Was MLK an organizer?
Conventional wisdom places Rev. Martin Luther King Jr at the top of a pantheon of civil rights leaders along with his mentor Mahatma Gandhi and his spiritual heirs, Nelson Mandala and Desmond Tutu. However, there can be no doubt that each of these started as an organizer, invited by oppressed communities to support the communities' efforts to lift the yoke of oppression. Over time, each of these organizers came to embody the issue they facilitated. Wikipedia tells this story of MLK's involvement in the Montgomery Bus Boycott following Rosa Park's arrest. "Between Parks' arrest and trial, [E.D.] Nixon organized a meeting of local ministers at Martin Luther King Jr.'s church. Though Nixon could not attend the meeting because of his work schedule, he arranged that no election of a leader for the proposed boycott would take place until his return. When he returned, he caucused with Ralph Abernathy and Rev. E.N. French to name the association to lead the boycott to the city (they selected the "Montgomery Improvement Association", "MIA"), and they selected King (Nixon's choice) to lead the boycott. Nixon wanted King to lead the boycott because the young minister was new to Montgomery and the city fathers had not had time to intimidate him." The rest as the cliche goes, is history. In the wake of the success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, MLK formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, in 1957 as a vehicle to promote direct action organizing strategies to local communities throughout the South.
King's 1964 book Stride Toward Freedom, marked an important turning point in King's career from organizer to national leader. Stanford University's MLK project notes the transition when King, after recounting the history of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, shifts his focus to non-violence. "In the chapter 'Pilgrimage to Nonviolence,' King delves into the intellectual influences that led him to nonviolent philosophy. He discusses the impact made upon his thinking by the works of Thoreau, Marx, Aristotle, Rauschenbusch, and Gandhi. King also outlines his understanding of nonviolence, which seeks to win an opponent to friendship, rather than to humiliate or defeat him"
And yet, under increasing pressure to be the face and the voice of "the movement," King continued to work with local organizers with a mix of inspiration and organization. A report written for the Cleveland Plain Dealer by Roldo Bartimole captures the inspiration of King's admonition to local youth. But two months later, King met with Cleveland activists around strategy and tactics to advance the movement. "In a 3-day conference in early June, King and his advisors developed a 4-point plan to
organize tenant unions, register voters, improve relations between police and citizens, improve black employment through negotiations, and, if needed, organize direct action protests. " More info on King's work in Cleveland can be found here.
King's last campaign, supporting the Memphis sanitation workers, is another illustration on how King used his inspirational status and his organizing skills to reframe a local labor dispute into an economic justice movement by reframing the sanitation workers strike into the "I am a Man" campaign that included a coalition of civic and religious leaders. King and his organizing entourage brought Black leaders to a new level of engagement. You could call it a combination of inspiration and organization, but the campaign turned into a combustion of inspiration and organization.
An article on the ACLU website makes a strong argument for MLK's organizing skills, noting:
King chose campaign targets strategically and partnered with local leadership.
King developed innovative tactics in service of a cohesive strategy.
King invested in others.
King embraced politics as essential to making change.
The article concludes: "These are just a few examples of the intentionality King brought to his organizing practice, which, married to his moral clarity, made him such a transformative visionary." In addition, RHINO notes that MLK learned to be an organizer step by step, but never forgot what he learned.
Changing the subject...a little
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