Martin Luther King
Martin Luther King; drawing by David Levine

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.

WHAT IS HARDEST NOW to comprehend—remembering the Time covers and the Nobel award—is King’s irrelevancy. Almost seven years ago, in Harper’s, James Baldwin wrote that King had “succeeded, in a way no Negro before him has managed to do, to carry the battle into the individual heart and make its resolution the province of the individual will…. He has incurred, therefore, the grave responsibility of continuing to lead in the path he has encouraged so many people to follow. How he will do this I do not know, but I do not see how he can possibly avoid a break, at last, with the habits and attitudes, stratagems and fears of the past.”

Baldwin’s skepticism was wise. The break has not come, and the heart is no longer the battleground. Nearly Jeremiah in 1960, King now seems a black Joshua Loth Liebman:

Our most fruitful course is to stand firm, move forward nonviolently, accept disappointments and cling to hope. Our determined refusal not to be stopped will eventually open the door to fulfillment. By recognizing the necessity of suffering in a righteous cause, we may achieve our humanity’s full stature. To guard ourselves from bitterness, we need the vision to see in this generation’s ordeals the opportunity to transfigure both ourselves and American society.

This summer, King is shuffling between Chicago and Cleveland. He has all but abandoned the “End the Slums” campaign in Chicago, and instead is pushing “Operation Breadbasket,” a program of economic pressure against large food-marketing corporations in an effort to get more jobs for Negroes. A similar tactic had some limited success in Philadelphia many years ago, but its gains have not been significant anywhere else. From a Chicago base, King hopes to get ministers across the country who are affiliated with his Southern Christian Leadership Conference to start local “Breadbaskets”—against National Dairy Products, Kellogg, and California Packing Company goods. The theory is that the ministers will negotiate for jobs with company representatives; if no progress is made, congregations will be mobilized to picket, and, if necessary, boycott proscribed products. At the same time, King’s staff in Chicago has a federal HEW grant to do vocational education, so that some untrained Negroes off the streets may be able to fill the new jobs if they appear.

There is no reason to believe that the national “Breadbasket” will make more headway than the local ones. The organization is crude, and, more than that, many of the assumptions are questionable. The few jobs that may open will not noticeably change the character of ghettos; at best, a few more black people will pop out into the middle class, like overheated molecules in a brimming beaker of water. Many of the jobs would go to Negroes who are either skilled already (and may leave slightly less desirable employment) or at the very top of the underclass—those few who are ready to jump. Local groups backing up the demands for jobs will be thoroughly controlled by SCLC staff workers, in consultation with the odd black businessman in town. There is little implication for permanent organization or real movement. “Breadbasket” amounts to an escalation of rhetoric, but a diminution of power over a broad base. More than anything King has attempted so far, it assumes the permanence, and even the desirability, of present economic relationships. The only change would be the imposition of a few black faces behind desks and counters.

In Cleveland, King’s staff is working on a larger scale, but his campaign there is new, and it is likely to suffer from the same deficiencies found in the Chicago experience: top-heavy organization, premature action, orientation toward small goals (instead of movements). If there is violence there, King’s position will be all the more precarious. He has maneuvered for several years now between white anxieties and black anger. On one side, he tells whites that he alone can control the ghettos, if they support his work and give him goods to deliver; on the other he tells the black people presumably under his influence that rioting will get them nowhere, and that he alone can give them what they want. It is a complicated game requiring consummate political skill and, although King abides by the rules, he has not been winning many points. Whites have ceased to believe him, or really to care; the blacks hardly listen.

IT IS NOT THAT the ghetto listens to anyone else. No black “leaders” with national reputations speak in understandable accents. The only authentic black hero of this revolutionary generation was Malcolm; Stokely Carmichael comes closer to that standard than most, but he is somehow unscarred, not deeply cynical enough to evoke the radical funkiness of black America. Carmichael, like the rest of the brilliant SNCC organizers of his early Sixties era, is still hung-up on white culture. What happens when a child of Camus grows up? There is something stagey about his public performances; each is too much a tour de force. “Stokely Carmichael, the tee vee starmichael,” his SNCC friends called him in Mississippi in 1964. Until now, at least, he has had too good a time. His successor, Rap Brown, lacks Carmichael’s smile and brittle brilliance, but he seems more at ease with the slowly moving black poor. He may well sound too dangerous to be tolerated. “We going to burn this town to the ground,” he says. Apocalypse is the normal mood of ghetto talk, but on the outside it sounds like criminal anarchy. Brown must choose between understanding from his audience or tolerance from the enemy.

SNCC decided last winter to move into Northern urban centers and begin the kind of organizing there that it had once done in Southern black belt counties. The stated political objectives of the Southern campaign—politicians elected, schools desegregated, economic improvement—have not been fulfilled. But SNCC had been able to devise radical new models for the organization of communities. The projects in Mississippi and Alabama had suddenly given people a sense of themselves and their power.

It worked so well for the wrong reasons as well as the right ones. SNCC’s black and white intellectuals charmed the rural “folks” as much as they organized them. When the SNCC kids left, the local communities often slid back—if not into the lives that they had led, then to a less sophisticated kind of political organization than SNCC had envisioned. A rough kind of black tammanyism began to arise in the counties where SNCC and the Freedom Democrats had worked hardest, SNCC became largely irrelevant, and its staff members more or less uninterested in hanging around to see the after-effects.

The Northern campaign never really happened. A few workers in a small number of cities are still at it, but their total effort is small, and its effect diffuse. A Harlem SNCC staffer works with a school parents’ committee; a Newark team tries to turn people on to radical ways of dealing with whatever problems most concern them. Since the spring, SNCC has been most actively involved in energizing Negro college campuses, for, after all, Carmichael and most of the other SNCC breed relate best to people like themselves. SNCC started at Southern black colleges, and its return is both logical and useful.

Of the other “national” organizations, only CORE is attempting to reach the bottom layers of blackness. Floyd McKissick may not know exactly where he is, but in his year as director he has at least had a good try at finding out where be should be. He quite quickly saw that his base was not in the black and white middle class which had formed the organization. It was deep in the ghetto, and in successive meetings, speeches, and programs, McKissick has been trying to get there. Still, there are few cities where CORE is more than a journalistic reference point.

We have been accustomed—trained, even—to think of social change as the work of visible political organizations. That perception is produced by reliance on the “media,” which respond mindlessly to the sheer size and solidity of the institutions that are to be changed. The Lowndes County (Alabama) Freedom Party, the “Black Panther,” was considered unimportant because it could not effectively take power in the state. It could not quickly and decisively shatter the existing social arrangement over a wide area. Parties—traditional or revolutionary—are assumed to be the only agencies of social movement, and their size is of crucial importance. The significance of a political party, a demonstration, a publication, or an organization is thought to be directly related to its weight in raw numbers.

But somehow that perception lies. In the past few years, dislocations have taken place that utterly destroy the numbers theory. Political parties did not cause tanks to rumble through the heart of the nation’s biggest cities in July, they did not bring out soldiers by the thousands, nor destroy billions of dollars’ worth of property. Something much more subtle is happening, much more difficult to locate in time or place. The “civil rights” organizations of last year’s headlines are observers like the rest of us, no matter how loud their preachings or insistent their press releases. Black politicians, from Tom to militant, have all they can do just to stay on camera. Rep. John Conyers in Detroit—heralded as the model of the new breed—is as irrelevant to his war zone as Rep. William Dawson is to Chicago’s. History moves at breakneck speed. Adam Powell had better stay on Bimini.

EVEN the Black Power Conference in Newark last month was two weeks too late. It was always to be a rather pointless convention of hustlers, all scrambling for coalitions when they could not win constituencies in the streets. Much of the emphasis on blackness was a charade. The conference met at the white man’s hotels and in the white man’s churches, and huge white-owned corporations (Bell Telephone, for example) provided presents and facilities. Most of the participants were supported by white payrolls. If they wanted to be where the action was, they could have walked eight blocks from the Military Park Hotel into the Newark ghetto, all burnt and looted and crumbling from five nights of violence. Late in the conference, a few paid a perfunctory visit; many went as sightseers. None had come when they should have, in the days when “black power” was incarnate in the streets. By the time the conference took place, it had no bearing on the black revolution which the delegates so eloquently hymned.

So all that has come until now is prologue—not the first steps in a long flight of equal gradations, but preliminaries of a different order from the main event. The maneuverings of the last half-decade have been predicated on King’s assumption that the American system can somehow absorb the demands of its underclass and its alienated. Now this summer we all know that it cannot. Those who speak in seats of power seem not to have the slightest idea what those demands are, much less know how to meet them. Jerome Cavanaugh of Detroit is the most “progressive” mayor in the country; his battleground is bloodier that Sam Yorty’s was. The United Auto Workers tried in Detroit to integrate Negroes into the economic community; no other big union will be nearly so helpful. Anti-poverty programs, swimming pools, free trips to the ballpark, aid to education: if that was riot control, it failed.

Martin Luther King and the “leaders” who appealed for non-violence, CORE, the black politicians, the old SNCC are all beside the point. Where the point is in the streets of Detroit and Plainfield, Newark and Cambridge, Maryland. There has been no response by government because there can be no adequate answers, save suppression and investigation, to people who by their actions indict the very legitimacy of that government. “The name of the game,” a movement operative in San Francisco said recently, “is chaos.”

But not quite. There was more method in the uprisings than the press and the public outside could see. Looting was purposeful: the best merchandise went first, and often the least prized goods were left untouched. What observers called indiscriminate “rampage” was the deliberate and selective destruction by thousands of people of white-owned stores. In Newark, for example, not one “Soul Brother” was attacked, except by police. That kind of unanimity of purpose (any one or two looters could have invaded a black merchant’s store, but they did not) suggests that the rebellions have an authenticity beyond chaotic mob action.

Both Governor Hughes of New Jersey and Mayor Cavanaugh said they were “appalled” at the carnival spirit of their respective ghettos. They watched in horror as the looters hauled out television sets and furniture. But in a strange way, those reactions may be exactly what the looters meant to inspire. Ghetto life has always been a mean caricature of middle-class values: the pink Cadillac bought on credit, the TVs in every crowded flat, the boozing on Saturday nights just as they do in the country clubs. The riots, too, mocked the materialism of the suburbs and the legal violence committed in the name of government. The man tells black people to amass goods and to kill enemies of the state; the people comply in the way they know how. Seen from afar, the riots were scenes in a vast, spontaneous morality play, staged by guerrilla actors in the only real theater.

There was some sense in the riots, and from them a primitive new kind of politics has come out of the ghettos this summer. There are tough black street leaders who have emerged as local heroes, and although they are not interviewed on Huntley-Brinkley nor appeal to suburban fund-raisers, they are legitimate and powerful. The first wave came out of Watts—Tommy Jacquette, Brother Crook, and a dozen others. They were street rumblers before the summer of 1965; now they are the new political organizers in the L.A. ghetto. More like them are spinning out of Newark and Detroit. They are half guerrilla, half ward heeler. They work between organization and revolution, groping for a way in which a bitter and mobilized minority can change a system they know will never accept them as they are. They disdain the numbers game, they avoid the “visibility” hang-up. They are told it is hopeless, but they are beyond hoping. The strategy is to keep people moving and working, to make noise and trouble, and always to disrupt. Slowly, others in the ghetto learn how to do the same. There is no talk yet of revolutionary institutions; there cannot be, for there is no revolutionary context, and now there can only be approximations. At best, there may be new ghetto organizations: community schools, block councils, tenant unions, police patrols, labor groups. The point now is to extend democracy radically, and that task will involve whites as well as blacks.

The insurrections of July have done what everyone in America for thirty years has thought impossible: mass action has convulsed the society and brought smooth government to a half. Poor blacks have stolen the center stage from the liberal elites, which is to say that the old order has been shattered. It is at once obvious that the period of greatest danger is just beginning. The political establishment will swing wide to the right and “buffers”—the Committees of Concerned Citizens, the defenders of dissent, the liberal politicians who give cover to the Left—may be obliterated. Those who are working in the streets need to have a new coalition behind them to absorb the inevitable calls for repression.

The civil war and the foreign one have contrived this summer to murder liberalism—in its official robes. There are few mourners. The urgent business now is for imaginations freed from the old myths to see what kind of a society might be reconstructed that would have no need for imperialism and no cause for revolt. At least we know now that even if all Martin Luther King’s programs were enacted, and all Jerome Cavanaugh’s reforms were adopted, and the Great Society as it is described materialized before our very eyes, there would still be the guerrillas.

This Issue

August 24, 1967