The Political and Rhetorical Strategies of Martin Luther King

This page presents the series of posts on Martin Luther King as a single essay

First in a series of ten posts on MLK.



Martin Luther King was one of the few political leaders, then or now, that was able to articulate a coherent political strategy that emerged from and connected with on-the-ground social movement activism. What can we learn from King about political and rhetorical strategy, about movement building and organizing? What were his method and means?

Ella Baker, perhaps the most important organizer of the 20th century, said, “ ‘You see, I think that, to be very honest, the movement made Martin rather than Martin making the movement. This is not a discredit to him. This is, to me, as it should be.’’ We must remain wide awake to Baker’s work and teachings as part of our review of MLK. As the civil rights movement’s most articulate and influential leader we can hear the strategies and insights of the civil rights movement channeled in King’s speeches, writings and actions. Yes, the movement made Martin, and as Baker suggests: that’s a good thing.

Both King, “the movement” and the many movements since are extraordinarily complex. What follows is an interpretation—a useful one I hope—that makes no claim to being comprehensive.

My aim is to search for the universal values, ideals and strategic understandings appropriate for all of us regardless of religious belief, racial identity or political stance. As an African-American leader, King embodied differences that remain crucially important and were the source of his strength and creativity.

To use the kind of dialectical thinking King often relied on, we can find the universal residing within some particular movement, community or person. African-American history is the source of the lesson— but the lessons are for all. The global appeal of the American civil rights movement from Northern Ireland to South Africa demonstrates its universality better than any discourse I can muster.

MLK drew deeply from many sources: black history and christianity; the revolution in revolutionary strategy accomplished first in India; the promise of America embodied in the Declaration of Independence, and Constitution, and the many global struggles against imperialism in Africa, Asia and South America. MLK was fully engaged with both history and the world he lived in.

Out of this mix King fashioned a powerful political and rhetorical strategy based on a set of closely interwoven concepts and practices: non-violent civil disobedience, love, the beloved community, the America dream and a revolution of values. He relied upon his faith and African-American history to counter fear and fatalism. For King the world is a product of interdependence and mutuality. He urged us to be conscious of our connection with everyone and everything.

Second in a series of ten posts on the strategies of MLK.

Nonviolent Strategy


Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored…there is a type of of constructive nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth.…So the purpose of the direct action is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitable open the door to negotiations.[1]

The Civil Rights movements’ primary strategic approach was, of course, non-violent mass civil disobedience. The major advances of the civil rights movement can be linked to the marches — sometimes in defiance of court injunction — sit-ins, freedom rides, attempts to vote or register, and demonstrations that landed thousands of people in jail and some in their graves.

King placed civil disobedience within a framework consistent with the inside/outside strategy. The disruptive nature of direct action and the seemingly more orderly process of negotiations may be tactically different but part and parcel of the same strategy. The outside game is the precondition for the inside game. Without outside pressure negotiations are reduced to begging and pleading or rest on puny legal claims.

If this is all we learned from King it would be enough.

It may seem simple, but despite tremendous efforts of a small number of people the level of direct action is not of sufficient scale or character to win major concession let alone transform the basic structures of power. The new civil rights movement is a sure sign that  things are changing. But, until we bring more people power to the table we will be left with reason, morality and truth, all necessary but far, far from sufficient to make history. The primary role of reason, morality, and truth is not to convince power but to help build a movement massive, daring and visionary enough to force change from the system.

The civil rights movement strongly suggests that such a movement will not be based on anger, outrage or criticism alone — although those are just and right. But it can be based upon Love. Blush. Nonviolence is how the civil right movement helps us to connect disruptive and militant political action with universal values of love.

Love as Politics

“Our white brothers must be made to understand that nonviolence is a weapon fabricated of love. It is a sword that heals. Our nonviolent direct action program has as its object not the creation of tensions, but the surfacing of tensions already present.”[2]

Love is a potent weapon. King states repeatedly that love does not mean the feeling we associate with friendship or romance and it certainly does not mean liking your enemy. The love that motivated the movement was grand redemptive love. Love was “agape” from the Greek. “Agape is understanding, redemptive, creative, good will to all men based on the mutual interests that derive from the interrelatedness of all people.” [3]

Love, by Kings definition, approaches the best understandings of “solidarity”— enlightened self-interest based on mutuality and interconnectedness. In King’s view, truly: “An injury to one is an injury to all.”

Gandhi’s innovation infused politics with love through the concept of satyagraha. Satyagraha is love-force or truth-force which the American movement revised into soul-force. While this big love is as difficult to grasp in its ultimate form as are other ideals, such as freedom or equality, we can glimpse love embodied in the civil rights movement.

Christ’s directive to “love your enemy” gathered new meaning as soul-force. The civil rights movement gave love to its enemies in the form of non-violent force: sit-ins, occupations, marches, strikes, picket-lines, boycotts. It is love because it is non-violence in the service of freedom and democracy; it is love because it targets the institutional structure of oppression,  not the person; it is love because it recognizes we are all —all— trapped and diminished by the system; it is love because it dreams redemption as inclusive community. Love is a dangerous and demanding taskmaster.

I realize that this approach will mean suffering and sacrifice. It may mean going to jail…. it may even mean physical death. But if physical death is the price that a man must pay to free his children and his white brethren from a permanent death of the spirit, than nothing could be more redemptive. This is the type of soul-force that I am convinced will triumph over the physical force of the oppressor.[4]

Speaking truth to power — without truth-force—has been a pitiful failure. Instead speak truth to power in the language of direct mass action and dedication to the difficult work of organizing. But, how can we endure the years of struggle it takes to give force to truth? King’s example: find something great and grand to give us purpose and confidence.

All King quotes and citation are from, A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King. ed James M. Washington

[1] Letter from a Birmingham Jail. 291-2.

[2]Playboy Interview: Martin Luther King, 349-350. See also p. 526.

[3] Love, Law and Civil Disobedience,46-47. See also 16-20, 256, 335

[4] Rising Tide of Racial Consciousness, 149

Third in a series of Posts on MLK. 

Confidence and Purpose or Fear and Fatalism?




“We shall overcome because the arc of a moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

We’re going to win our freedom because both the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of the almighty God are embodied in our echoing demands.”[1]

Fear and fatalism are two of our greatest enemies. Denial and distraction are not far behind. It is hard to believe that age-old problems like race and war can be surmounted or the catastrophes of climate change avoided. Without a rhetorical strategy that can promote purpose and confidence, fear and fatalism will weaken our efforts.

King and the civil movement of the American South found their answer in the history of Africans in America and the spirit of black christianity.

There has been a persistent strain within all religious traditions that has embraced ideals of justice in the face of oppression. King’s God became the “God of Justice.” In America this “social gospel” has deep roots back to our national beginnings when the first revolutionaries proclaimed “Resistance to Tyrants is Obedience to God.” In the hands of African-Americans, Christianity became a practical theology of liberation. The Black church provided the resources and organization needed to launch the movement.

Despite his unequivocal devotion to the Christian God, King suggested that people of other faiths and non-believers can still sense, “Some power in the universe that works for Justice.”

I am quite aware of the fact that there are persons who believe firmly in nonviolence who do not believe in a personal God, but I think every person…believes somehow that the universe in some form is on the side of justice….There is something in the universe that unfolds for justice and so in Montgomery we felt somehow that as we struggled we had cosmic companionship.[2]

Now the fact that this new age is emerging reveals something basic about the universe. It tells us something about the core and heartbeat of the cosmos. It reminds us that the universe is on the side of justice. Its says to those who struggle for justice “You do not struggle alone but God struggles with you.”[3]

King’s God of Justice was not an apocalyptic power but a cosmic companion to those struggling in this world.

Faith alone was not enough because,“The battle is in our hands.”[4]

A voice out of Bethlehem two thousand years ago said that all men are equal. It said right would triumph. Jesus of Nazareth wrote no books; he owned no property to endow him with influence. He had no friends in the courts of the powerful. But he changed the course of mankind with only the poor and the despised. Naive and unsophisticated though we maybe, the poor and despised of the twentieth century will revolutionize this era. In our “arrogance, lawlessness and ingratitude,” we will fight for human justice, brotherhood, secure peace and abundance for all. When we have won these—in a spirit of unshakable nonviolence—then, in luminous splendor, the Christian era will truly begin.[5]

Inspired human efforts make revolution. And, the past points the way to the future.

(O)ur goal is freedom, and I believe we are going to get there because however much she strays away from it, the goal of American is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be as a people our destiny is tied up in the destiny of America. Before the Pilgrim Fathers landed at Plymouth, we we’re here. Before Jefferson etched across the pages of history, the majestic words of the Declaration of Independence, we were here….For more than two centuries our forebears labored here without wages. They made cotton king, and they built the homes of their masters in the midst of the most humiliating and oppressive conditions. And yet out of a bottomless vitality they continued to grow and develop. If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery couldn’t stop us, the opposition that we now face will surely fail.[6]

The history of the last revolution and all the reform movements that came before are raw material for our own story.  Perhaps it is our own revolutionary tradition that explains why, after all, we are still here.

Create whatever history or heritage we will, we should not fool ourselves — fear, fatalism, cynicism, denial, distraction — these are the real political problems we face. We must bring the grand narratives of history, religion, spirituality and the nature into play or they will be played against us.

Surely the earth itself is protesting against the endless drive for the maximum possible profits — should we not find cosmic companionship in that?

For King, deep purpose was not solely in the path behind but also in the path ahead: the beloved community.

All quotes from, A Testament of Hope [1] Remaining Awake through a Great Revolution, 277, see also 111, 252, 301. [2] The Power of Non-violence 13-14. [3] Facing the Challenge of a New Age, 141. [4] Our God is Marching On, 229. [5] A Testament of Hope, 327. [6] Remaining Awake through A Great Revolution 277. also see, 111, 301.

Fourth in a series of posts on MLK.

The Beloved Community

images beloved

“But the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community.”[1]

The beloved community may seem a distant utopia but it was a rhetorical strategy of enormous and immediate use. The beloved community evoked a world based on community values of mutual aid and cooperation, the recognition of interdependence, shared responsibility and respect freely given.

This community would aim to achieve economic and social justice. Big love and non-violence would be the means to address conflict. The political appeal of the civil rights movement was greatly magnified by adopting rhetorical strategies that prefigured the wanted world. Unending criticism, even resistance and opposition to war, racism or the corporate power will only get us so far. We can look at the thousands of experiments in community building — in Detroit and around the country — to measure our progress toward the beloved community.

Let us learn this: movement building requires positive affirmations of the good life.

In human imagination, the greatest good is usually expressed in symbol or in narrative, not in critical discourse. King emphasized universal values and articulated the lofty aspirations of the beloved community because community is the social form through which shared understandings and identities take on tangible life as human activity. It is hard to even imagine — let alone build — a movement not based on a positive vision of community.

We need prefigurative politics that can give us a glimpse of a better world and we need to see that better world embodied, at least occasionally, even if partially, in the movement itself.

[E]nds are not cut off from means, because the means represent the ideal in the making, and the end in process…the means represent the seed and the end represents the tree.….[M]eans and ends must cohere because the end is preexistent in the means.[2]

Our attempts to make means and ends cohere is a difficult and demanding political practice, but practice we must if we aspire to infuse social movements with prefigurative politics. It was that fusion that gave the last revolution its spiritual appeal and political power.

Only such a movement can appeal to the whole person and to all the people.

All citations are from, A Testament of Hope 

[1] Facing the Challenge of A New Age, 140.

[2] A Christmas Sermon on Peace, 255. See also 45.
Fifth is a series of  ten posts on MLK.




A Revolution of Values

“Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal opposition to poverty, racism and militarism.”[1]

King was perhaps the last American leader that could calmly and openly discuss revolution in a way that was convincing to millions of Americans and millions more around the world.

How did he do that? What was the meaning of the revolution King proposed?

King envisioned a revolution of values — of spirit and soul — but also a freedom revolution that would destroy the institutionalized structures of oppression.  This revolution took shape in current social movements but was also deeply rooted in the American past. King embraced the revolution in revolutionary strategy: nonviolent force could now replace violence because it was morally and strategically superior. His revolutionary vision took aim at economic exploitation and empire because those power structures stunted every other struggle and were the most intractable obstacles to creating a better world.

Non-violence led King to discover that the revolution was in the minds of the people. He wrote,

“As long as the mind is enslaved the body can never be free.”[2]

Hearts and minds became the King’s battlefield and so he advocated a revolution of values that would create a “people-oriented” rather than a “thing-oriented” world.[3]

[I]n order to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values….When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”[4]

King assumed that changes in consciousness, in values, in culture were the real revolution and the most important kind of political change. This view has the decisive strategic advantage of making the struggle for social transformation possible here and now — not in some imaginary future when a “revolutionary situation” occurs or when “objective conditions” permits.

Since King made the people — our ideas, participation, activism, consciousness, and courage — the primary strategic consideration, he found that all the raw materials and resources necessary for revolution already exist.  Even if unrealized and unfulfilled.

“Our challenge,” King said, “is to organize the power we already have in our midst.”[5]

Word. If there ever was one.


[1] Where Do We Go From Here?, 632

[2] Where Do We Go From Here? 582

[3]A Time to Break Silence, 240

[4] A Time to Break Silence, 240

[5] A Testament of Hope, 319
valle forge Sixth is a series of ten posts on MLK.

An American Revolution

And I knew that as they were sitting in, they were really standing up for the best in the American dream. And taking the whole nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the Founding Fathers in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.[1]

King’s historical memory found the roots of revolution in the best of American political traditions. The student led sit-in movement renewed the civil rights struggle and launched the student movement. Reflecting on that King said,

Thus was born—particularly in the young generation—a spirit of dissent that ranged from superficial disavowal of the old values to total commitment to wholesale, drastic and immediate social reform. Yet all of it was dissent….This dissent is America’s hope. It shines in the long tradition of American ideals that began with the courageous minutemen in New England, that continued in the abolitionist movement, that reemerged in the populist revolt and decades later, that burst forth to elect FDR and JFK.

Today’s dissenters tell the complacent majority that the time has come when further evasion of social responsibility in a turbulent world will court disaster and death. America has not yet changed cause so many think it need not change, but that is the illusion of the damned. America must change because twenty-three million black citizens will no longer live supinely in a wretched past. They have left the valley of despair; they have found strength in struggle; and whether they live or die, they shall never crawl or retreat again. Joined by white allies, they will shake the prison walls until they fall. America must change.[2]

This is a powerful revolutionary vision; this resonates with struggles launched by Occupy, Ferguson, the Fight for 15, and Idle No More.  It also resonates with the illusions that avoid confronting the environmental crisis.

King’s revolutionary vision drew power by fusing radical dissent with our historical roots. Deep history allows for a playful and productive relationship between change and continuity. Great changes need occur but change can be understood as keeping true to the original promise of the American revolution.

Essential to making this historical bridge to the revolutionary past compelling was King’s insistence that American traditions were a sacred promise sworn but as yet unfulfilled.

For in a real sense, America is essential a dream, a dream yet unfulfilled. It is a dream of a land where men of all races, of all nationalities and all creeds can live together as brothers. The substance of the dream is expressed in these sublime words, lifted to cosmic proportions:” We hold these truths to self-evident that all men are created equal that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ This is the dream.”[3]

King yearned for the day that the America could exert real leadership—leadership by example.   King urgently insisted that revolution was achievable in this world and in our time. That however would take a revolution of values and yes, it will mean working long and hard with “bruised hands.” In Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? King wrote:

America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing to prevent us from paying adequate wages to schoolteachers, social workers and other servants of the public to insure that we have the best available personnel in these positions which are charged with the responsibility of guiding our future generations. There is nothing but a lack of social vision to prevent us from paying an adequate wage to every American citizen whether he be a hospital worker, laundry worker, maid or day laborer. There is nothing except shortsightedness to prevent us from guaranteeing an annual minimum—and livable—income for every American family.

There is nothing, except a tragic death wish to prevent us from reordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep us from remolding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood.[4]

By embedding the social movements into the promises and ideals drawn from the American past King was able to teach revolution as affirmation not repudiation, as constructive not destructive, as something real — right here, right now.

The real America is still being brought into being by the social movements. Here is a revolution that recalls the best in the American tradition. A revolution that already has a foothold in the hearts and minds of everyday Americans. This is a revolution we can make.  This is a revolution we can win.

All citations are from, A Testament of Hope. [1] I See the Promised Land 286. See also 165, 302. [2] A Testament of Hope, 327-328 [3] The American Dream, 208. See also 89, 105 [4] Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community, 631. See also 526.


units of power mlk copy

Seventh in a series of  ten posts on MLK.

The Revolution in Revolutionary Strategy

“The way of acquiescence leads to moral and spiritual suicide. The way of violence leads to bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers. But, the way of nonviolence leads to redemption and the creation of the beloved community.”[1]

King succeeded in creating a popular revolutionary vision — where so many others failed — because he was awake to the revolution in revolutionary practice.

For King this came from the fusion of Christian love and Gandhian non-violent struggle. For the southern civil rights movement, “Nonviolent resistance had emerged as the technique of the movement, while love stood as the regulating ideal.”[2]

King considered nonviolence a powerful, just and superior strategy. Almost all activists in the movement, including King, accepted armed self-defense against terrorist attacks. But, as necessary tactic, not as movement-building strategy.

Non-violent struggle transforms people and their relationships with each other, and it transforms individual and group consciousness as only difficult experience can. Organizing projects that win lasting concessions, rebuilds communities, or brings new leaders into play disrupt existing power relations far more effectively that violence.

Only nonviolence has a long and documentable record of success as strategy for recent US social movements. The urban rebellions of the 60s and 70s were historically important and todays rebellions are important too, but the evidence of their lasting economic benefit or movement building capacity is thin, unless considered as one part of the larger  struggle. Piven and Cloward’s classic Poor Peoples Movements comes closest to presenting not just argument but evidence.

Perhaps the greatest example was the powerful impact urban rebellions had on the already emerging resistance movement of black soldiers and veterans of the Vietnam Era.

Rioting is an understandable reaction to extreme economic exploitation and the escalating violence surging out of the many wings of the penal system. The violence in Ferguson and Baltimore involved a very small percentage of protestors.  If anything the demonstrators showed remarkable restraint.

Absent clear statements or demands by those involved in riots we are left to assume that this was either a desperate symbolic attempt to highlight the issues or collective self-defense. Even if we stretch the almost universally accepted right to self-defense to include community defense, this approach is still primarily defensive and episodic.

Does rioting open up opportunities for others to leverage reform? It seem likely but, corporate media frenzy aside, it is difficult to untangle the effect of riots from the general effect of other disruptive if non-violent protest.

And seemingly spontaneous riots are a far cry from armed struggle.  King argued:

[N]o internal revolution has every succeeded in overthrowing a government by violence unless the government had already lost the allegiance and effective control of its armed forces. Anyone in his right mind knows that this will not happen in the US. In a violent racial situation, the power structure has the local police, the state troopers, the National Guard and finally the army to call on—all of which are predominantly white. Furthermore, few if any violent revolutions have been successful unless the violent minority had the sympathy and support of the nonresistant majority.[3]

If there is a coherent strategy about how organized violence is going to lead to social transformation in our time — to the end of mass incarceration, the so-called war on drugs, the militarization of police forces, extra-judicial killings and discriminatory policing — I have yet to hear or read of it.

Nonviolence better fits the poly-centered social movements we actually have today by limiting the reestablishment of gendered, sexual, racial, ageist and military hierarchies that violent revolutions often replicate.

From this point of view, it is those that go beyond understanding riots to advocating violence as a solution that are the conservatives—using the outmoded ways of war and empire—heedless to the dangers that the culture of war contains. Heedless to the fact that fantasies of “redemptive violence” or “regeneration through violence” returns to the repressed evils of frontier and empire.

Violence is the master’s tactic.

Non-violence on the other hand is prefigurative. It is a political practice that calls to consciousness our connections with all people and to live lives of social and political engagement. And, nonviolence produces coherent strategy and practice.

Yet, King was “no doctrinaire pacifist.”[4]

I could imagine nothing more impractical and disastrous than for any of us…to precipitate a violent confrontation in Mississippi. We had neither the resources nor the techniques to win.… Many Mississippi whites, from the government on down, would enjoy nothing more than for us to turn to violence in order to use this as an excuse to wipe out scores of Negroes in and out of the march….The debate over the question of self-defense was unnecessary since few people suggested that Negroes should not defend themselves as individuals when attached. The question was not whether one should use his gun when his home was attacked, but whether it was tactically wise to use a gun while participating in an organized demonstration. If they lowered the banner of nonviolence, I said, Mississippi injustice would not be exposed and the more issues would be obscured.[5]

Once violence is used or advocated the tactic itself becomes the all-consuming issue and it often produces the very fear and demoralization we struggle to overcome. Violence fails because it plays to our opponents strength. And, it’s an overwhelming position of strength. Realizing this, even advocates for violence sooner or later cycle around to tragic and futile ideas of “revolutionary suicide.” Or like Malcolm X, they recognize the limits. At the second rally of the OAAU Malcolm X said:

[I]f you and I don’t use the ballot and get it, we’re going to be forced to use the bullet.  And if you don’t want to use the bullet. I know you don’t want to use the bullet. So let us try the ballot….And the only way we can try the ballot is to organize and put on a campaign that will create a new climate.[6]


Had Malcolm X lived perhaps he would have created an actual strategy to fill out his provocative call: “by any means necessary.” But, all his known preparations were political: meeting with heads of state in Africa and organizing in the movement and electoral arenas.

Not so very different in the end, both King and Malcolm engaged the existing political reality on the ground.  King accepted what he did not support.  He dug down to the deep causes of violence to craft a strategic approach that made the best of what he saw as a bad situation.

A righteous man has no alternative but to resist such an evil system. If he does not have the courage to resist nonviolently, then he runs the risk of a violent emotional explosion. As much as I deplore violence, there is one evil that is worse than violence, and that’s cowardice. It is still my basic article of faith that social justice can be achieved and democracy advanced only to the degree that there is firm adherence to nonviolent action and resistance in pursuit of social justice. But America will be faced with the ever-present threat of violence, rioting and senseless crime as long as Negroes by the hundreds of thousands…remain smothered by poverty in the midst of an affluent society; as long as Negroes see their freedom endlessly delayed and diminished by the head winds of tokenism and small handouts from the white power structure. No nation can suffer any greater tragedy than to cause millions of its citizens to feel that they have no stake in their own society.[7]

While the US has a long history of terror and violence against african-americans, native people, workers and many others, the relatively recent consciousness — thanks to Ferguson and blacklivesmatter — that the  vast militarized penal system is a primary form of social control has given everyone desiring social change a stake — a stake in a new system. The question: how to get there.

King repeatedly pointed out that violent action will never succeed in attracting the millions of people it takes to create social change. Yet, the social causes of desperate action must be revealed, articulated and addressed.

Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention….constructive social change will bring certain tranquility; evasions will merely encourage turmoil. Negroes hold only one key to the double lock of peaceful change. The other is in the hands of the white community.[8]

By embracing Ghandi’s innovation King avoided the mistake of so many would-be revolutionaries, who — by focusing too narrowly on the conventional politics of violence or their preconceived expectations — missed the actual revolution that was occurring right in front of them.

All citations are from, A Testament of Hope unless otherwise noted.

[1] My Trip to The Land of Gandhi, 25

[2] Stride Toward Freedom, 447

[3] Where Do We Go From Here? (SCLS presidential address) 249.

[4] Pilgrimage to Nonviolence, 39

[5] Where Do We Go From Here? 571 See also 589-92, 365.

[6] “The Second Rally of the OAAU” p89 By Any Means Necessary

[7] Playboy interview: Martin Luther King Jr. 360

[8] Where Do We Go From Here?, 568

disobeying 01Eight in a series of ten posts on MLK. 

Corporate Power and Empire

[T]he Black revolution is much more than a struggle for the rights of Negroes. It is forcing America to face all its interrelated flaws—racism, poverty, militarism, and materialism. It is exposing evils that are rooted deeply in the whole structure of our society. It reveals systemic rather than superficial flaws and suggest that radical reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced.[1]

King repeatedly identified the “giant triplets:” racism, materialism/exploitation/poverty and militarism. This post suggests a slight revision of two of the triplets I believe still in keeping with King’s vision.

The Corporate Power is immense economic wealth merged with unrivaled political might. Corporations govern.  The Corporate Power is the only form of capitalism worth taking about except that we do need a useful historical understanding of the long-gone free market and how earlier forms of capitalism were based on slavery, class exploitation and many other forms of conquest and domination.  But, there is no system in existence today — save the Corporate Power — responsible for the materialism/exploitation/poverty that King understood as racism’s “kin.”

US Militarism is not simply a body of ideas, or a culture of war, or policy decisions, or economic dominance, although it is at least all four. Militarism in our time is a structure — hard and fast. US elites control a global fortress of approximately 800 military bases. A system such as this —created by any other country, in any other historical period — would have but one name: Empire. And we can see — in how and where this Empire fights wars — an institutionalized racism equaled only by the vast militarized penal system that has finally gotten our attention by the uprisings, protests and disruptions of the new civil rights movement.

Racism, The Corporate Power and Empire — now that’s one mean-spirited brood of triplets.  But, back to our story of King and the Civil Rights Movement.

War, What is it good for? 

After Selma and the passage of the Voting Rights Act the movement turned to ever more challenging tasks but every attempt to root our racism became entangled with other great problems: war and economic exploitation.

King became one of America’s most powerful voices against war. In 1967 his address at Riverside Church in New York City, “A Time to Break the Silence” was one of the most visionary yet effective speeches made on any topic in the 20th century.

“Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal opposition to poverty, racism and militarism.”[2]

King’s entire moral, political and intellectual life was inseparable from his opposition to war and empire. His dissent, and those of other Civil Rights and Black Power leaders of the day, broadened the anti-war movement and had a decisive impact on African-American solders and veterans who played important roles in resistance to the Vietnam War.

Part of King’s global appeal was his understanding the so many of the problems of Latin America, Africa and Asia were the result of western colonialism and the continued exploitation by corporate investment.

“Americans in particular must help their nation repent of her modern economic imperialism.”[3]

King took a lot of heat from many in the Civil Rights movement for his anti-war and anti-imperialism but would not retreat.  He knew then what has become increasingly obvious:

[T]hat America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.

And do not the wars continue endlessly with the same results?

The Political Economy of The Civil Rights Movement

After 1965 or so King became the truest of  labor leaders, one that advocated for the entire working class, not just his members. And, it can never be forgotten that he was assassinated while supporting a strike of sanitation workers.

What is stunning by today’s standards is the sweeping nature of King’s plans, vision and proposals. He proposed programs for poor people drawn on the grand scale of the Marshall Plan or the GI Bill.

King was killed before the movement could occupy Washington DC with a multi-ethnic encampment called the Poor Peoples March. The Poor Peoples march was the first massive embodiment of how fighting classism had to be part of fighting racism — about how organizing around the shared economic interests of the working class — black, white, native, asian and latino was an essential direction for future movement building.

King was gone but his vision leads us to challange corporate power.

And one day we must ask the question, “ Why are there forty million poor people in America?” And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about the broader distribution of wealth….You begin to ask the question, “Who owns the oil?”. You begin to ask the question, “Who owns the iron ore?” You begin to ask the question, Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that is two-thirds water?”[4]

Who owns America? Now we know it’s the 1%. But King dug deeper still.

All men are interdependent. Every nation is an heir of a vast treasury of ideas and labor to which both the living and the dead of all nations have contributed. Whether we realize it or not, each of us lives eternally “in the red.” We are everlasting debtors to known and unknown men and women.[5]

King tried to subvert the common notions of property rights and profit motives that are the cultural and economic foundations of corporate power. The earth — our first and truest commonwealth — should not become the private property of a few. And, who does the past belong to?  It is the labor of human beings — “living and dead,” “known and unknown” that is also commonwealth — a wealth we all should protect and spend wisely.

We must create full employment or we must create incomes….[W]e need to be concerned that the potential of the individual is not wasted. New forms of work that enhance the social good will have to be devised for those for whom traditional jobs are not available. In 1879 Henry George anticipated this state of affairs when he wrote, in Progress and Poverty: “The fact is that the work which improves the condition of mankind, the work which extends knowledge and increases power and enriches literature, and elevates thought, is not done to secure a living. It is not the work of slaves, driven to their task, either by the lash of a master or by animal necessities. It is the work of men who perform it for their own sake, and not that they may get more to eat or drink, or wear, or display. In a state of society were want is abolished, work of this sort could be enormously increased.”[6]

Kings anti-poverty strategy recognized that the relationship between work and reward, and between work and economic necessity, had already been altered.  Mass production had abolished true scarcity.  The corporations themselves had already made political power  — not hard work — the path to wealth.

This is a boon to humanity that  the corporations hoard for their class alone.  Do we have the courage and ability to take it for all of us?

If the billionaires and corporations can lay claim to almost all of the productivity gains of the last half century it is because they have the political power to separate work from reward — but only in their favor. If they can impose austerity upon us while holding trillions of dollars out of circulation — then austerity and poverty is a matter of political power and policy not economic necessity. King saw that, finally free from economic necessity, guaranteed jobs or guaranteed income was an achievable, if monumental, political project.

The Threshold

Not only did King point the way toward the end of wage-slavery but his political and intellectual journey proves that race as a category of analysis and action was not just central to politics but in all respects universal and revolutionary in scope and consequences.  As the movement approached the threshold of the “radical reconstruction of society itself,” the struggles over race, class, and empire began to fuse into a broad revolutionary surge that included all — but was greater than the sum of its parts. 

And, King knew full well that the movement had crossed beyond the liberal consensus and into revolutionary territory.

Exactly one hundred yeas after Abraham Lincoln wrote the Emancipation Proclamation for them, Negroes wrote their own document of freedom in their own way. In 1963, the civil rights moment coalesced around a technique for social change, nonviolent direct action. It elevated jobs and other economic issues to the summit, were earlier it had placed discrimination and suffrage. It thereby forged episodic social protest into the hammer of social revolution.[7]

As we know, that stage of the revolution failed. King, the civil rights movement and other social movements of the day failed to win a lasting peace, let alone transform the empire into a democratic republic. They, and all the movements since, have failed to achieve a decent measure of economic justice let along transform corporate power into economic democracy.

Yet, there is something vitally important to be learned from these failures.  Organize!

All citations are from A Testament of Hope [1] A Testament of Hope, 315. [2] A time to Break the Silence. 242. [3] The Trumpet of Conscience, 652 [4] Where Do We Go From Here? (SCLC Presidential Address) 250 [5] Where Do We Go From Here? 626 [6] Where Do we Go From Here? 615-616. See Also “Face to Face” Television News Interview 409. [7]Hammer On Civil Rights, 169.

weNinth in a series of  ten posts on MLK.

Where Do We Go From Here?

“Our most powerful nonviolent weapon is, as would be expected, also our most demanding, that is organization.  To produce change people must be organized to work together in units of power”[1]

Here is a challenge largely unanswered. The failure of the last revolution remains as our failure — the failure to organize.  For King, the long road to revolution calls for organization.

Yet in candor and self-criticism it is necessary to acknowledge that the torturous job of organizing solidly and simultaneously in thousands of places was not a feature of our work. This is as true for the older civil rights organization as for the new ones. The older organizations have only acquired a mass base recently, and they still retain the flabby structures and policies that a pressureless situation made possible.

Many civil rights organizations were born as specialists in agitation and dramatic projects; they attracted massive sympathy and support; but they did not assemble and unify the support for new stages of struggle. The effect on their allies reflected their basic practices. Support waxed and waned, and people became conditioned to action in crisis but inaction from day to day. We unconsciously patterned a crisis policy and program, and summoned support not for daily commitment but for explosive events alone.

Recognizing that no army can mobilize and demobilize and remain a fighting unit, we will have to build far-flung workmanlike and experienced organizations in the future if the legislation we created and the agreements we forge are to be ably and zealously superintended…..We shall have to have people tied together in a long-term relationship instead of evanescent enthusiasts who lose their experience, spirit and unity because they have no mechanism that directs them to new tasks.[2]

What are our long-term relationships?  What are our units of power?

To produce change, people must be organized to work together in units of power. These units might be political, as in the case of voters’ leagues and political parties; they may be economic units such as groups of tenants who join forces to form a tenant union or to organize a rent strike; or they may be laboring units of persons who are seeking employment and wage increases.[3]

When people come together to engage in sustained struggles over the exercise of power they are building “units of power. ”

Yet, King has helped us to identify one of the major weakness that persists inside the many movements for social change. Where are our worker-like “units of power”? Some leading unions are hard at work and a few social movement groups move beyond protest. But mostly we love to demonstrate and march and respond to crisis, or to post opinion on social media, but shy away from the hard work of organizing and/or rebuilding our communities and workplaces through bottom-up projects to reclaim our food, water, work, power and freedom.

For starters, that means talking with the people that live or work next to us about the issues that directly touch our daily lives. It is the not-so-simple act of talking with people about positive programs, as well as problems, that makes organizing a revolutionary practice.

Nonviolence is essentially a positive concept….On the one hand nonviolence requires noncooperation with evil; on the other hand it requires cooperation with the constructive forces of good. Without this constructive aspect noncooperation ends where it begins. Therefore the Negro must get to work on a program with a broad range of positive goals.[4]

We know what we are against but what are we for?

Protest is important but protest alone is not enough. When we take comfort in kindred spirits too often we forfeit power. Where is the power in protest? Where is the power in love or truth? One place to find that power is in organization.

The practical question then becomes: how do we conduct organizing projects that helps people act on the knowledge that “we the people,” and “we the planet,” — in all our wild diversity and richness — are more important than profit motives, corporate property rights and the war machine.

A lot of great work is already underway. However:

[N]onviolence will be effective, but not until it has achieved the massive dimensions, the disciplined planning, and the intense commitment of a sustained, direct-action movement of civil disobedience on the national scale.[5]

It will take political skill, determination, vision and resources to conduct experiments until we rediscover how to build massive social movements and rebuild shattered communities. Occupy, Ferguson, Idle No More, #BlackLivesMatter, Detroit, the struggles of low wage and contingent workers, and the many-faceted efforts to protect the earth — all these and many more experiments need to be conducted. In time we may see a contemporary version of what King saw:

We are all connected with each other and with nature.

All citations are from, A Testament of Hope.

[1] Nonviolence, The Only Road to Freedom, 60. check this

[2] Where Do We Go From Here, 612-613

[3] Nonviolence, The Only Road to Freedom, 60.

[4] Stride Toward Freedom, 488

[5] The Trumpet of Conscience, 650


Tenth and final post on MLK.



Weaving Our Garment of Destiny

All life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny…We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality.[1]

Interrelation, interdependence, cooperation, synergy, intersectionality and mutuality are not just moral concepts but the beginning of strategy — a strategy based on the kind of values that one day must prevail — or disaster.

Today our “garment of destiny” is woven of threads far more multicolored than in King’s day. The innumerable consequences of the women’s movement, the many responses to the environment crisis, the searching struggles for sexual and gender alternatives and identities, and the decades old struggles against war and racism — all these and many more — have produced a richly variegated movement. We have created a new alternative American public. Our dizzying diversity matches our potential reach and potential power.

King’s method of raising consciousness — finding the connections and interrelations between issues, movements and people — remains a vital vantage point. Simultaneously a civil rights leader, a labor leader and anti-war leader, King was one of the few people with the depth, range of experience, strategy and street cred to speak for “we the people.”

The vast array of movement activities, organizations and ideas is our garment of destiny. Our strategies should proceed from an appreciation of the basic connections between us all and seek out alliances and synergies.

As King suggested, strategies for social change should move toward a “both/and,” rather than an “either/or” approach — toward experimentation, inclusion, learning and diversity and away from polemic, moralistic politics and ideological correctness.

To weave our “garment of destiny,” we need to master the difficult art of “calling in.” Practice calling people in to organizing projects and community activities that confront and address the institutionalized structures of power. “Calling people out” may have its place from time to time. But, denunciation as political practice fortifies borders, reproduces exclusion, focuses on the negative, and imagines that all the deeply internalized thoughts we have about dominion — in all its forms — are simply in our heads.

The movement culture of “calling out” actually disarms us, divides us and minimized the task at hand. Dominion shapes our thinking so powerfully because hierarchical standards are reproduced and displayed daily by the culture of empire, racism and corporate power. Dominion and the blindspots, bribes, and privileges that are its instruments, are nearly impossible to be aware of, or resist, outside of a vigorous and truly massive social movement — a moment that can only be built by millions of deeply flawed, actually existing human beings.

To realize our “inescapable network of mutuality” will require the political skill to find unity without uniformity — coordination and unity in action — without uniformity in ideas, identities or ideologies. Networks thrive at the intersection.

Go on down to the crossroads. That’s the place to find a new America.


  1. A Christmas Sermon on Peace, 254. See also 122. A Testament of Hope