The Black Freedom Movement: Progressing Revolutionary Thought

By Nandita Chaturvedi.

Revolutions against oppressive governments of the 20th and 21st century have taken on two distinct forms. The first is what one usually imagines when the word ‘revolution’ is uttered: a violent take-over of the state by a revolutionary vanguard, as was the case with the Russian and Cuban revolutions. The second is a transfer of power to a mass organization that follows a mass civil disobedience campaign, as was seen in the case of India. Irrespective of the form of the struggle, every revolution has relied upon support from the masses of people. The anticolonial movement in India saw the participation of every section of society, most markedly women and children. On the other hand, Fidel Castro’s takeover of the state could not have been successful if the masses of Cuban people did not support their campaign. 

Then, a question that must concern every revolutionary is: how do you move people, the oppressed, to revolutionary action and the building of a movement? The Marxist answer to this question has been that the material conditions themselves are sufficient to drive people to organization, and thus to action. Other aspects of society, such as culture, religion and the psychology of the masses are but superstructures that emerge from the mode of production. This implies that revolution will take place as a society reaches the advanced capitalist state, and an industrial proletariat, the revolutionary agent, is created. However, we now know that traditional Marxist theory is inadequate, since the failure of revolutionary movements in the most advanced capitalist countries, and their successes in agrarian economies. The revolutionary potential of the workers in Europe was compromised by colonialism, slavery and the invention of whiteness. Indeed, Lenin was aware of the need to build on Marx, as he theorized a revolution based on the unity of the peasantry and workers in Russia. In light of this, it becomes important for those seeking to change the world to undertake a study of the revolutionary movements that emerged from the darker world beyond Europe.

Grace Lee Boggs, speaking of her philosophic journey, said of Hegel,

Starting with this concept of humanity as a species striving to make the universal of freedom richer and more concrete, Hegel also emphasized that the goal would not be achieved immediately or in a linear way, like a shot out of a pistol, but only through what he called the labor, patience and suffering of the negative, constantly transcending or breaking free from ideas that were once liberating but have become shackles on our minds.”

Indeed, at every stage of history, old ideas must be broken from and modified to account for new Truths that have been discovered by the human experience. This is reflected in Diane Nash’s assertion that, “There is no greater invention of the twentieth century than nonviolence, because it allows us to fight warfare without violence.” Coming from a revolutionary forged in the intense battle of the black struggle, Diane Nash’s statement must be considered with utmost sincerity. In this article, we will attempt to look at some of the ways in which Martin Luther King Jr, and Howard Thurman can be thought of as progressing revolutionary theory.

Howard Thurman’s book Jesus and the Disinherited provides us with answers different from Marx, or even Lenin, to the questions of sparking revolutionary change. He addresses himself to the disinherited, to those who live with ‘their backs against the wall’. He points out that the central question facing the disinherited, in his case, the descendents of slaves in America, is what their attitude must be toward the rulers, ‘the controllers of political, social, and economic life’. Thurman says that the poor navigate through the world using three tactics; fear, deception and hatred. It is these three that help the poor exist and create in a world shaped by their oppressors without being crushed under physical, mental and emotional strain. However, these three forces in the lives of the oppressed are also the inheritance of oppression, and are shaped inescapably by the oppressors. Thurman looks at the life of Jesus as a leader of the Jews oppressed by the Roman empire, and as a model for the oppressed which transcends time.

He goes on to say that the only way the oppressed can build a movement for freedom is to break out of the tools of the rulers, fear, hatred and deception, and move to their anti-thesis, love. He shows us a different model of a revolutionary, one who strives to understand how these forces operate in the lives of the oppressed, and win their trust to find a way forward to an intelligent consciousness based on love. Thurman is telling us that a complete moral transformation of the people, through struggle, is what will create change. In doing so, he considers morality to be an active force in history.

Martin Luther King Jr himself explored the limitations of communist theory. He critiqued Marx on many occasions, saying in My Pilgrimage to Non-Violence,

Obviously this theory left out of account the numerous and significant complexities—political, economic, moral, religious, and psychological—which played a vital role in shaping the constellation of institutions and ideas known today as Western civilization. Moreover, it was dated in the sense that the capitalism Marx wrote about bore only a partial resemblance to the capitalism we know in this country today.

In Where Do We Go From Here he says,

Yes, I read Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital a long time ago, and I saw that maybe Marx didn’t follow Hegel enough. He took his dialectics, but he left out his idealism and his spiritualism.

King knew that ideas and morality play an unmatched role in building consciousness for revolutionary change. He attempted to understand and transform people into new human beings through his work as a preacher and leader of the black freedom movement. Indeed, this is what Gandhi strove to do in India. As W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in a review of Gandhi’s autobiography,

He studied Man. He travelled all over India and travelled in the dirty, crowded third-class so as to meet and know the masses. Probably no modern leader ever had so complete and intimate contact with and knowledge of the great mass of his fellows as Mohandas Gandhi.’”

The fact that both of these great leaders of movements that attempted to bring about nonviolent social change immersed themselves in the life-worlds of their people shows us something very important. It shows us that through studying the people, they discovered the progressive strategies and tactics that emerge out of the culture and life-worlds of people. They then channeled these to transform the oppressed beyond fear, deception and hatred, and to love. Their strategies for social change did not come from theory separate from the people, but from the very traditions of the people themselves. King used the idealism of Hegel to confirm and expand on what he knew already; the knowledge of his people, as is exemplified by the Negro spirituals and the blues. As James Lawson, one of the architects of the black freedom movement, asserts in many of his interviews, he did not learn non-violence from Gandhi’s philosophy. It was his mother who taught him non-violence, and non-violent thought was already part of his life from the black church, negro spirituals, and other aspects of the life of the black community. Gandhi merely elevated what he knew to the realm of political practice.

This study and engagement with the life worlds of the people can be seen in many of Martin Luther King Jr’s sermons, which deal with the personal life worlds of the people, and tie them to deeper questions that humanity faces. In The Drum Major Instinct, for example, he deals with the basic human desire for recognition and importance. He stresses the need for all of us to recognize this within ourselves, before condemning others who indulge in pride. He addresses the most private instincts of his congregation, brings them out into the open, and sheds light on them. To some, this sermon might seem unnecessarily detailed, and delving too much into the mundane life events of church-goers. He talks, for example of ‘joiners’, those people who join a multitude of groups for recognition and titles, or those who spend beyond their means to buy flashy cars. He talks about how advertisers can manipulate the drum major instinct to get you to buy things you don’t need. This is in fact, King engaging in a deep study and exchange with the people, pushing them away from angry, unthinking, spontaneous reaction to oppression, which can be manipulated with ease by the ruling classes, towards all-encompassing, aware, intelligent and conscious, love. 

Towards the end of the sermon, he moves to talking about this instinct as it manifests in the white poor, making them believe that they are superior to black workers because of the color of their skin. He talks about how this instinct is taken advantage of among white people, so they can, despite their poverty and misery, feel superior to black people. This is what sustains the racial system. He goes on to talk about the drum major instinct in the struggle between nations. This instinct has put us on the path to destruction and nuclear warfare, with America engaging in senseless wars. 

One might have expected King to condemn this instinct all together, and say that pride is altogether a bad tendency. Instead, he turns the argument on its head. He says that Jesus would say to his followers, do not give up this instinct, which can be positive when it is not perverted and distorted. Re-prioritizing, he says,

But I want you to be first in love. (Amen) I want you to be first in moral excellence. I want you to be first in generosity… And so Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. (Amen) That’s a new definition of greatness.

King, in this way, showed his people how to transform envy, jealousy and pride into love and service. He engaged with the most intimate of his people’s thoughts, taught them not to be ashamed, but to grow and strive for higher moral principles. He dealt with the people in all their complexity and contradiction, and showed them a way forward. This is, as Howard Thurman defined it, the task of the revolutionary.

This idea of revolutionary action is very different from the romantic notions that many young activists hold, who center theory and radicalism, rather than the people. But revolutions are not built in the abstract, and no revolution is sustainable unless the masses are willing and prepared to take it forward. King understood this, and was engaged intimately in the life worlds of the people, and strove to be an active force in shaping them. He understood that the internal spiritual and emotional world is as important in a person’s life as the external, material world. In taking responsibility for the people, he committed himself to understanding the effects of oppression and the reaction to oppression among the black poor. In doing so, he won their trust. He toiled to bring about their transformation, drawing on their progressive traditions, so that they were no longer defined by oppression and controlled by fear, hatred and deception, but could move towards a love that would bring about revolutionary change. He knew that this transformation would not be quick or easy, but would require both internal and political struggle. This practice can be seen in many of his other sermons, including Three Dimensions of a Complete Life and What is Your Life’s Blueprint. As Diane Nash said,

Another important element in being successful at eliminating segregation was changing ourselves. We changed ourselves into people who could not be segregated. And once you change yourself, the world has to fit up against the new you.

Photo by Seattle Parks and Recreation

Often, we celebrate King’s more overtly political speeches like Why I am Opposed to the War in Vietnam and Where Do We Go From Here, Community or Chaos. However, these speeches would be reduced to rhetoric without the work he engaged in with the people. It is because his voice carried the weight of the trust of the black community that these sermons shook the white power structure. So, it is important for us to understand his practice beyond them, and in particular the way he addressed the lives of the poor who trusted and loved him so dearly. King’s life and practice are a model for how a revolutionary must conduct themselves. As Che Guevara said, “the true revolutionary is guided by strong feelings of love.

Further Reading

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