C.L.R. James on Martin Luther King, Jr.

Posted January 20, 2020

At the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., Martin Luther King, Jr., delivers his first national address, “Give Us The Ballot,” on May 17, 1957 (Photo: Bob Henriques)

Introduction by Scott McLemee

The Caribbean writer and revolutionary C.L.R. James and his family hosted Martin Luther King, Jr. and his wife in London in 1957. The following day, James wrote an account of their discussion that circulated among his comrades in Correspondence, a small Marxist group in the United States that published a newspaper of the same name. Much of the text is self-explanatory, but it is worth clarifying a few references and matters of context first.

Someone at the FBI probably read the letter before its intended recipients. C.L.R. James had visited the United States on a lecture tour shortly after the publication of The Black Jacobins (1938); he also made a side trip to Mexico for a series of discussions with Leon Trotsky focused mainly on the African-American liberation struggle. Overstaying his visa in the U.S., he eventually drew the combined attentions of the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the FBI.

In 1953 he was effectively deported as an undesirable (meaning, left-wing) alien. After that, his political co-thinkers in the U.S. remained under surveillance — as did the young Rev. King beginning with the Montgomery bus boycott (December 1955-December 1956).

King and his wife were in London in March 1957 following the official ceremonies in the newly independent nation of Ghana (formerly the Gold Coast), where they had been guests of its prime minister, Kwame Nkrumah.

In his letter, James makes a number of references to Nkrumah and the Convention People’s Party (CPP) which had played a leading role in the anti-colonial struggle. They met while living in the U.S. in the 1940s, and it had been James who introduced Nkrumah to another figure mentioned below: his childhood friend George Padmore, a preeminent anti-imperialist organizer. James and Padmore had collaborated in establishing the International African Service Bureau in the 1930s. When the Fifth Pan-African Congress convened in 1945, Nkrumah joined Padmore as one of the main organizers.

In short, a good deal of history had led to the afternoon of stimulating discussion memorialized in James’s letter. And in the document itself we find the effort of a sophisticated Marxist historian’s effort to think through — in real time! — the implications of struggles unfolding in both Alabama and West Africa. His emphasis on the spontaneity and self-organization of the masses would be revisited in a collective work called Facing Reality published by his American comrades the following year. And among James’s final published works is a volume called Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution (1977) which documents both the high tide of anti-colonial struggle and James’s subsequent criticism of Nkrumah’s regime.

Unfortunately we have no transcript of the London conversation itself. But in an exchange of thank-you notes following his return to the United States, King wrote that he was “looking forward with great anticipation [to receiving] a copy of The Black Jacobins.” It would be fascinating to know if he found time to read the book — the remaining eleven years of his life were unrelentingly eventful — and if so, what he thought of it.

Finally: James’s letter appeared during his lifetime in the revolutionary journal Urgent Tasks, which published a special issue on his work and influence in 1981. It is available in full at the Marxist Internet Archive here.

A visit with Martin Luther King, Jr.
C.L.R. James, March 25, 1957

C.L.R. James

Yesterday the Rev. Luther King and his wife had lunch with us and stayed here from 12.30 until nearly 5 p.m. … After about two hours of general conversation, Luther King and his wife began to speak about the events in Montgomery, Alabama. I shall include a chapter on their experiences in the book on Ghana, and as I give you an account here of what he said, I shall introduce one or two parallels from the Ghana experience. The more I look at this the more I see that we are in the heart of a new experience which demands the most serious analysis.

One Thursday, on a day in December, a woman was arrested for traveling on the bus in a seat reserved for white people. In Montgomery, Alabama. The woman resisted, and to this day she says she does not know why she did. Thousands of Negroes had obeyed the regulations for many years. A local trade union leader went down and bailed her out and called up Dr. King, suggesting that they should “do something.” It was the kind of statement that is made a hundred times a month in various parts of the South whenever one of these outrages takes place. This time, however, King called up a few of the better class Negroes and parsons in the community and they called a meeting for the Friday. About 60 of them, upper class Negroes, got together and they decided to call for a boycott. The idea was not entirely new, because some months before, a girl of 15 had defied the bus regulations and people had spoken of the necessity of doing something and had talked about the boycott, but it passed, as so many of these things pass. They decided to call for the boycott and started off at once to inform people by phone. They also prepared a document telling the people not to travel on the buses from Monday morning. The news spread, and on the Monday morning there began one of the most astonishing events in the history of human struggle. The Negro population of Montgomery is about 35,000. From the Monday morning and for about one year afterwards, the percentage of Negroes who boycotted the buses was over 99%. The Commissioner of Police and the head of the Bus Company have stated that never on any day did more than 35 people ride the buses.

In addition to calling for the boycott, the committee had called for a meeting on Monday evening at the Church of the Rev. King. When they saw the tremendous success of the boycott they were nervous about going through with the meeting. King says that they thought along these lines:—

The boycott has been a tremendous success and if we have a meeting now and nobody turns up, or very few people, then the whole movement will be exposed as a failure, (and at some other time I shall give my own experience of what the failure of a movement in the South can mean. It is usually the signal for fierce reprisals by the whites.)

King and the others, however, decided that they would go through with the meeting. From about 3 o’clock in the afternoon there were people waiting to get into the Church for the meeting at 7 p.m. The Church itself could hold only a few hundred people, but there were thousands packed around it, but luckily the Church had loudspeakers so that they could hear. Half an hour before the meeting began, King, who had been elected Chairman of the committee, left the company and went outside for half an hour’s meditation. He recognized that this movement had to have some political policy to guide it. He had had no idea whatever of being a leader for the struggles of his people. He was a young man of 28 years of age, but he had read philosophy and he had read also the writings of Gandhi, but with no specific purpose in view. In the course of the half hour’s meditation, however, the idea came to him that what was needed to give this movement a social and political underpinning was the policy of non-violence. But as he explained, non-violence as he conceived it, had nothing passive about it. While it stopped short at armed rebellion, it is incessantly active in its attempt to impress its determination and the strength of its demands upon those upon whom it is directed.

King worked out his policy in that half hour and submitted it to no committee. There was no time.

When he was called upon to speak, without any notes, he delivered his address, and from that moment he became the guiding principle of the movement.

King was elected Chairman of the committee by a unanimous vote. He himself had had someone else in mind to propose. It turned out that they had thought of him as Chairman because in his preaching he had always emphasized a social gospel, that is to say preaching with an emphasis on the improvement of the social situation of the community, and not with the emphasis on individual salvation. That was all, but it had singled him out in the minds of his fellow preachers, and other members of the upper class Negro community who formed the committee.

After that, the movement was on its way and for one whole year never looked back until victory was won.

It is one of the most astonishing events of endurance by a whole population that I have ever heard of. There are other details which on another occasion I shall go into. But there are a few points I want to make at once.

(1) The always unsuspected power of the mass movement.

Some of you may have beside you Padmore’s book, Africa: Britain’s Third Empire. Now Padmore is one of the most forward looking and inwardly confident of all who have interested themselves in Africa, and if you look on page 207 of this book which bears the date, May Day 1948, you will see that Padmore is still thinking that “the strained relationship which existed between the chiefs and intellectuals, . . . is giving way to a united effort between the chiefs and people.” I do no injustice to George when I say that as late as 1948 he shows no knowledge or indication of the tremendous power of the mass movement, which the CPP would soon unloose. At that time the movement had taken the form of the boycott of European and Syrian merchants, and later the march of the ex-servicemen who had been shot down. Nkrumah and five others were arrested and deported for six weeks. It was only one year later in June 1949 that the CPP was formed and launched with a rally of 60,000 people, and when it did get underway, just as the masses in Montgomery, Alabama, it never looked back.

(2) The significance of the leadership.

(a) At first sight it would seem that Nkrumah had had a long training. Whereas King had had none at all. (This is undoubtedly true and the question of the various trends of thought which went to the development of Nkrumah is an extremely important one which in the book I shall go into in detail.) But with all due regard to the small scale of the Montgomery occasion and much larger scale of the action of the CPP in Ghana, the similarities between the two, in my opinion, are greater than the differences. King’s programme was created on the spur of the moment, so to speak. Further, in Chapter 10 of his autobiography, it is obvious that if even Nkrumah was clear in his own mind as to what positive action meant, not only the Government did not understand it, but the public did not either, and on pages 110 to 112 you can see the frantic haste and the circumstances in which Nkrumah wrote down for the first time a pamphlet with the significant name, “What I mean by Positive Action.”

In other words, both of them put forward decisive programmes which the crowd caught up almost in passing.

You will note how close the idea of positive action is to King’s spontaneous conception that non-violence was in reality the opposite side of an unceasing attack upon the enemy.

(b) The critical moment in the history of the CPP is the decision at Saltpond to break with the UGCC. All who have studied this episode, a highly important one, know that Nkrumah and the leadership had more or less decided for the time being not to break and it was the rank and file delegates and the crowd outside who practically dragged Nkrumah from the conference hall and told him to go inside and resign. I am positive that at these and other critical moments when the leadership seemed to waver, it was always the demonstration by the mass of its force and determination and its confidence in them, that enabled them to take the forward step.

You note the precisely similar situation with the Montgomery committee on the Monday afternoon when they were ready to call the whole thing off, but were impelled to go on by the thousands who were lining up since afternoon for the meeting that they had called that night.

(By the way, just as in Ghana, the historical accidents are for the most part on the side of the advancing mass movement, and some of them, as in Ghana, are as funny as hell. A coloured servant took one of the leaflets to her white mistress on the Saturday morning. The mistress called up the local newspaper and the whites, anxious to know what these Negroes were up to, published it. A lot of Negroes who had not heard anything and could not possibly have heard in time learnt about what was involved from this gratuitous stupidity of the white newspaper.

Rumour spread that some Negroes were intimidating others from riding the buses. The Commissioner of Police, in order to prevent this, appointed two motor cycle riders to go along with each bus. The sight of them scared off all those Negroes who may possibly have had the idea of taking the bus.)


4 responses to “C.L.R. James on Martin Luther King, Jr.”

  1. Jonathon Hurd Avatar
    Jonathon Hurd

    Dayne is correct. There was nothing spontaneous about Rosa Parks’s actions. It was a result of discussions amongst local and national civil rights leaders about how to challenge Jim Crow laws and build the Civil Rights movement in [Montgomery]. Rosa had decades of civil rights and community activism behind her at the time and was well known in the movement. She had personally defied Jim Crow laws on many occasions before, including sitting at the front of many busses. The bus route and driver for that day were carefully and intentionally chosen. This was a driver that Rosa usually avoided because he was known to be extremely racist. She also knew that he carried a gun with him when he drove the bus and was potentially violent. They chose him because they wanted someone to make a scene. By the way, Dayne, how are you? It’s been a very long time! Good to know you are still out there fighting the good fight!

  2. Dayne Goodwin Avatar
    Dayne Goodwin

    One way i learned about Rosa Parks’ years of activism before 1955 was reading “At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance–A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power” by Danielle L. McGuire (2010 by Knopf and Vintage divisions of Random House)
    see also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rosa_Parks

  3. Dayne Goodwin Avatar
    Dayne Goodwin

    It seems that James’ version of what happened with Montgomery bus boycott (maybe somewhat misled by MLKing’s version) is warped by James’ predilection for theories of spontaneous social change.  I have read about Rosa Parks’ years of organized anti-racist activism and the planning that went into her ‘spontaneous’ refusal to move to the back of the bus.  See i.e. E. D. Nixonhttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E._D._Nixon

  4. Robert Hutchinson Avatar
    Robert Hutchinson

    It is typical that MLK’s radical social ideas don’t get much press.