January 12, 2001
By Dr. Art Salzberg
The life and living legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., which permeates America and the world, is a journey of our finest Rebel leader. The 1955 bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, which Dr. King led, set the stage. His jailings and written letters to world leaders while in jail attest to his inner strength. However, almost none of the literature on Dr. King mentions the book he read that led him to such supreme acts of faith: Albert Camus' The Rebel, his sole book (aside from the bible and the writings of Mohandas K. Gandhi) during those trying times which tempered him and African-Americans to break the last chains of bondage.
The Rebel is an essay of a man in revolt. It urges us to cease our measured violence and return to a sense of values and proportion, and to a political philosophy having as its mission and goal the development of the greatest good for humankind. Alas, it's a lesson too little learned in today's world.
Camus himself was caught in a war not of his own making _ the conflict between the Algerian people and their French colonial masters. Attempting to be a peacemaker or broker, he was unwelcome to both the French and Algerians. The Algerians perceived him as just another colonizer and themselves as the colonized. Likewise, African-Americans were our own internal colonized population, during the days of segregation no less than during the days of slavery, prior to the neoliberal "globalized" world economic order.
No one knows when or where a leader will arise in a society or within a nation. King's initial life in Atlanta and Montgomery after his graduation from Harvard Divinity School was as a church pastor, at first a co-pastor with his father - hardly the usual training ground for a rebel leader. He moved from a life of leading his flock and composing sermons to writing articles, columns, speeches and six books.
The Montgomery bus boycott began with a woman named Rosa Parks, whose name looms larger than life because one afternoon, tired and anxious to get home after a hard day's work, she refused to move to the back of the bus as was the custom and law in Alabama at the time. The resulting bus boycott lasted a year and hobbled the city's business and society. The white elites were pressed with a new agenda which wouldn't wait for a "tomorrow..." reply or a phantom.
King's tactic, in the words he quoted from Gandhi, was "to meet physical force with soul force" - to respond to violence with nonviolent civil disobedience and passive resistance. The marches he led brought the evil of racism before the TV cameras and made all America eyewitnesses. Among the racists' responses were the bombings of churches and the murders of little children inside. No one was spared - not King's allies; and, in the end, not King himself.
When the U.S. Congress, under the intense pressure of President Johnson, passed the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965, it met some of the legal goals King had sought.
Martin Luther King was to meet his maker in a most unlikely place: Memphis, Tennessee, where he had gone to help striking African-American garbage workers who then earned a minimum wage of just 75 cents an hour. This protracted workers' struggle emulated Montgomery. It was a year-long strike that accumulated mountains of garbage on the Memphis streets. King realized that political democracy isn't enough: economic justice and economic democracy also had to be fought for, so that gains against discrimination have value in our daily lives.
"I've decided that "I'm going to do battle for my own philosophy." Dr. King said in Mississippi in 1966. "I can't make me believe that God wants me to hate. I'm tired of violence ... and I'm not going to dictate to me what method I must use." It's as fine an epitaph as any of us remaining could compose for him now.
Unfortunately, Dr. King's legacy is continually co-opted in the service of ideological offensives, like the attack on affirmative action, that would have appalled him. Here in San Diego, under the direction of former Mayor Susan Golding (who disbanded the city's diversity program), the annual King Day celebration has been moved from its former place on Broadway to a side show. The police and military are in the forefront of its honor guard - a paradox of former enemies becoming sisters and brothers for one day.
But none of the abuses of Dr. King's legacy dim the power of his "living dream" for past, present and future generations. So I will walk once more in this parade as I greet the children lined up on both sides of the street - our future citizens of the 21st Century.
Dr. Salzberg is an advocate for the homeless in San Diego.