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.