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A revolutionary is one who self-consciously advocates collective action to remake a society’s defining institutions through unconventional action, from below. Not just in the last years of his life, Martin Luther King Jr. was one such revolutionary.
Martin Luther King, Why We Can’t Wait, 1963:
Summer came, and the weather was beautiful. But the climate, the social climate of American life, erupted into lightning flashes, trembled with thunder and vibrated to the relentless, growing rain of protest come to life through the land. Explosively, America’s third revolution—the Negro Revolution—had begun.
For the first time in the long and turbulent history of the nation, almost one thousand cities were engulfed in civil turmoil, with violence trembling just below the surface. Reminiscent of the French Revolution of 1789, the streets had become a battleground; just as they had become the battleground in the 1830’s of England’s tumultuous Chartist movement. As in these two revolutions, a submerged social group, propelled by a burning need for justice, lifting itself with sudden swiftness, moving with determination and a majestic scorn for risk and danger, created an uprising so powerful that it shook a huge society from its comfortable base.
Never in American history had a group seized the streets, the squares, the sacrosanct business thoroughfares and the marbled halls of government to protest and proclaim the unendurability of their oppression. Had room-sized machines turned human, burst from the plants that housed them and stalked the land in revolt, the nation could not have been more amazed. Undeniably, the Negro had been an object of sympathy and wore the scars of deep grievances, but the nation had come to count on him as a creature who could quietly endure, silently suffer, and patiently wait. He was well trained in service and, whatever the provocation, he neither pushed back nor spoke back.
Just as lightning makes no sound until it strikes, the Negro revolution generated quietly. But when it struck, the revealing flash of its power and the impact of its sincerity fervor displayed a force of a frightening intensity. Three hundred years of humiliation, abuse, and deprivation cannot be expected to find voice in a whisper. The storm clouds did not release a “gentle rain from heaven,” but a whirlwind, which has not yet spent its force or attained its full momentum.
Martin Luther King, 1968:
There is a second group of young people, presently small in number but dynamic and growing. They are the radicals. They range from moderate to extreme in the degree to which they want to alter the social system. All of them agree that only by structural change can current evils be eliminated because the roots are in the system rather than in man or in faulty operations. This is a new breed of radicals. Very few adhere to any established ideology or dogma: Some borrow from old doctrines of revolution, but practically all of them suspend judgment on what the form of the new society must be. They are in serious revolt against old values and have not yet concretely formulated the new ones. … Ironically, their rebellion comes from having been frustrated in seeking change within the framework of the existing society. They tried to build racial equality and met tenacious and vicious opposition. They worked to end the Vietnam war and experienced futility.
In their concern for higher social values [the radicals] were thwarted by a combination of material abundance and spiritual poverty that stifled a pure creative outlook. And so they seek a fresh start with new rules in a new order. … Their radicalism grows because the power structure of today is unrelenting in defending not only its social system but the evils it contains. … Whether they read Gandhi or Fanon, all the radicals understand the need for action—direct, self-transforming and structure-transforming action. This may be their most creative collective insight.
This second passage comes from “A New Sense of Direction,” one of King’s last overall strategic reflections before his assassination. It was delivered at a SCLC staff meeting and its private audience allowed for additional candor. If you want to read one piece on MLK’s strategic thinking, after a lifetime of organizing, this is it. On the other hand, if you want to read a whole book, buy Michael Eric Dyson’s I May Not Get There with You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr, and donate it to a library when you’re done.
Martin Luther King Jr. was an extremely committed proponent of nonviolent and nondestructive methods of protest. In his private strategic manifesto inside the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, A New Sense of Direction,* he advocated “militant” and “defiant” action to dislocate the function of American cities and enforce a popular demand for economic redistribution, but he did not deviate on this tactical direction. He even declared, “I, Martin Luther King, take thee, Non-violence, to be my wedded wife, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer—this isn’t a bargaining experience—for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.”
Still, the King of 1967 and 1968 would hardly be at home among some of the critics of property destruction who often revere him. First, he draws a strong moral distinction between “violence against property” and “violence against persons.” And second, rather than prioritizing rooting out property destroyers for obscuring his message, he tries to explain their message. Third, he is careful to emphasize police responsibility for most violence against people during the riots. I quote him here at length describing the Black urban riots of summer 1967, the third consecutive summer of riot waves, largely touched off by local police violence. The following was first published in The Trumpet of Conscience (1967).
This bloodlust interpretation ignores one of the most striking features of the city riots. Violent they certainly were. But the violence, to a startling degree, was focused against property rather than against people. There were very few cases of injury to persons, and the vast majority of the rioters were not involved at all in attacking people. The much publicized “death toll” that marked the riots, and the many injuries, were overwhelmingly inflicted on the rioters by the military. It is clear that the riots were exacerbated by police action that was designed to injure or even to kill people. As for the snipers, no account of the riots claims that more than one or two dozen people were involved in sniping. From the facts, and unmistakable pattern emerges: a handful of Negroes used gunfire substantially to intimidate, not to kill; and all of the other participants had a different target—property.
I am aware that there are many who wince at a distinction between property and persons—who hold both sacrosanct. My views are not so rigid. A life is sacred. Property is intended to serve life, and no matter how much we surround it with rights and respect, it has no personal being. It is part of the earth man walks on; it is not man.
The focus on property in the 1967 riots is not accidental. It has a message; it is saying something.
If hostility to whites were ever going to dominate a Negro’s attitude and reach murderous proportions, surely it would be during a riot. But this rare opportunity for bloodletting was sublimated into arson, or turned into a kind of stormy carnival of free-merchandise distribution. Why did the rioters avoid personal attacks? The explanation cannot be fear of retribution, because the physical risks incurred in the attacks on property were no less than for personal assaults. The military forces were treating acts of petty larceny as equal to murder. Far more rioters took chances with their own lives, in their attacks on property, than threatened the life of anyone else. Why were they so violent with property then? Because property represents the white power structure, which they were attacking and trying to destroy. A curious proof of the symbolic aspect of the looting for some who took part in it is the fact that, after the riots, police received hundreds of calls from Negroes trying to return merchandise they had taken. Those people wanted the experience of taking, of redressing the power imbalance that property represents. Possession, afterward, was secondary.
A deeper level of hostility came out in arson, which was far more dangerous than the looting. But it, too, was a demonstration and a warning. It was designed to express the depth of anger in the community.
King was not an proponent of these tactics, but he was a prominent voice (at times, the most prominent voice) of his community when they were carried out. Rather than devote attention to their ”obscuring the message,” he sought to analyze their message, even as he argued such tactics would not prove victorious. I wish those who follow in his strategic footsteps on these tactical choices, would also follow him in prioritizing such explanations.
* “A New Sense of Direction” was one of King’s last overall strategic reflections before his assassination. It was delivered at a SCLC staff meeting and its private audience allowed for additional candor. It should be required reading for people seeking to understand King’s strategic vision. For more on King’s late political evolution, see Michael Eric Dyson’s I May Not Get There With You.