King and the American Tradition of Aggressive Nonviolence

A few months ago, we spotlighted a Jacobin piece by historian Thomas J. Sugrue about how white liberals and Black Power leaders alike created the myth of a moderate Martin Luther King, Jr. In this revisionist history, King only showed concern for wealth redistribution and a wider class struggle at the end of his life.

On Huffington Post, Obery M. Hendricks contributes to the effort to set the record straight:

The indictments King offered of capitalism and the class inequality that bedeviled American society during his travels were considered extremely inflammatory by members of the power elite. To one audience he said, “We’re dealing in a sense with class issues, we’re dealing with the problem between the haves and the have-nots.” He told a New York Times reporter, “In a sense, you could say that we’re involved in a class struggle.” Elsewhere he declared, “we can’t solve our problem now until there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power.” King was now no longer talking about civil rights; he was talking systemic change, even structural revolution: “I think we must see the great distinction here between a reform movement and a revolutionary movement.” He made it clear that what he advocated was a revolutionary movement and revolutionary action that would “raise certain basic questions about the whole society…. [T]his means a revolution of values” that for him went beyond issues of race. To King that meant, as he said more than once, that “the whole structure of American life must be changed.”

Hendricks puts King into a wider context of twentieth-century “aggressive nonviolence”, comparing the Poor People’s March of 1968 to the Bonus Army of 1932. There is a tendency to bracket King (and the Civil Rights Movement in general) as a successful campaign for legal equality for African-Americans that began with the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 and succeeded with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Part of that is probably benign; we want a historical narrative in which King is triumphant.

Hendricks and Sugrue, however, follow the historiography of Thomas F. Jackson’s book From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Struggle for Economic Justice. F And this is not simply a historians’ interpretation: likely enough, it was King’s own understanding of what he was doing. Jackson explains a conversation between Stanley Levison and King:

King said businessmen were “keeping people in poverty”. The poor should come to Washington “in mule carts”, block traffic in the busy streets, and declare, “We are poor, you keep us this way; and we’ve come to stay until you do something about it.” Levison had talked to King over the winter about leading a new “bonus army”, like the tattered and hungry World War I veterans in 1932 who had come to D.C. seeking their pensions and who had been brutally routed by General Douglas MacArthur (333).

From the Bonus Army to the Poor People’s March, high-visibility “occupy movements” have pushed American politics in more egalitarian directions. This tradition is obscured when these two marches are compartmentalized — when they become “effects” of the Great Depression and the Sixties — rather than a vaunted tradition of aggressive nonviolence.

 

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