Letter on Meeting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (March 25, 1957)

Dr. Mar­tin Luther King, Jr. and Coret­ta Scott King vis­it­ed C.L.R. James in Lon­don in 1957. James wrote a let­ter to King a cou­ple 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’s 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 Labor and Urban Affairs at Wayne State Uni­ver­si­ty in Detroit. It was pub­lished in the 12th issue of the Sojourn­er Truth Organization’s jour­nal Urgent Tasks (Sum­mer 1981) and is here repro­duced thanks to the extra­or­di­nary Sojourn­er Truth Orga­ni­za­tion Dig­i­tal Archive.

kingarrestYes­ter­day the Rev. Luther King and his wife had lunch with us and stayed here from 12.30 until near­ly 5 p.m. 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 trav­el­ing 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 7 p.m. 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 rec­og­nized 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 of age, but he had read phi­los­o­phy and he had read also 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 under-pin­ning was the pol­i­cy of non-vio­lence. 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 empha­sized 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 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 George 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 non-vio­lence 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 motor cycle 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.)

Author of the article

was the author of The Black Jacobins and a founder of the Johnson-Forest Tendency.