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You don't get to be called "Mahatma," which means "great soul," for nothing: Gandhi (1869–1948) is among the most revered figures of the 20th century. Even Albert Einstein—yep, electric-haired, mustachioed, physics-revolutionizing Einstein—said that "Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth." Not in a bigfoot-isn't-real kind of way, but in a wow-how-could-anyone-be-so-great kind of way.
Because he had convictions and he stuck to them.
Now, so did a lot of other people, like, oh, Hitler and Stalin. Ambition isn't always a good thing. But Gandhi's convictions were the good kind: he believed in a philosophy called ahimsa, an ancient doctrine of nonviolence, which he used in an activist way to help bring about the independence of India/Pakistan from Great Britain in 1947.
Betcha see where this is going.
Dr. King first heard about Gandhi in seminary. After a little deep pondering and some chats with Bayard Rustin and others, MLK eventually concluded that nonviolent resistance was "the only morally and practically sound method open to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom" (source). And he decided that's how the U.S. Civil Rights Movement should go.
Sounds good, right? But, as Dr. K found out, you can run into some snags. Gandhi's philosophy of nonviolent activism assumes—and this will be hard to believe if someone's cut in line in front of you recently—that people are fundamentally decent. Here's the logic: oppressed people protest nonviolently; maybe they're roughed up a bit; maybe there's a little sprinkling of death here and there; but, eventually, the oppressive power and/or the people it represents get tired of harming morally upright protesters, decide that This Is All Wrong, and cut out all the oppression nonsense.
This idea ran like clockwork in Birmingham, where Bull Connor violently opposed the civil rights marchers with his dogs-and-hoses routine, which literally (okay, not literally) shocked the pants off many ordinary Americans and also the Kennedy administration.
But in Albany (GA) and Chicago, local leaders like Laurie Pritchett and Mayor Richard J. Daley were hip to King's methods, and things didn't go so well. They opposed MLK's nonviolence not with aggression but with calm, routine arrests and political concessions, which made things seem not very bad at all in their cities. Don't get us wrong, things were bad, but they were playing nice to make Dr. K go away. As a result, support for MLK's actions in these places dried up, because it seemed to many people that he was stirring up trouble for no reason.
So it's questionable whether Gandhian methods are universally effective; our discussion of Malcolm X explores how nonviolence might even need the threat of violence to work. And, as strange as it sounds, nonviolence can be taken to an extreme. Check out what Gandhi said about the Holocaust:
Hitler killed five million Jews […] It is the greatest crime of our time. But the Jews should have offered themselves to the butcher's knife. They should have thrown themselves into the sea from cliffs. […] As it is they succumbed anyway in their millions. (Source)
His point is that, had the Jews resisted nonviolently en masse, their deaths might have called attention to the Nazi crisis sooner; instead, they died in silence, the horror of the concentration camps fully grasped only toward the end of the war. Still, this comment sounds remarkably callous to us today.
Whether violence or nonviolence ultimately preserves more life can sometimes be unclear; ironically, like Dr. King, Gandhi was assassinated. What can we say? People find peace weirdly threatening.
Now, maybe you know who Bayard Rustin (1910–1987) is, and if so, good for you, because Bayard Rustin isn't exactly on the tip of everyone's tongue. That's probably because he was kind of on the margins in his own time. Believe it or not, being an openly gay Black pacifist former communist during the Civil Rights Movement/Cold War/Vietnam War did not exactly make you mainstream (Black or white) America's favorite person.
But, at the same time, Rustin wasn't on the margins at all. He coordinated civil rights activities for decades, and we're talking some big stuff, like co-founding the Congress of Racial Equality and Southern Christian Leadership Conference and organizing King's uber-famous March on Washington. You know, the one with everyone's favorite speech.
Basically, Bayard brought all the activists to the…'yard. Which in this case was the National Mall. He planned all the details down to how many bathroom and first-aid stations would be needed and what people should bring for lunch.
Even though he was making things happen behind the scenes, the NAACP leaders didn't want Rustin to be the public face of the march because of his sexual orientation. He had to settle for being the deputy director.
But Rustin wasn't just a useful logistics guy. Oh, no. Get a mop, 'cause we're about to throw out something that'll blow your brain clean out of your ears: Martin Luther King, Jr. would not have been Martin Luther King, Jr. if not for Bayard Rustin.
Now, to be fair, we can't know that for sure. King might have arrived at the same conclusions anyway. But it's still true that Bayard Rustin played a key role in shaping MLK's thoughts.
Rustin was already invested in the doctrine of nonviolence when, in 1948, he went to India to study Gandhi's ideas and methods. Some years later, he got involved with the Montgomery bus boycott, led by MLK. King knew about Gandhi, but it was Bayard Rustin who'd studied Gandhi deeply, and it was Rustin who (along with a couple other folks) tutored King on the practical and philosophical nitty-gritty of nonviolent activism.
And the rest, as they say, is…you know.
(History. It's history.)
After King was assassinated, Rustin participated in the memorial march with the Memphis sanitation workers. Later on, he became increasingly vocal about gay rights, saying that
Twenty-five, 30 years ago, the barometer of human rights in the United States were black people. That is no longer true. The barometer for judging the character of people in regard to human rights is now those who consider themselves gay, homosexual, lesbian. (Source)
Even though we're still grappling with its unfinished business, the Civil Rights Movement can sometimes seem like the distant past. But the LGBTQ rights movement is in full swing today, and Bayard Rustin was part of that.
There's no way to know what Dr. King would have thought about such issues had he lived, but we do know he held Rustin in very high esteem, even when other civil rights leaders were uncomfortable with their association. King did bail on Rustin for a while when Adam Clayton Powell threatened to spread a rumor that they were lovers, but they patched things up just in time for Rustin to help put together the March on Washington. And we all know how that went.
In 2013, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Rustin the residential Medal of Freedom. His longtime partner, Walter Naegle, accepted on Rustin's behalf.
Guess some things do change. A little, at least.
Also known as el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, Malcolm X (1925–1965) was a prominent member of the Nation of Islam, a Black religious and political organization devoted to improving the lives of African Americans. In contrast to Dr. King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Nation of Islam was, you guessed it, Muslim. West Africa is also largely Muslim, but when African slaves arrived in the U.S., many ended up converted to Christianity. So the Nation of Islam was trying to restore some of African Americans' pre-slavery heritage.
Slavery also took away slaves' names, because owners renamed slaves however they wanted. Slave owners also attached their own last names to slaves to indicate ownership. So Ousseynou Traoré might become Harold Washington.
What's in a name? Oh, you know—just culture, history, identity. That sort of thing. Unlike religion, names are basically impossible to recover. Without records, they're just gone. Hence the X in Malcolm X, which stands for "a guy who was born Malcolm Little but has gotten rid of the name 'Little' because that was the name of his ancestors' owner." Lots of Nation of Islam members used the X.
Now, as you might guess, an organization that emphasizes everything the U.S. took away from Black people might be a little…upset about it. And Malcolm X definitely cut a different figure from MLK. He wasn't against Dr. King: he knew they were working for basically the same goals. He just saw his own way of thinking as a credible threat backing up King's peaceful demands. If Dr. King couldn't secure African Americans' rights using peace, Malcolm X was willing to secure them using violence—or, as he famously put it, "by any means necessary."
To borrow an expression from Theodore Roosevelt, Dr. King spoke softly, while Malcolm carried the big stick.
Even though MLK didn't endorse Malcolm X's ideas, he accepted the truth of them. As King said once, "Those who will make this peaceful revolution impossible will make a violent revolution inevitable" (source). At some point, people get sick of waiting.
By the time King said these words, though, Malcolm X was dead. He had become disillusioned with the Nation of Islam and had struck out on his own. He said some things the Nation didn't like, so, like mature, rational human beings (/s), they shot him. He was 39—the same age MLK would be when he was killed three years later. Can we just skip from 38 to 40?
What, you ask, brings this guy Cesar Chavez (1927–1993) to the party? Simply check out this telegram from MLK to CC:
You stand today as a living example of the Ghandian [sic] tradition […] My colleagues and I commend you for your bravery, salute your indefatigable work against poverty and injustice, and pray for your health and your continuing service as one of the outstanding men of America. (Source)
Now check out what CC said about MLK:
Dr. King was a powerful figure of destiny, of courage, of sacrifice, and of vision. Few people in the long history of this nation can rival his accomplishment, his reason, or his selfless dedication to the cause of peace and social justice. (Source)
So, who was Cesar Chavez that he praised and was praised by MLK so enthusiastically?
Chavez was a Mexican-American union leader and labor activist who "dedicated his life to improving the treatment, pay and working conditions for farm workers" (source). He knew a thing or two about farms: Chavez had grown up working the California fields, and it quickly became clear to him that treatment of farm workers, most of them people of color, was…suboptimal.
So he decided to work on that.
After getting some labor experience under his belt, in 1962, Chavez founded the National Farm Workers Association. (It later became the United Farm Workers, which still exists.) During his time with the UFW, Chavez led strikes and boycotts to win higher wages for workers and to protest the harmful effects of pesticides. He also fasted on numerous occasions to bring attention to the cause.
We, of course, prefer eating strikes to hunger strikes. No idea why they haven't caught on.
So here's a guy who protested by not eating food on behalf of people who grow food, which makes either the most or the least sense ever.
But wait—where'd Cesar Chavez get the idea that any of that would actually work? Why, our Main Man Mohandas, of course. As a young lad, Chavez had seen newsreels about Gandhi's success against the British Empire. He subsequently learned as much about Gandhi as he could, and then, for whatever reason, thought, hey—I'd like to do that. We mean, who doesn't respond that way when they read about a guy who starved himself until he was shot to death. Right?
If all that weren't a convincing enough similarity between Cesar Chavez and MLK, which it is, he and Ralph Abernathy once marched together, and Jesse Jackson and then-SCLC president Joseph Lowery participated in one of his fasts (source).
Chavez didn't just share MLK's principles and methods; oh, no. He was also a custodian of King's legacy. Chavez's take on Dr. K remains relevant to us today precisely because he wants us to keep King relevant. Chavez knew his MLK, and he warns us not to treat Dr. King like some kind of cuddly, lovey-dovey, feel-good mascot for justice. That view of King, he says, is actually the very one used by the powers that be to erase much of what King stood for:
The enemies of justice [want] you to think of Dr. King as only a civil rights leader, but he had a much broader [agenda]. He was a tireless crusader for the rights of the poor, for an end to the war in Vietnam long before it was popular to take that stand, and for the rights of workers everywhere. (Source)
What was Dr. K doing when he gave "I've Been to the Mountaintop"? Oh, right: fighting for the rights of workers.
As Chavez points out, and as we suggest in our Key Figures profile of Dr. K, now that we're over the civil rights hump, it's easy to praise MLK as a civil rights leader. Things are far from perfect, it's true, but big laws have been passed, and we mostly agree that discrimination is a Very Bad Thing.
That's not to say that Dr. King had all the answers. Not even a mega-fan like Cesar Chavez would say that. What Chavez would say, and what he does say, is that, if we really respect Dr. King, we have to engage with everything he said, not the just the convenient parts.
And be wary of those who don't.
Boy, are we stoked to talk about Stokely Carmichael (1941–1998). We're also carmichaeled, whatever that means. Stokely Carmichael, who later took the name Kwame Ture (that's toor-AY), was a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a civil rights organization run by ballet dancers.
Just kidding. It was run by students.
SNCC ("snick"), which often worked with the SCLC, was a major player in the Civil Rights Movement. SNCC folks participated in campaigns like the Freedom Rides and Freedom Summer. Their accomplishments are nothing to snccer at, unlike our puns.
Carmichael was born in Trinidad and Tobago, and moved to New York, where his parents had immigrated earlier, as a teenager. A smart kid from a tough neighborhood, he attended the prestigious Bronx High School of Science, a mostly all-white school. Looking back on those years, Carmichael felt that his friendships with white students there were fake; he hated himself for it (source).
He saw his father buy into the American Dream and die young because of it:
My old man believed in this work-and-overcome stuff. He was religious, never lied, never cheated or stole. He did carpentry all day and drove taxis all night. The next thing that came to that poor black man was death—from working too hard. And he was only in his 40s. (Source)
When Carmichael was at Bronx Science, he watched a TV news segment about the lunch counter sit-ins in the South, young kids having food thrown at them and being knocked off their stools and getting back up again and again.
It changed his life.
He joined CORE, and participated in protests in New York and sit-ins down South. In college at Howard University (he got accepted to some elite mostly white colleges but wasn't about to do that again), he went on Freedom Rides, crashed a whites-only bus station waiting room in Jackson, Mississippi, and went to jail for it. Right after graduation in 1964, he joined SNCC, registering voters in Alabama and even forming his own political party. Its logo? A black panther.
SNCC got along with the SCLC for a long time, until they didn't. Around 1965–66, Stokely Carmichael decided that King's nonviolence wasn't doing enough fast enough. He also thought that King's methods felt too much like begging and depended largely on white benevolence, which Carmichael did not trust.
So, influenced by Malcolm X, he started advocating a Black nationalist approach, which meant Black self-determination independent of white help or hindrance. His views were summarized in the phrase "Black Power," which he popularized. Power over to the Glossary for more. He also was the first to use the term "institutional racism" to describe broad social and political trends which subtly kept Blacks segregated and in the underclass.
Whether or not the "power" in Black Power referred to violence was controversial, but some people certainly interpreted it that way. "Some people" included the Invaders, the young folks who made so much trouble for Dr. King during his Memphis sanitation march. Black Power also led to the creation of the Black Panthers, an armed organization that, among other things, served as a civilian watchdog group focused on curbing police brutality in Black communities.
Carmichael and King disagreed on religion and tactics, but they were united in their opposition to the Vietnam War. Carmichael was also not entirely opposed to working with whites, but he emphasized racial solidarity as King moved increasingly toward class solidarity.
Unlike so many people in this list, Stokely Carmichael was not assassinated. He died of prostate cancer at the age of 57 while living in Guinea.
Carmichael (Ture, at the time of his death) claimed that, "In 1967, U.S. imperialism was seriously planning to assassinate me. It still is, this time by an FBI induced cancer, the latest in the white man's arsenal of chemical and biological warfare […]" (source).
We're throwing Ta-Nehisi Coates into the mix because he's one of today's most prominent African American public intellectuals—writes for The Atlantic, won a National Book Award and MacArthur "Genius Grant"—and because he's in some ways an intellectual descendant of people like Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael.
Like these earlier thinkers, Coates is ambivalent about Dr. King's worldview and legacy. For example, MLK strongly believed in the ideal of equality. For him, justice required that American (and global) society bring more people, especially Black people, under the umbrella of equality. Everyone gets the same rights and opportunities, and boom, we're basically good.
Coates, by contrast, doesn't really think there's room for Black people under the equality umbrella, because he thinks the ideal is corrupt. Racism, he says, is essential to the very idea of equality:
"The two great divisions of society are not the rich and poor, but white and black," said the great South Carolina senator John C. Calhoun. "And all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals." And there it is—the right to break the black body as the meaning of [white Americans'] sacred equality. And that right has always given them meaning, has always meant that there was someone down in the valley because a mountain is not a mountain if there is nothing below. (Source)
In other words, all the members of Group A get to feel more or less equal to each other because all the members of Group B are automatically considered inferior.
Not okay, Group A. Not okay.
As you might imagine, Ta-Nehisi Coates isn't so hot on "the Dream" from King's "I Have a Dream" speech, either. The Dream, Coates says, is as an illusion of equality that white Americans uphold in order to feel good about themselves and their country. Believing in equality means ignoring inequality, so white America's peace of mind, says Coates, comes at the expense of Black America:
And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option, because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies. And knowing this, knowing that the Dream persists by warring with the known world […] I was sad for my country […]. (Source)
In short, MLK thought Black people were being unfairly excluded from a fundamentally good society—one that chose not to incorporate them but could if it wanted to, to everyone's benefit. Whereas Coates, like the Black Nationalist folks, thinks the very structure of American society is built on antagonism between white and Black interests.
So he isn't exactly optimistic about white people's ability or willingness to fix things.
Another difference between Ta-Nehisi Coates and MLK is that Coates is an atheist. Dr. King famously remarked that "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." Here's Coates' take on that:
I don't believe the arc of the universe bends towards justice. I don't even believe in an arc. I believe in chaos. I believe powerful people who think they can make Utopia out of chaos should be watched closely. I don't know that it all ends badly. But I think it probably does.
I'm also not a cynic. I think that those of us who reject divinity, who understand that there is no order, there is no arc, that we are night travelers on a great tundra, that stars can't guide us, will understand that the only work that will matter, will be the work done by us. Or perhaps not. Maybe the very myths I decry are necessary for that work. I don't know. (Source)
This is super different from Dr. K's sense that he's doing "God's will" (45.6) and that African Americans will definitely "get to the Promised Land" (45.10). For Coates, things are nowhere near certain. There's no God and there's no Promised Land. There's no promised anything. Just chaos. Social progress might continue, might come to a halt, might even be reversed. Everything could go horribly wrong.
How's anyone supposed to deal with that?
As hazardous as it is (especially if you don't believe in an afterlife), Coates doesn't rule out violence:
[…] violence and nonviolence are tools, and […] violence—like nonviolence—sometimes works. […] Taken together, property damage and looting have been the most effective tools of social progress for white people in America.
[…] "Property damage and looting"—perhaps more than nonviolence—has also been a significant tool in black "social progress."
[…] The Civil Rights Bill of 1964 is inseparable from the threat of riots. The housing bill of 1968—the most proactive civil rights legislation on the books—is a direct response to the riots that swept American cities after King was killed. Violence, lingering on the outside, often backed nonviolence during the civil rights movement. "We could go into meetings and say, 'Well, either deal with us or you will have Malcolm X coming into here,'" said SNCC organizer Gloria Richardson. "They would get just hysterical. The police chief would say, 'Oh no!'" (Source)
Coates also points out that people's reverence for nonviolence, especially as embodied by MLK, can be used against them by the government when it wants to suppress legitimate protest:
When nonviolence is preached as an attempt to evade the repercussions of political brutality, it betrays itself. When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse. When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con. (Source)
If you've read our take on repetition in "I've Been to the Mountaintop," you'll notice how similar Coates sounds to MLK here. And they do overlap on some issues—reparations, for example. But Coates and King also sound very different. That's because the problems addressed by the Civil Rights Movement, and also the debates about how to solve them, are alive and well today.