January 14, 2000
By Nelson Peery.
(Editors Note. This commentary was written on 11 January, 1995.)
A person becomes a historical figure by bringing to a crisis the personal qualities needed for its successful resolution. What was the crisis and what were the qualities that propelled Martin Luther King Jr. to the level of a historic figure?
Following the Civil War, industry's need for cheap cotton turned the South into an agricultural reserve of the North. The totality of Southern legal and extra-legal force was brought to bear to force the freed slaves back onto the plantations to work as tenant farmers. There they lived on the level of the peasants of India. Under those conditions, no amount of struggle by the African Americans could break the iron grip of segregation which kept them in poverty and semi-slavery.
The late 1940s and the early 1950s were years marked by a critical crisis in race relations in this country. The simultaneous move of industry to the South and the mechanization of Southern agriculture were an economic revolution.
That economic revolution attacked the base of the nation's race relations and created a social revolution. Replaced by more efficient means of production, the blacks were driven into the segregated sections of towns and cities. There they formed a cohesive mass and gained a sense of strength and common purpose.
Struggles against segregation began breaking out across the country. The Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott of 1955-56 was the most advanced, determined and united effort of this period. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was brought into the leadership of the Montgomery bus boycott to stabilize the right wing of the leadership. These leaders believed they had to conduct the boycott in a manner acceptable to the liberal whites who, up to that time, had always dominated the African American struggle for freedom.
King's potential for political growth was shown from the start. By the time of is untimely death on April 4, 1968, before his 40th birthday, King had risen to the point of endorsing the reconstruction of America on a co-operative basis. He had come out in opposition to the Vietnam war. He had spoken out strongly in defense of colonial and oppressed peoples everywhere. King brought the necessary qualities of humility, bravery, self- sacrifice and vision to the movement. He entered the struggle when it was disunited and organizationally and politically impotent. By the time of King's death, the movement held the political balance of power in the country and was united in its vision and its purpose. Thus, King rose above his fellow leaders and became a man of history.
(Nelson Peery is the author of Black Fire: The Making of an American Revolutionary and the chair of the Political Committee of the National Organizing Committee.)
(This article originated in the PEOPLE'S TRIBUNE (Online Edition), Vol. 22 No. 3/ January 16, 1995; P.O. Box 3524, Chicago, IL 60654).