually to pursue social goals beyond civil rights. He catalyzed disaffection with the NAACP's strategy of legal change and made effective use of 'non-violent direct action' first in pursuit of civil rights and then, late in his career, in pursuit of economic opportunity for the poor and disadvantaged.

King's career can be divide into two periods. From the Montgomery Bus Boycott (1956) to the Selma March (1966) he used innovative protest tactics to achieve traditional citizenship rights for blacks. From Selma to Memphis (1968) he used these tactics in pursuit of more radical economic goals.

Part One:

Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955)

At the age of 26 King was invited to be the leader of the Montgomery Improvement Association. King's skills as an orator and his personal courage made him immediately effective as a leader who sought to maintain the resolve of the people as the boycott stretched on month after month. Like the providential choice of King as leader, the choice of the tactic of non-violent passive resistance could also be described as circumstantial, not philosophical, because no other method of applying pressure would have been as useful in this situation.

During the bus boycott, the formula for later civil rights campaigns was developed: clearly articulated grievances; peaceful but provocative demonstrations; publicizing of violence by whites; effective national fund raising; forcing eventual federal intervention and, finally, rational negotiation of a settlement with city and business officials.

King's leadership role called on him not only to rally the troops with his oratory but also to galvanize marches and demonstrations with his presence. His willingness to serve jail time for the cause elicited national and international press coverage. He barnstormed the country speaking at fund raising functions. He enforced discipline by publicly enjoining the demonstrators to hold fast to the philosophy of nonviolence, and he proved a calm and effective negotiator in the final settlement of the boycott.

His leadership was challenged by paradoxes due to his stance of non-violence. First, the tactic would have proven ineffective if not for the violence inflicted by whites on protestors. King was frequently criticized for disrupting what was described as a slower and more orderly progression towards civil rights for blacks. More radical organizations like CORE and SNCC also frequently opposed King's 'conservative' leadership and accused him of being beholden to whites who sought to moderate the goals of the movement.

The Albany Movement (1961)

As the leader of the SCLC King and the movement suffered a defeat in their fight to desegregate public facilities in Albany, Georgia in 1961. Whites discovered that the most effective way to resist the demands of the demonstrators was to carefully avoid accusations of police brutality. While pressure was put on white business owners not to cave to the demands for integration, police carefully presented themselves to the national media as patient guardians of public order. Behind the scenes, the police chief Laurie Pritchett had made arrangements with county officials to jail demonstrators in rural facilities. Pritchett was also prepared when King and other leaders deliberately sought to be jailed themselves. Pritchett recognized that national media attention would focus on King's arrest, so he arranged to have King's bond paid and discharged him from jail.

Public opinion turned against King and the demonstrators, and the federal courts with held their support, eventually issuing injunctions against further demonstration. King's moment in the national spotlight seemed to be waning.

The Birmingham Movement (1963)

When the SCLC acted again, they were determined to be better prepared. Their efforts to de-segregate public facilities in Birmingham, Alabama proved to be the crowning success of the movement to that point. The SCLC planned well, it took advantage of divided white leadership in the city, and the federal government was finally induced to intervene decisively on the side of the protestors.

King and his fellow leaders visited the surrounding communities and firmed up support for the coming demonstrations. King raised considerable monies to support the protestors at fund raisers in Los Angeles and New York. They set out to provoke a crisis in Birmingham and publicize the injustice of segregation in the most dramatic way possible.

King enunciated the movement's goals clearly in his Birmingham Manifesto: "We act today in full concert with our Hebraic-Christian tradition, the law of morality, and the Constitution of our nation. The abscense of justice and progress in Birmingham demands that we make a moral witness to give our community a chance to survive." When jailed after leading a march, King responded to criticism from local religious leaders of his willingness to break the law with his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail". In it he justified his followers 'lawlessness' by arguing that only just laws need be obeyed and to be just a law must correspond to God's law. Laws enforcing segregation were unjust because any law that degraded people could not come from God. He ended the letter on a high religious note: "One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values of our Judeo-Christian heritage."

Initially, the police of Birmingham followed the strategy of non-violence and restraint which had been so successful in Albany. Their goal was to show the country that their order was rational and peaceable as opposed to the demonstrators' rabble rousing and potential violence. At one point the movement appeared to be losing its momentum, but the SCLC leaders had organized the city's high school children to play a pivotal role in the demonstrations. After hundreds of adults had already been arrested, the children commenced a massive demonstration which resulted in the arrest of more than 2000. The police lost their patience and turned attack dogs and high powered fire hose on the marchers, creating media imagery of Southern brutality that was quickly transmitted to televisions throughout the nation and around the world. Public outcry and new financial support followed. Attorney General Bobby Kennedy telephoned city officials. The Supreme Court declared sit-in demonstrations legal in cities that enforced segregation ordinances. In subsequent talks with the city officials, King negotiated the end to segregation in Birmingham schools, stores, jobs and transportation.

March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (1963)

King's "I Have a Dream" speech is the third great document of the this period of the movement's history. In it he declared that he still held fast to a dream, a profoundly American dream, that one day the nation would really practice its creed that 'all men are created equal', that the children of slaves and slave-owners would one day live in brotherhood. On that great day the nation, black and white, would finally be free.

The speech was accompanied by a series of demands for legislators in Washington: a comprehensive civil rights bill, a Fair Employment Practices Act to bar job discrimination, establishment of a national minimum wage, immediate desegregation of all public schools, a massive federal job training program, a federal order prohibiting housing discrimination, and injunctions reducing congressional representation in states which continue to disenfranchise minority groups.

King had initially sided with the White House in its opposition to the march, fearing violence and the possible damage that publicity might do to the administration's own civil rights legislation. Only after RFK and LBJ ok'd the march did King sign on. Many members of the movement found King's reluctance to participate to be proof that his decisions were being directed by powerful government officials. he was accused of being an accomodationist beholden to whites who regarded him as a moderating influence on the movement's goals.

However, in 1964 the Civil Rights Act was passed marking the end og segregation in the South. The movement's focus turned to voting rights as blacks sought to regain their rights as full citizens and take back the political power long denied them.

Selma to Birmingham (1965)

National attention had been generated for the voter registration drives of the SNCC Freedom Summer of 1964 due to the murders of three volunteers: Goodman, Schwemer and Chaney. The Mississippi Freedom Party was created and held mock elections which sent delegates to the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City. There delegate Fannie Lou Hamer addressed the nation via television, demanding a place on the convention floor and dramatizing the plight of disenfranchised blacks in Mississippi and throughout the South.

In 1965 the SCLC targeted Selma Alabama for its voter registration campaign. They planned a mass march from Selma to the state capital of Montgomery to petition Governor George Wallace for the right to vote. Violence was threatened against the marchers form the outset, and King was unable to get federal judges to enjoin the Selma police from interfering with the march. King led a march to the border of the city and then backed down, refusing to violate a federal injunction forbidding the march from proceeding. Student militants in SNCC deplored King's decision, but in March President Johnson called for a voting rights act in a speech which ended "And we shall overcome." A week later the march from Selma to Montgomery took place, culminated by one of King's greatest speeches. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was enacted , and during the same year LBJ passed legislation which declared war on poverty.


Part Two:

King Takes the Movement North (1966-68)

The Civil Rights Movement splintered in 1965 and 1966. Riots in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles were followed by massive protests against American involvement in the war in Vietnam. King made the controversial decision to oppose the war in Vietnam and to criticize the emergence of the black nationalist ideology that emerged in the wake of rioting in cities around the country.

King had concluded that the movement could not rest on its accomplishment of civil rights for blacks. Merely reforming the law to include blacks as full citizens would not address the underlying cause of discrimination: poverty. He argued that the nation's economy itself would have to be reorganized: the cities needed to be rebuilt so that the poor could live decently and work productively within them. Some industries would have to be nationalized. A guaranteed annual wage would have to be enacted. To pay for such massive programs, the war in Vietnam would have to end.

King's move to the political left alienated many of his liberal white support. While ready to support the movement's effort to give blacks full rights as citizens, they balked at demands for fundamental economic change: jobs programs, opening federal housing to blacks, and boycotts of businesses that discriminated against blacks in hiring practices. At the outset of King's career, he had argued that with civil rights blacks would be able to 'pull themselves up by their own bootstraps' and overcome poverty.

King was criticized by civil rights leaders and white supporters alike for his new stance, and LBJ vilified King for his 'betrayal'. But King saw the evolution of his political ideology as a natural extension of his Christian morality and common sense. In Stride Toward Freedom he said, "Any religion that professes to be concerned with the souls of men and is not concerned with the slums that demean them, the economic conditions which strangle them and the social conditions that cripple them is a dry-as-dust religion." In Where Do We Go From Here, he said, "The real cost lies ahead. The stiffening of white resistance is a recognition of that fact. The discount education given to Negroes will in the future have to be purchased at full price if quality education is to be realized. Jobs are harder and costlier to create than voting rolls. The eradication of slum housing millions is complex far beyond integrating buses and lunch counters."

For King the battle against racial segregation led to the larger assault on discrimination, leading in turn to the final assault against economic exploitation. He had concluded that any substantive improvement in the condition of the Afro American necessarily entailed an at least minimal redistribution of national wealth through government intervention.

In Where Do We Go From Here, King criticized black separatists because they gave "priority to race precisely at a time when the impact of automation and other forces have made the economic question fundamental for blacks and whites alike." He called the struggle for rights "at bottom a struggle for opportunities."

Despite criticism from moderate black leaders, King participated in demonstrations against the war in New York City's Central Park in April 1967. He declared that "we must combine the fervor of the civil rights movement with the peace movement", and sought to develop a new diverse political coalition of the poor.

For his "Poor People's Campaign" in 1968 King summoned the politically weak, the economically deprived, the angry young of all races, and the disenchanted liberals to form together a community of action sufficiently powerful to force the enlightened attention of Washington and Wall Street. To achieve such a coalition King would have had to overcome the long standing animosity between poor people who tend to blame each other for their situation. He would have had to create a truly multi-racial coalition including not only blacks and whites (who constituted the majority of impoverished people in America) but also Native Americans and the growing Hispanic American minorities.

Despite the huge challenge of uniting such a disparate group, King believed that to slow the pace of progress would make certain the rise of racial extremists who called for open and, if necessary, violent action. King feared that inciting riots would lead to a white backlash that would exact a fearful price on opportunity for blacks.

King's assassination helped fuel the terrible series of riots which helped lead to the withdrawal of businesses and middle class residents from the cities. In 1968 King had hoped to create a coalition which would have supported the Presidential aspirations of Eugene McCarthy or Bobby Kennedy. It is not far-fetched to assert that if King and RFK had lived, the potential for victory in the election on an anti-war, Economic Bill of Rights platform could have taken place.