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After King’s assassination, radical pacifists debated his contribution

Did Martin Luther King really do 'more harm to the progress of non-violence than any single person connected with it'?

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Martin Luther King, Jr, 8 June 1964. Photo: Walter Albertin [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.

In the aftermath of the assassination of US civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr on 4 April 1968, Peace News published moving tributes from Devi Prasad (‘His name will be remembered with Gandhi’s’) and PN co-editor Nigel Young (‘Notes on an Assassination’) among others. Then PN decided to also publish a fierce attack on King by US anarcho-pacifist Robert Calese. This provoked sharp disagreement from Jim Peck, which Ken Knudson disagreed with in turn, two weeks later. We’re reprinting these pieces as they appeared in 1968 because the questions these three radical nonviolentists debated seem still to be alive today.

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Unabashed Uncle Tom?
by Robert Calese

While wading through the sea of maudlin ink and lugubrious nausea spewed out in the wake of Martin Luther King’s murder, it might be wise, as pacifists, to remind ourselves that King was by no means an outstanding figure in the field of non-violence. He was merely famous. So before we get completely carried away and try to re-rename Idlewild Airport, let’s do some objective, albeit uncomfortable, thinking.

Non-violence for King was less a way of life than a misnomer: whenever the going got a bit too rough he invariably screamed for Federal troops for protection – and half the time he wanted them used against the protesters. This fact of his radical pacifism explains the presence of a remarkable revolutionary contingent at his funeral: the Vice-President, Senators, Congressmen, Governors, and Mayors. These people know whose side they’re on. No millionaires showed up when AJ Muste died. Nor did they close down New York City, including the stock market, when Malcolm X was killed.

“Either King didn’t know what nonviolence entails, which is inexcusable, or he knew but didn’t say, which is unforgivable”

Non-violence, however, is infinitely more radical than anything Malcolm ever came up with, even though you never heard that from King. As a minimal programme non-violence means that we should turn vegetarian and overthrow the Government: disband the Army and Navy: make bonfires of all police clubs: tear down prisons, zoos, and slaughterhouses: burn all legal documents, police records, and land deeds: and raze every official Federal, State and municipal building from the White House to the dog-pound.

That’s just a start. By rights the Establishment should have had to make a saint out of Malcolm X as a bulwark against us. But either King didn’t know what non-violence entails, which is inexcusable, or he knew but didn’t say, which is unforgivable.

Emasculation

I would go further and submit that he probably did more harm to the progress of non-violence than any single person ever connected with it. When the integration movement was in its heyday five years ago King was consistently silent on the fact that non-violence was a philosophy of life, not a superficial gimmick to be exploited as a grandstand tactic. Then, having allowed himself to become the personification of an emasculated non-violence, he turned into an unabashed Uncle Tom. I repeat, an unabashed Uncle Tom. [An ‘Uncle Tom’ is ‘a person who betrays their own group by participating in its oppression, whether or not they do so willingly’ – Wikipedia, 2018]

This discredited the idea of non-violence for all time in all black communities, and handed the nationalists an absolutely clear field. You couldn’t sell non-violence in Harlem now if you gave Green Stamps. And what’s worse, for the last five years there have been no connections whatever between white and black revolutionists. The key figure in bringing about this tragic situation was Martin Luther King.

Nevertheless there is now a movement afoot in radical peace circles to apotheosise Martin Luther King [turn him into a god – ed (2018)]. Evidently we are neither mature enough nor honest enough to keep going without worshipping idols. King is being nominated as the non-violent equivalent of Che Guevara. He was far more of a Lawrence Welk.*

This article first appeared in PN on 26 April 1968.
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‘Uncle Tom’ King?
by Jim Peck

As a non-violent actionist against racial injustice since 1947 and as a friend of Martin Luther King since the 1956 Montgomery bus boycott which he led, I must take issue strongly with the sarcastic piece (‘An Unabashed Uncle Tom?’) by Robert Calese in Peace News for April 26.

The man most responsible for non-violence taking hold on the American racial scene is King. CORE had been pioneering in this area since it was first organised in 1943 but its action proejcts, though successful, involved groups of less than 50 participants. The Montgomery bus boycott under King’s leadership was the very first non-violent action to attract mass participation. For an entire year, some 42,000 Montgomery blacks boycotted the city’s buses rather than be humiliated by segregated seating. The boycott proved successful.

“The man most responsible for nonviolence taking hold on the American racial scene is King”

The nation-wide publicity about Montgomery acquainted many newspaper readers for the first time with the words ‘non-violence’ and ‘passive resistance’. They became a part of the vocabulary used by the mass media and, rightfully, they became identified with the man who led the Montgomery bus boycott and was to lead the March on Washington in 1963, the Selma-Montgomery March in 1965, and the Mississippi March in 1966.

I participated in all three marches. On the eve of May 14, 1961, when I was beaten almost to death in Birmingham on the first Freedom Ride, King had supper with us in Atlanta and we talked at length. I admired him as a person of dignity and integrity. I feel that King – like AJ Muste – is irreplaceable: though, needless to say, we who believe in non-violence must resolve to continue the non-violent struggle for racial justice as we resolved after Muste’s death to continue the non-violent struggle for peace. Right now we are doing this by giving maximum support to the Poor People’s Campaign, the last project to be launched by King.

It is true, as Calese points out, that many big shot opportunists – including Richard Nixon, Republican presidential candidate – attended King’s funeral. But it was the same way with Gandhi. After he was dead, he was acclaimed almost universally – by leaders of the power-structure who found him abhorrent during his lifetime.

The following statement by Calese is simply a fantastic lie: ‘Non-violence for King was less a way of life than a misnomer: whenever the going got a bit rough he invariably screamed for Federal troops for protection – and half the time he wanted them used against the protesters.’

Finally, Calese characterises King as ‘an unabashed Uncle Tom’. The only other persons who have used this epithet against King are a few of the black racist, pro-violence extremists whom the press falsely described as ‘radicals’ but who actually are reactionaries. Racism is reactionary, regardless of whether it is white, black, or yellow. And violence is the technique of the power-structure in both the capitalist and Communist segments of the world.

This appeared on the letters page of Peace News on 10 May 1968.

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Black Power and Nonviolence
by Ken Knudson

I must agree with Jim Peck’s criticism (Letters, May 10) of Robert Calese for calling Dr Martin Luther King an ‘unabashed Uncle Tom’. I think there can be no doubt whatever that Dr King was indeed a most sincere and dedicated disciple of non-violence. Yet this doesn’t invalidate Calese’s remark that ‘you couldn’t sell non-violence in Harlem now if you gave Green Stamps’. Why is this? Why has non-violence become a dirty word to most blacks in America? This is the question that pacifists must grapple with if they are to become effective and make non-violence work.

Black Nationalists have been bemoaning the death of non-violence for years now: they say it just hasn’t worked. And from the evidence you might say they’re right. But is it non-violence that hasn’t worked or is it just that particular brand of non-violence, as personified by Dr King, which tries to pressure Governments into legislating brotherhood which has failed? I submit that it’s the latter.

I sincerely hope for the sake of the black man that non-violence per se has not failed. For if the black man thinks that he must resort to violence to obtain social justice, then it’s very likely that you will see a blood-bath which will dwarf even the Nazi genocide: the American white man is not going to stand idly by and watch ‘his’ cities burned to the ground. The blacks are hopelessly outnumbered and, what’s more, the whites have a monopoly on the means of violence. So if the blacks are ever going to gain social justice in America it had better be through non-violence.

“Nonviolence must strike at the very roots of racism: the capitalist state itself”

Jim Peck says in his letter that we should be ‘giving maximum support to the Poor People’s Campaign, the last project to be launched by King’. I couldn’t disagree more. The sponsors of this March on Washington are billing it as the ‘last chance for non-violence’. This is damn dangerous talk because, when it fails, the blacks will be ready for real violence – not just a few snipings and a bit of looting. I say ‘when it failed’ because it must: Rev Abernathy plans to camp out in Washington ‘until congress deals with racial poverty’: that should be about the time when shrimp learn how to whistle, as Khrushchev once put it.

In a front-page editorial in Peace News for May 10 you quote Time magazine as saying, ‘The main purpose of the campaign is to wrench the national conscience and prod Congress into granting aid to the 29 million American poor’. That’s a fine purpose but hasn’t this already been tried? Seven years ago Jim Peck himself made a Freedom Ride into the South and was beaten to a bloody pulp. As I remember it, his mangled face made nearly every paper in the States. Did this ‘wrench the national conscience and prod Congress’ into passing any meaningful legislation? If so, why all the rioting? The fact is that the US Congress can’t pass any meaningful Civil Rights legislation – because, first, the US is capitalist and, second, the US is racist. You don’t have to be a mathematician to add those two together and get racial injustice.

“Is it nonviolence that hasn’t worked or is it just that particular brand of nonviolence, as personified by Dr King, which tries to pressure governments into legislating brotherhood which has failed?”

The non-violence of Dr King made the country aware of racial injustice. It integrated a few buses and eating establishments. Even the dining hall at Danbury Federal Prison fell under the blow of this non-violence. (It was Jim Peace in fact who was largely responsible for this when he was a CO there during World War II. Jim is too modest when he says in his letter that he started fighting racial injustice in 1947.) I’m not belittling these gains. But if non-violence is to survive as an effective instrument against racial oppression, then it must be turned in to the realities of today. It must transcend the non-violence of Dr King and strike at the very roots of racism: the capitalist State itself. This I believe is what the Black Power movement is all about.

CORE started out in 1943 as a project of the pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation. Today it is one of the two leading advocates of Black Power. The other Black Power group – and the originator of the slogan – is SNCC, the Student Non-violent Co-ordinating Committee. So it’s clear that pacifists had a big hand in creating Black Power. As responsible ‘parents’ we should do what we can to influence this movement and hope that our creation doesn’t become a Frankenstein’s monster.

But how can this be done? The best way, I think, is as Marjorie Swann puts it – ‘I would say it is time that we stopped making our major emphasis the pressuring of the US Government’. She goes on to say, ‘it is also our duty as citizens and as human beings to begin doing things for ourselves.’ That is the key. And if pacifists don’t pick up and start moving in that direction, non-violence will be what the black ‘militants’ say it is: dead.

This appeared in Peace News on 24 May 1968.

* Lawrence Welk is the American equivalent to our own Victor Sylvester. – Eds. (original footnote, 1968). Lawrence Welk and Victor Silvester (not Sylvester) were bandleaders who presented long-running TV programmes featuring ballroom dance music. AJ Muste was a leading US radical, and its most prominent pacifist, for much of the 20th century. Malcolm X was a Black Nationalist who sharply criticised King’s commitment to nonviolence. ‘Green Stamps’ were given out in shops like points on loyalty cards; they could be traded for consumer goods from a catalogue.