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Soul Power

Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?

by Martin Luther King Jr.
Harper & Row, 209 pp., $4.95

The Movement is dead; the Revolution is unborn. The streets are bloody and ablaze, but it is difficult to see why, and impossible to know for what end. Government on every level is ineffectual, helpless to act either in the short term or the long. The force of Army and police seems not to suppress violence, but incite it. Mediators have no space to work; they command neither resources nor respect, and their rhetoric is discredited in all councils, by all classes. The old words are meaningless, the old explanations irrelevant, the old remedies useless. It is the worst of times.

It is the best of times. The wretched of this American earth are together as they have never been before, in motion if not in movement. No march, no sit in, no boycott ever touched so many. The social cloth which binds and suffocates them is tearing at its seamiest places. The subtle methods of co-optation work no better to keep it intact than the brutal methods of repression; if it is any comfort, liberalism proves hardly more effective than fascism. Above all, there is a sense that the continuity of an age has been cut, that we have arrived at an infrequent fulcrum of history, and that what comes now will be vastly different from what went before.

It is not a time for reflection but for evocation. The responsibility of the intellectual is the same as that of the street organizer, the draft resister, the Digger: to talk to people, not about them. The important literature now is the underground press, the speeches of Malcolm, the works of Fanon, the songs of the Rolling Stones and Aretha Franklin. The rest all sounds like the Moynihan Report and Time-Essay, explaining everything, understanding nothing, changing no one.

MARTIN LUTHER KING once had the ability to talk to people, the power to change them by evoking images of revolution. But the duty of a revolutionary is to make revolutions (say those who have done it), and King made none. By his own admission, things are worse in the US today—for white people and black—than when he began the bus boycott in Montgomery eleven years ago. Last summer, in Chicago, he was booed at a mass meeting, and later, as he lay in bed unsleeping, he understood why:

For twelve years I, and others like me, had held out radiant promises of progress. I had preached to them about my dream. I had lectured to them about the not too distant day when they would have freedom, “all, here and now.” I had urged them to have faith in America and in white society. Their hopes had soared. They were now booing because they felt we were unable to deliver on our promises. They were booing because we had urged them to have faith in people who had too often proved to be unfaithful. They were now hostile because they were watching the dream that they had so readily accepted turn into a nightmare.

The fault is no more King’s than it is ours, though no less, either. He has been outstripped by his times, overtaken by the events which he may have obliquely helped to produce but could not predict. He is not likely to regain command. Both his philosophy and his techniques of leadership were products of a different world, of relationships which no longer obtain and expectations which are no longer valid. King assumed that the political economy of America was able to allow the integration of the mass of poor Negroes into the mainstream society, with only minor pushing and shoving. White liberals would be the thin edge of the wedge, the Democratic Party the effective agency of change, a marching army of blacks the sting to conscience. The trick lay in finding the best tactics, presenting the most feasible programs, and putting on the most idealistic faces.

It worked well for a while. Southern feudalism began to disintegrate (it was already unsupportable), voters were registered and lunch counters integrated, and civil-rights acts were passed. But there were stonier walls behind the first defenses of segregation. A society infused with racism would not easily discard the arrangements by which it confers status. Unlike anachronistic feudalism in the deep South, the national system of industrial and technological capitalism was practically invulnerable. Marches and freedom songs were unavailing. The “power structures” of the Mississippi Delta may have trembled when they heard “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round,” but the one in Cook County was unmoved. It had better weapons: an anti-poverty program, an Uncle Tom congressman, available jobs, and huge stores of tolerance. When that failed, as it did, there were armies of police and soldiers prepared for final solutions.

King may have first realized his predicament as he sat, silently, in the caucus of Mississippi Freedom Democrats in Atlantic City three years ago this month. The National Democratic Party in which he had placed his faith for change denied their petition for representation; it had no intention of altering the balance of power between blacks and whites in Mississippi. Worst of all, the liberal vanguard of that Party, Hubert Humphrey and Walter Reuther, were wielding the heaviest hatchets, to protect their own skins and secure their own interests.

IF THAT LESSON WAS UNCLEAR, King could have seen a half year later how the party of peace embarked on the most barbaric imperialistic war of this century. At best, he might have understood that the institutional demands that induced the war—the politics and economics of anti-communism—were parallel to the ones that kept the underclass in its place—the politics and economics of racism. At least, he began to realize that social destruction in Vietnam was somehow incompatible with social advancement at home.

When the going was good, King still had his white liberals and his black marchers. But then the going was bad and getting worse. The white liberals had apparently misunderstood, or had been misinformed. They were willing supporters when the goals of the Movement were integration and the embourgeoisement of poor Negroes. When the goal was liberation, the slogan “power” instead of “freedom,” and the consequences were convulsions in the society they wanted desperately to preserve, the liberals dropped back, with their marching feet and then their checks. At the same time, and for the same reasons, King’s black base began to thin. With no agents for change responsive to his demands, there would be no goods to deliver. It was not that King had chosen the wrong tactics, or picked the wrong allies. He had simply, and disastrously, arrived at the wrong conclusions about the world. No coalitions available and no programs imaginable could “succeed” even in his own terms. Insofar as his objectives were revolutionary, they could not come out of status-quo institutions; insofar as they were not, his followers were not interested.

King’s response was to fly out in all directions in search of a new constituency. He arrived in Chicago last summer with fanfares in the national press, and commensurate ballyhoo in the streets. The thrust of his attack was the formation of community organizations to “End the Slums.” His strategy had three phases: tenants’ councils would harass landlords, mass (integrated) marches would arouse the country, and the Democratic Administration in Washington would push an open housing bill through Congress.

Within a few months, he had failed in all three endeavors. The local councils were haphazardly organized by staff workers with no understanding of the problems of building a solid base of local people. The marches were premature—the community was not ready to support them to the end—and King had to surrender to Mayor Daley and his friends for a worthless list of promises that would never be fulfilled. The national Democratic Party was unable to pass a housing bill, although it was theoretically in charge of the most “liberal” congress in thirty years.

King retired in defeat to write his book, surfacing only a few months ago to condemn the war in which his movement had been drowned. As always, his speeches were fluent and moving, but as always, again, they never quite got to the heart of the problem. For like his formulation of the race conflict, his conception of the war is devoid of historical perspective and a sense of the processes of society. He seems to believe that progress is inevitable because compelled by an abstract moral force. Reality is seen as a series of episodes: “every revolutionary movement has its peaks of united activity and its valleys of debate and internal confusion.” Life is just one damn thing after another.

It is not easy to reconcile King’s morality and his history—or the lack of it. Conventional commentators these days like to speak of King’s “nobility” and the purity of his humanism, and then they sigh that the world is not ready for him. But it is more accurate to say that King is not ready for the world. His morality derives from where he is, not from where his followers are. The black people of America are at the losing ends of shotguns, out weighed by thumb-heavy scales, on the outermost margins of power. King’s invocation of love and integration and non-violence may embody what he likes to call the “Judaeo-Christian tradition,” but in the US in this generation those are basically the demands of the boss, the preacher, the publisher, and the politician. Turn-the-other-check was always a personal standard, not a general rule; people can commit suicide but peoples cannot. Morality, like politics, starts at the barrel of a gun.

In spite of King’s famous sincerity and the super-honesty which he exudes, there is something disingenuous about his public voice, and about this book. He is not really telling it like it is, but as he thinks his audience wants it to be. His readers will be white, and his book sounds as if it were intended to be read aloud in suburban synagogues and ADA chapter meetings. He recounts the heroic deeds of American Negroes, such as the Guianan immigrant, Jan Matzeliger, who invented a shoe-lasting machine that developed into “the multi-million-dollar United Shoe Machinery Company,” and Norman Rillieux, “whose invention of an evaporating pan revolutionized the process of sugar refining.” Then he tells personal tales of discrimination against his family. The tone is that of a middle-class Negro having the same old conversation about race with his white liberal friend.

At the end, King suggests a few “programs” for action, and they amount mostly to legislative demands that either will not be passed, or, if they were, would result in none of the “structural changes in society” to which he occasionally refers. He likes the idea of a guaranteed annual income, more Negro elected officials, better schools, more jobs, and protection of rights. Those are unexceptionable goals, but King has no real notion of how they are to be attained, or to what they may lead. Although he speaks of structural changes, he assumes structural preservation.

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