Time O — Time O
Time is running out;
Time O — Time O
Time is running out.
Corruption in the Land,
People take your stand!
Time is running out.
Freedom Song (Contemporary)
The assassination of the pre-eminent leader of the Freedom Movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is a moment in history compelling in the seriousness of its importance. Our aspirations to live in a civilized society in America are tied to this tragedy, perhaps in more ways than are now evident.
Europe questions the "stability" of U.S. society. Africa sends a large contingent of its diplomats to the funeral, each wearing the insignia reserved for those solemn occasions when a Head of State has died. People all over America and the world strain to understand what it all means.
With boundless faith that what he regarded as the "moral law of the universe" assured the ultimate victory of our Freedom Movement, the Reverend Martin Luther King stayed on the battlefield, sustained by the spiritual traditions of the Negro Church. In this faith he shared the confident determination of those of our ancestors who created the Negro spirituals when they sang:
Didn't my Lord deliver Daniel,
Deliver Daniel — deliver Daniel;
Didn't my Lord deliver Daniel?
And why not every man?
He was a Christian humanist of fullest expression. I remember a conversation with Dr. King in Albany, Georgia, several years ago with other members of his staff when he was explaining Karl Marx by saying, "Somewhere Karl Marx had heard the anguished cries of the prophet Amos ... crying out against injustice..."
As is well known, Dr. King embraced the social philosophy of the Hindu, Mahatma Gandhi, as a weapon in the struggle for social change in our country. This ecumenical example combined with his academic background in theology, his identification with the largest religious denomination in Negro life, and his unique skills as an orator made him a mighty force for mobilizing the black community in a new phase of their long history on this continent. His was also a singular contribution towards an awakening in the white Christian church in America from years of provincialism, hypocrisy and a socially irrelevant existence.
His dedication to freedom's cause took him through all the hell holes of oppression: Albany, Georgia; St. Augustine, Florida; Birmingham; Chicago; rallying people to the struggle for human rights and their own dignity, in confrontation with the indignities imposed by segregation and racial discrimination. By 1963 he was ready to sum up a period of experience in the struggle, and tie that experience to the larger experience of Afro-Americans on this continent for the past two centuries. In his speech at the March on Washington in August, 1963, famous for its "I have a dream" theme, Martin Luther King said:
Instead of honoring her sacred obligations, America has given the Negro a bad check. We are here today to redeem that check, and we will not accept the idea that there is no money in the Bank of Justice.
That's a very cogent summation of our history for it provides a workable estimate of what the Freedom Movement is dealing with. As a statement of history, it sets up a major premise from which a movement to secure justice can function. At the same time that it uses a very appropriate idiom to define the morality of this society, it is an act of sweeping rejection of the major myths which have affected the formation of the American mind. Obviously a society which has "issued a bad check" is hardly one which fits the idyllic description of America as set forth in all the popular cliches to which we are accustomed.
As a statement of confrontation with the society which has issued the bad check "we are here to redeem the check" it breaks the boundaries of time and local geography, because it is applicable anywhere and any time the exploited and the dispossessed confront the institutions of power in America. Yet he undergirded the whole with a sense of determination whose soul is a sense of justice.
Three-and-one-half years of struggle later, troubled by the agonies of conscience which he felt toward the American military intervention in Vietnam, in an address at the Riverside Church in New York, now Nobel Laureate for Peace, Dr. King added still another to his legacy of ideas. On that occasion he said, "The American Government is the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today... " These words could just as easily and appropriately have been spoken by an American Indian chief viewing the slaughter of his people and the desecration of sacred tribal lands; or by a Filipino freedom fighter of the last century, disenchanted with the U.S. "ally" who was supposedly helping him to get free from Spain; or by a Puerto Rican burying his brother after the U.S. massacre at Ponce in May, 1937; but this was Martin Luther King on April 4, 1967 — one year to the day before his assassination.
Herein is an estimate of The state which every civilized person in this country would do well to ponder. As the leader of the Freedom Movement he knew well the violence of which he spoke. In this statement Dr. King achieved a fusion of the ethical-philosophical commitment to nonviolence with the political realities of life in our country today. Furthermore, in dealing with such realities, the power of intellectual honesty was too much a part of his leadership style for him to hide behind the euphemisms ("whitey," "the man," "Mr. Charlie") currently in vogue among some of our self-styled militants.
As a committed activist leader, Dr. King was not infallible. He made mistakes, and in a few instances, one could say serious mistakes. Yet it was his consistency in the struggle for freedom, his willingness to shoulder the burden in the heat of the day, combined with a generally sound sense of tactics and a demonstrated capacity for human growth which earned for him the love and respect of millions.
It was in the last year of his life, however, that one sees the full flowering of his development as a leader of our people. In that year he sensed that the hope of the nation was in organizing the poor of this land, bringing them into the struggle for freedom; and that securing that freedom from hunger and want would mean they would make the promise of America a reality. Who can forget his classic comment following the rebellions, during the summer of 1967, when Congress had voted down a bill that would have provided the means to get rid of rats in the urban centers? "A Congress which is more anti-Negro than it is anti-rat is a Congress which should be dismissed," was Dr. King's rejoinder to the arrogance of the Congress.
Martin Luther.King knew it wouldn't be easy to get a new Bill of Rights for the poor of America, "there will be difficult days ahead," he warned, but then added, "I have seen the Promised Land and I know that my people, as a people, will get there... I may not be with you..." he was telling the garbage workers in Memphis. These workers symbolized the dignity and the struggle of all the poor; and the movement, as Martin Luther King conceived of it, would embrace all ethnic and racial groups in American life.
For him the long tortuous path of struggle and personal development was now drawing to a close, as was life itself. "It doesn't matter now, I've been to the mountain top..." He didn't live to see his judgment of the violence of the American government confirmed at "Resurrection City."
[Referring to the 1968 encampment of protesters in Washington, D.C., organized by the Poor People's Campaign, when 1,200 police and National Guardsmen moved in with tear gas and billy clubs to disperse its residents.]
Martin Luther King was a Christian idealist who was rapidly developing into a Christian revolutionary. His assassination is one of the most calculated, well-timed, strategic political assassinations in the history of this country.
As this radiant life was prematurely ended by an assassin's bullet, one hears the low, throbbing voices of the multitude, half humming, half singing, as they marched behind the mule-drawn carriage carrying his bier:
It may be the last time
May be the last time children;
It may be the last time
May be the last time, I don't know.
They walked the four mile journey from Ebenezer to Morehouse College through Atlanta's teeming black westside community, up West Hunter Street with its shop windows bordered in black crepe and funeral wreaths hung over the doorways, paying homage to the passing of a great man. Across the nation there was anger, sorrow and respect. Black longshoremen closed the seaports from Virginia to Texas and white longshoremen added the northeastern ports; auto workers shut down foundries in Detroit, and flames flared to the sky, from blocks upon blocks of burning buildings, in the capital of the Empire; as Holy Week in Christendom began.
A towering tribune of his people, the Reverend King was one with the other immortals of our history produced by the Negro Church. These include Nat Turner and many of the finest leaders of the Reconstruction period. So much a part of the freedom struggle was he that one can trace in his personal growth, as the preeminent leader of the Freedom Movement for more than a decade, the paradigm or developmental history of the movement itself. The dynamics of the Freedom Movement molded Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s leadership just as much as his charismatic personality helped to shape the movement.
First was the Montgomery Bus Boycott which began as a protest against the discourtesy of the bus drivers. In this instance the black community did not, from the beginning, attack the practice of segregation per se. The emphasis was on getting the rules regarding seating enforced equally. They demanded an end to the indignity of having to get up to give their seat to a white person. They demanded the bus drivers use the titles "Mr." and "Mrs." when addressing them, showing the same respect for all persons who ride the bus.
More than fifty thousand people, the total black community, supported the bus boycott by staying off the buses. In this way the issue of bus segregation became a national issue. Then the Montgomery Improvement Association, which was the central organization of the boycott, took the issue of bus segregation into the courts while sustaining the boycott itself. This decision was of great significance because a previous boycott around similar issues in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in I953 had made the mistake of choosing between court action and mass action instead of joining the two techniques. The Baton Rouge bus boycott was defeated because the leaders called off the boycott when they decided to take the issue to court. The result was the court delayed action on the decision for about six months and then the judge threw the case out. The Montgomery leaders learned from this experience and did not repeat the mistake.
Following the successful Montgomery bus protest, ministers across the South organized a Transportation Committee of Southern Ministers to deal solely with the problem of segregation in public transportation. This was the beginning of SCLC [Southern Christian Leadership Conference]. These, of course, were very limited beginnings, yet we have seen this movement evolve over a twelve year period.
The immediate response to the Transportation Committee's being organized was a rash of organized bus boycotts all across the South — Tallahassee, New Orleans and Memphis. In this way the boycott technique, long used by the labor movement during strike struggles, was now being developed in-depth in the Negro community in the South. In the years ahead the boycott technique was to prove effective not only in dealing with segregated public facilities but in opening up new job opportunities and putting an end to discrimination in department stores.
In addition the bus boycotts were the focus for a response from various parts of the country. After all, large numbers of the people of Harlem in New York are really from Georgia and Virginia; Detroit is full of our folks from Alabama and Kentucky. Black Chicago begins in Mississippi and Arkansas; while Texas is the mother of Watts, in Los Angeles. So whenever anything breaks out "back home" no matter where we are, we feel an empathy with it — an identification with it.
Out of these limited objectives set by the bus boycott we began, in a general way, to develop a nationwide protest movement with the Northern communities finding their own forms of response in support of the action on the Southern battle fronts. One must also take note of the fact that most of the leaders of these bus boycotts in the South had long been associated with the NAACP but were stepping outside the NAACP organizational structure in turning to mass action. New forms of local organization, patterned after the MIA [Montgomery Improvement Association], began to spring up as vehicles of the local movement for freedom.
The year 1957 saw the Prayer Pilgrimage to Washington on the third anniversary of the Supreme Court desegregation decision. The significance of this event rests not only in the number of people that turned out on the occasion (25,000) but also in asserting the leading organizational role of the Negro church in the developing new period of the Freedom Movement. At the Prayer Pilgrimage a large cross-section of the black Christian Church committed itself to an uncompromising struggle against the morally outrageous system of racial segregation.
In response, the white Christian community in America was morally compelled to begin an agonizing reappraisal of its relevance to society measured against the militant initiative of the Negro church and its most eloquent spokesman, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. of Montgomery, Alabama. His keynote address on this occasion stated an important theme of perspective which, as we will see, grew in the years ahead. The theme of his address was "Give Us The Ballot." Within the institutionalized church following the Prayer Pilgrimage there crystallized a new regroupment of ministers, who felt the need for the church to play a more active role in the freedom struggle. In taking this position they stood in opposition to the more conservative church leadership. This development cut across denominational lines.
Two years later in April, 1959, came the Youth March for Integrated Schools — a nationwide mobilization in Washington, D.C. This mass action focused attention on the slow pace of school desegregation. The immediate frame of reference for this mass action was the confrontation at Little Rock the previous September.
One of the most significant achievements in the course of organizing this mass demonstration was the collection of more than 400,000 signatures directed to Congress on a petition demanding that Congress take action implementing the Supreme Court decision. The signature campaign, which went hand in hand with the organization of the demonstration itself, across the country, was a very important test of the mood of the country not only in the area of civil rights but also in the area of civil liberties. For this is still the era of McCarthyism (the Eisenhower-Nixon do-nothing Administration was still in office) when people were hesitant, to say the least, to sign their name to anything.
February 1960 marked another turning point in the emerging civil rights movement for in that month the Student Sit-Ins rocked the campuses across the South. With the sit-in movement the Negro youth of the South entered the Freedom Movement in force and with their own special identity. That spring, SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] was founded with the help of Martin Luther King and Ella Baker.
Segregation at the lunch counters in a hundred cities was ended in a matter of months. The black college campuses were alive and this enthusiasm, idealism and determination of youth served as a catalyst for support from the adult community. The campus youth became a bridge between the college community and the larger community — as we used to say, "the Ph.D.'s and the no D's were getting together." The social and class isolation of the campus from the larger Negro community was temporarily ended as they found a common ground of inspiration and struggle to end the indignity of segregation. The lasting and the most basic contribution that the youth made at this juncture in history was that their action confirmed the fact that the Freedom Movement would now be a movement of mass action rather than one of purely court actions. The youth ended the debate on the style of the civil rights struggle. They chose to take to the streets.
The next important link in the chain of the developing new period of our movement was the Freedom Rides in the spring of 1961. In short, the Freedom Rides extended the local victories scored against bus segregation to the field of interstate commerce. Originally begun as a project of CORE [Congress of Racial Equality], then dropped after the burning of their bus at Anniston, Alabama, the challenge was picked up by SNCC students at Fisk in Nashville and SCLC and actively sustained until the Interstate Commerce Commission finally issued a ruling outlawing segregated facilities in interstate public transportation. During this period of the Freedom Rides, Jackson, Mississippi, emerges in the limelight of national attention, for the first time since the Willie McGee case a decade earlier. Hundreds of people from all over the country went to jail in Jackson, Mississippi in their attempt to break down segregation at the local bus station.
The end of the year saw the beginning of the Albany, Georgia Movement. This was one of the most important developments during this decade in the life of black America's Freedom Movement, for at Albany, Georgia the whole system of segregation, in every aspect, came under attack from the black community. In a sense, Albany, Georgia, marked the end of the period that began with Montgomery and the beginning of the period that was to give us Birmingham, Savannah and Danville, Virginia. The movement had become uncompromising in its demands that segregation be ended — not just segregation on the local buses or segregation at the lunch counters — but all segregation, and for the first time mass action against segregation was supported by an organized Voter Registration Drive.
The Albany, Georgia Movement brought together the issue of political power and an end to segregation. This congealing of the two ideas arose out of the fact that the local government, in defending segregation, did not hesitate to violate the First Amendment rights of the black citizens of Albany. The right to even protest segregation, the right to assemble at the City Hall and present their grievances, and to march in the street was violated by The state through mass arrests.
When the federal government under the Kennedy Administration refused to carry out its constitutional responsibility toward these black citizens of the United States, this experience became the basis for the Movement's arriving at a very important political conclusion. That conclusion is that the governmental structure had to be dealt with, dealt with locally through political action and that the federal government could not be depended upon to support the movement against segregation unless it was pressured to do so by national and world opinion.
The Movement in Albany, Georgia, did not achieve desegregation of public facilities during that year because the Kennedy Administration vacillated and compromised their rights. Yet Albany, Georgia, as an experience, contributed greatly to a deepening political understanding of what our Movement was up against in the struggle for social change.
Upon this background the nation and our Freedom Movement entered 1963 which marked the one hundredth anniversary of tpe Emancipation Proclamation. The idea that one hundred years had passed and the unfree status of Negro Americans was still a reality in this country triggered a new spirit of healthy impatience in the Freedom Movement.
The events at Birmingham, Alabama, that spring, organized by SCLC, gave expression to the new determination of black people to be free. Many interpretations of these events have been forthcoming; among the most absurd is the analysis that SCLC selected Birmingham because the organization was broke and needed to raise some money. Birmingham was selected because it was a citadel of racism which had a particularly symbolic meaning for the entire South. No city had a worse record of police brutality or a more rigid segregation pattern than Birmingham. It had come to be called the "Johannesburg of the South." It was clear that any civil rights organization which would confront the institutions of segregation in Birmingham would have to stand at the head of a mass movement of the local population and have the ability to crystallize national public opinion with reasonable swiftness in support of their action. The black community in Birmingham was ready for struggle and the outgoing administration, led by Police Chief "Bull" Connor, was sufficiently vindictive to guarantee that this would be a major battleground and turning point in the modern history of our Freedom Movement.
Some three thousand people went to jail in that struggle, including about six hundred school-age children, but this forced to the surface the nature of the racist state in America, probably more than any other event up to that time. When you see school children being herded into school buses for the purpose of taking them to jail, a civilized person is forced to make a judgment of that society. When you see public fairgrounds being converted into concentration camps for citizens who have dared to assert their constitutional right to protest an unjust system, one is forced to make an assessment of The state which carries out such political crimes. That is precisely what a major part of America did in relation to the Birmingham events and a major part of the civilized world drew its conclusions as well.
The significance of Birmingham rests in the fact that it was that particular action which finally brought a response from the federal government in the form of new legislative proposals which, limited though they were, were more advanced than anything that had been proposed up to that time. The Kennedy Administration proposed the most minimum Civil Rights Bill that they thought could get through Congress — a bill designed by the Justice Department and Attorney General Robert Kennedy.
Two months after the assassination of Medgar Evers, the March on Washington was another national mobilization of impressive size and was designed to bring about a massive pressure on the Congress to pass the Civil Rights Bill. The mass actions all across the South, followed by the March on Washington, the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in which four little girls were killed while attending Sunday School and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy finally moved the Congress to pass the Civil Rights Bill the following year, 1964.
During the summer and fall months of that year the Movement digested the concessions recently won, in the field of public accommodations. Hotels, restaurants, bowling alleys and a variety of public recreational facilities in the South were tested by our Movement activists. As we began to understand both the progress and the limitations represented by the civil rights concessions the political question of the ballot once again emerged to the surface-this time at Selma, Alabama.
The theme "Give Us The Ballot" asserted at the Prayer Pilgrimage of 1957 now echoed across the years, a determination reaffirmed at Selma in March 1965. The basic groundwork laid in Selma by SNCC over many months was now elevated to national prominence as SCLC selected that city to dramatize the unfinished business of securing the unfettered right-to-vote for the black community in the South.
On the Edmund Pettus bridge one Sunday a group of peaceful marchers, going to petition the legislature in Montgomery, were suddenly faced with the atrocities of the police in the police-state of Alabama. At the federal level the Johnson Administration responded by first securing a federal court injunction against the marchers even though they were merely exercising their constitutional right to seek a redress of their grievances. Secondly, another civil rights bill was introduced into Congress and later became the Voter Rights Act of 1965.
Selma held a great symbolism for us because with the Selma experience the Freedom Movement began to cross the bridge from being a movement of primarily moral persuasion to becoming one with emphasis on demanding greater decision-making political power for the black community in American life.
In what is undoubtedly one of the most significant coincidences in our modern history, the events at Selma also mark the beginning of the escalation of the American military role in Vietnam. In less than six months 100,000 U,S. troops had been sent to that embattled land thereby transforming an Asian civil war into a war of colonial subjugation by the armed forces of the United States. This development coincidental with Selma was destined to have a far reaching impact on the ideology of the Freedom Movement.
The Civil Rights Movement was an important constructive phase in the developmental history of our modern Freedom Movement. It came to be called the "Civil Rights" Movement because the emphasis of our struggle in this period was upon achieving the restoration of those civil rights for black Americans which had been nullified by the counterrevolutionary overthrow of Reconstruction (1876-1900).
In addition to achieving some important tangible concessions in the area of eliminating the barriers of public segregation, the struggles of the Civil Rights period helped develop among us a more accurate assessment of the nature of the American social order and helped to shape the contours of our growing Afro-American conscience. With particular reference to our relation to The state, our relation to the institution of government in this society, the struggles of the civil rights era resulted in a massive breakthrough and overturning of the state policy of disfranchisement.
The three million black voters in the South today and the more than three hundred Negro elected officials stand as a potential power-base for a new Reconstruction. The Civil Rights Movement also started a whole generation of white Americans towards taking a more critical look at the social system whose values and assumptions had been heretofore rather uncritically accepted. A large part of the civilized world became aware of the real situation here in the United States, as a result of the activities of this movement, enabling the larger world community to take its own measurement of American life and institutions rather than relying exclusively on the official propaganda of the Voice of America. That adds up to a rather substantial contribution to this period in American and world history.
However we may define the present stage of our Freedom Movement, it represents an historic continuation of the previous phase, in which the emphasis was on securing civil rights — or it represents nothing.
Of course, the great rallying personality of the civil rights era was one of the giants of Afro-American history, Martin Luther King, Jr.
It has become fashionable in some quarters to announce, "the Civil Rights movement is dead." However, we cannot help but notice, those who are the most vocal in making this pronouncement no longer have any organizational base. Nor have they replaced organization with anything proven more effective than mere slogans. It is one thing to say that the program of struggle with its emphasis on civil rights is now a thing of the past, that it belongs to the previous period of our modern history. It is quite another thing to say that the Civil Rights Movement is "dead." Civil Rights was an emphasis of the Freedom Movement and if the Freedom Movement is dead then so are the slogans being raised-such as "Black Power." The Freedom Movement is the only vehicle capable of giving real live meaning to a slogan such as "Black Power."
The fundamental weakness in the "Black Power" abstraction is that it became a slogan before it became a program. The leading advocates of this slogan did not interpret the previous organizational experience of the Civil Rights Movement in such a way as to associate it with organizing the power of the black community, and thereby reveal the continuity of the freedom struggle. To the contrary, they spent a lot of time disassociating themselves from the Civil Rights Movement as — to use their words — "irrelevant." Given this context Black Power becomes merely another mystique.
Unfortunately, our "revolutionaries" have mistakenly put the cart before the horse. Nor are we unmindful of the fact that many of the brothers who at one time were the most active in leaping before television cameras to proclaim the slogan of the new militancy were also among the first to jump for the pork barrel jobs in Johnson's War on Poverty — -while others are now busy pursuing President Nixon's illusory black capitalism. Apparently they were rather easily diverted from their concern with programing the Freedom Movement to programing their own "thing."
When Denmark Vesey planned his revolt of African slaves in the basement of the AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1822, he was relying upon an institution of power in the black community. When Frederick Douglass insisted that black abolitionists would need a press of their own as an integral part of the larger Abolitionist Movement in the struggle against slavery, he was talking about Black Power. And when the sanitation workers in Memphis called Martin Luther King to come and help them to galvanize the whole community behind their struggle for union recognition and, through him, to gain the attention of the nation for their cause, they were exercising Black Power. In the civil rights struggles for jobs and better economic opportunity, when we organized boycotts of department stores and urged people to withhold their purchasing power from these stores until the stores met our demands, that was mobilizing the power of the black community.
Black power as reality is as old as our struggle in America and as new as the latest effort, wherever we may live in this country, to free ourselves from the tyranny of a racist society. It is not the invention or the discovery of any individual. It is the group experience of the Negro community in its struggles for survival and freedom from the indignities imposed by the American social order. It is precisely its relevance to the group experience of Afro-America which accounts for the kind of almost magical appeal the new slogan holds. Yet, Black Power as reality menaces none except those with a class interest or emotional investment in maintaining the system of exploitation and oppression we live under.
Perhaps the most important thing is that in the wake of the new rhetoric, the term power has entered into our political vocabulary as a people. This is indeed a very positive development, enabling us to better analyze the function of U.S. institutions (particularly the role of the state) as they relate to us as an ethnic community in the U.S.
A parallel development of importance during this Civil Rights period in our modern history was the growth in the public presence of the community of Muslim religious expression among Afro-Americans. As opposed to the Christianity of the Western world these converts in the ranks of black America looked to the East as a source of their ethics, philosophy as well as for their religious ritual.
While they clearly rejected the "integration" concept which guided the movement for civil rights, they were nonetheless concerned with securing freedom for the black community in America. They too had a mass style of a kind, with their street corner meetings in the ghettos, in which they performed important agitational work leading to a rebirth of what we now call "black consciousness." While many tended to be somewhat doctrinaire in propagating the teachings of their religious leader whom they call The Honorable Elijah Muhammad, their schools rendered a service to the entire Freedom Movement in spreading Afro-American history and certain ideas from the East.
Their organizational work included providing employment for thousands of their followers by setting up their own small businesses in the community. Beyond a doubt, they have given hope to thousands of their converts, many of whom have known the pitfalls of the inner world of the Northern ghetto and the lash of injustice by the court system. Even their right to freedom of religious worship has frequently been curtailed or abolished by racist prison officials. Muslim prisoners often are denied the rights which Christian prisoners are permitted to exercise under the First Amendment of the Constitution.
As is well known, the most energetic organizer, eloquent and personable spokesman for this sector of the Freedom Movement, was the Minister, Malcolm X. His assassination in February, 1965 was a terrible blow to the Freedom Movement. A vast undercurrent of apprehension rippled through the black community, particularly in Harlem. We knew an important voice had been silenced; yet the real implications of the act were rather cleverly concealed in a confusion of "possibilities" as to who committed the crime.
The lasting contribution of the Muslims to this period of civil rights emphasis was that they early articulated the reality that the civil rights concessions being won by the Freedom Movement did not touch, with any real depth, many of the problems of the urban ghetto. It was the rebellions in a number of cities during the summers of I964-1967 which finally sensitized the Freedom Movement to a full recognition of that reality. These and the whole decade of experiences gave birth to the idea and to the commitment that the Freedom Movement must now become a movement of the poor — a movement to overcome the results of institutionalized racism and exploitation.
And it was Martin Luther King who best articulated the new direction which the Freedom Movement must take, when he launched the Poor People's Campaign shortly before his death.
In recognizing the existence of both the integrationist and nationalist trends in the Freedom Movement, many well-meaning people enamored of their rather sudden new discovery of the "militant" black American often tend to adopt a distorted view of the Movement. In their allegiance to this latest variety of the myth of the New Negro such people strain to show great differences between leading personalities like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. In doing so they necessarily overlook important similarities.
Malcolm knew the raw working class life of the Northern ghetto. Martin, coming from relatively comfortable middle class circumstances, knew the public insult of segregation in the South. Emerging from different class positions in Negro life these men, taken together, embodied the northern and southern contours of the Afro-American experience in a racist culture. Fundamentally then, they came out of the same social milieu. Both assaulted the racist ethic of this society and instilled in black people a pride in their history and an awareness of the worldwide significance of our movement here in the U.S. Each, during the last year of his life, arrived at certain important truths concerning the relatedness between domestic and foreign policy here in America. As civilized men and humanists, both held a perspective for America which went beyond the present capitalist social system.
The one area in which they were furthest apart in their thinking was around the question of violence in the freedom struggle. However, in this regard it should be clear that, contrary to popular belief, Malcolm X was never an advocate of violence for its own sake. He advocated violence in defense of one's property and life when under attack. Martin Luther King, on the other hand, as a strong advocate of nonviolence never denied the right of an individual or a family to defend itself from attack by violent means. He always made the distinction between a situation involving the activities of a movement faced with violence and the activities of an individual or family faced with the same thing.
Each was getting to know the other better — developing mutual respect and a sense of common objective and each met death by assassination just prior to his 40th birthday. In our long history on this continent, our struggle for freedom has involved using both violent and nonviolent methods depending upon the circumstances. Both brother Malcolm and brother Martin were militant and dedicated freedom fighters-champions of human rights; keen noble minds in the battle against racism and the system which produced it.
In presenting this brief capsule history of the main highlights of the Freedom Movement during this vibrant decade of achievement and sacrifice we are most concerned with revealing something of the developmental pattern which the movement evolved. It has been a classic period for studying, through direct participation, the tumultuous, many-sided life of a Freedom Movement. It reveals how a movement, emerging from a previous period, often begins with a modest minimum program of demands. As it increasingly comes to understand its strength and potential it sets its sights on a larger spectrum of demands embracing a larger area of the freedom aspiration. In the course of persistently pursuing these on the battlefield, as it draws into its ranks and touches the lives of more and more people indirectly, its perception of truth becomes keener and its ideology deepens. Finally, there is that qualitative change transforming the character of a movement into a fundamentally different quality than the movement it was when it began.
Such a review may at some point be helpful in understanding and shaping the organic development of the nation-wide campaign to organize the poor. Hopefully, it will help our young self-styled militants to avoid falling into the trap of nihilism by understanding there is such a thing as revolutionary patience. Headlines in the news media, gained from having vocalized militant rhetoric, mean far less than involvement in the day-to-day experiences of the Freedom Movement where the nobility of those who would be free asserts itself continuously.
In places like Swan Quarter in Hyde County, North Carolina, students and teachers are united in an effort to save their accredited school from being closed by the state. In Beaufort, South Carolina, a grass roots movement, which began around the issue of increasing aid to dependent children, is now concerning itself with securing a radical improvement in public health facilities so as to eliminate the hookworm disease so prevalent among children in that area. There are many examples, in dozens of towns, in which our folk are still on the battlefield at this hour. We really don't need any coffee-house "revolutionaries" because we are entering a serious climactic period in our history.
Now that the barriers of segregation have been significantly lowered, all Americans, if they wish to, are better able to see and examine some other basic realities of life in the U.S. Hidden behind the overt contempt for Americans of African descent, as shown by the long existence of segregation, is a very real contempt for all the exploited whose robbery is an economic law of the present social system, defended and enforced by the apparatus of the state.
To be suffering in a condition of poverty in a society which boasts of its affluence in every television ad is as much an insult to human dignity as was the Jim Crow sign.
In the civil rights era, or phase, we won the ballot. In the struggle for recognition of human dignity of the poor, a class embracing all ethnic, nationality and racial groups, we will win representative government. In this perspective the Poor People's Campaign is the opening act in a qualitatively new period in the Freedom Movement. Our ideals will be achieved in the course of struggle to fulfill the material needs of the poor, i.e., to feed the hungry, clothe the ill-clothed, expand medical service to all without cost, and other needed measures. In substance, this bold nation-wide effort to overcome the ravages of the present social system embodies within it a new social morality for the U.S. in an even more profound way than did the struggles for civil rights. This massive confrontation with the poverty condition, and the institutional arrangement which created and perpetuates it, mirrors the dynamics involved in the evolution of a revolutionary Freedom Movement.
We're movin' on the upward way,
New heights we're climbing, every day.
Copyright © Jack O'Dell, 1969.