by Barbara Ransby
It is a sad irony, but testimony to the way we view our history, that on January 18th we celebrate the dream and accomplishments of a single, although great and admirable individual. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., instead of celebrating the tens of thousands of ordinary people who made his greatness possible. We talk of "his" dream, "his" sacrifices, and even the movement "he" built.
However, the real relevance of Dr. King's dream, and no one knew this better than he, was not that it was his own but that it was shared by millions. Dr. King drew his strength from the people and they were the foundation upon which the movement of the 1950's and 60's rested. As historian Clay Carson points out: "If King had never lived the Black struggle would have followed a course of development similar to the one it did." The hinges of history simply do not turn upon single personalities. Social changes and the movements that create them are much more complex processes than that.
Why is it important to say this? Because as we immortalize and deify individuals, we simultaneously discount our own potential roles as pivotal historical actors and actresses. People, people like us, with all of our imperfections, are the major forces of history. Ordinary people have built this country, changed this country, and will be the force to redirect it in the future.
As one astute Black political observer once commented: "Waiting for the Messiah is a human weakness that is unlikely to be rewarded more than once in a millennium." The point of this is not that we should not respect and honor the contributions of national leaders such as Dr. King and others, but simply that we should not excuse ourselves from the daily responsibility of struggling for change in the local context. And moreover, we should not underestimate our collective power to make change. Referring to the people and leaders who made up the Black liberation movement of the 1960's, former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) activist Bob Moses has spoken of the movement as an ocean with individuals (including King) as waves on that ocean. If we are ever to rebuild the kind of mass movement that existed in the 1960's, we must appreciate not only the beauty of the waves but the power of the ocean.
The Sisters of the Movement
The histories that define the 1960's in terms of biographies of Great Men are not only revisionist, they are both self-consciously singular and explicitly male in their descriptions of the movement leadership. We hear of Martin's dream, Malcolm's vision, and Stokely's fire. In this context. Black women leaders like Ella Baker, JoAnn Robinson, Fannie Lou Hamer, Diane Nash, and Ruby Doris Smith are reduced to an obscure footnote to the text.
Since many are aware of the contributions of the brothers to the movement, I would like to briefly discuss the sisters of the movement and their roles in birthing, nurturing and maintaining the Black liberation struggle, as strategists, orators, fundraisers and grassroots community organizers.
For example, it was not Dr. King who initiated the historic Montgomery bus boycott of 1955 after the arrest of Rosa Parks, but rather a local schoolteacher, JoAnn Robinson and her friends in the Women's Political Council, a local Black women's group which had been active for years in efforts to combat Jim Crow segregation. The WPC made the decision to launch the boycott and issued the fïrst leaflet announcing it.
In addition, the 1961 Freedom rides that effectively desegregated interstate transportation in the south, involved dozens of courageous, anonymous men and women, many of them brutally beaten in their encounters with southem racist mobs. The rides were coordinated by Diane Nash, a young Tennesee college student. During the voter education and registration drives in the Mississippi Delta, rural southem Black women were key in advising, protecting and inspiring young SNCC organizers. Again, Black women ists like Fannie Lou Hamer were instrumental in building and directing the activities of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which confronted and exposed the liberal racism of the Democratic Party at its 1964 Atlantic City Convention. Underscoring the important but often discounted role played by women, journalist Paula Giddings reminds us of the words of the late Ella Baker who said, "The movement of the fifties and sixties was carried largely by women . . ."
For the record...
At the same time that we frame the Black liberation movement of the 1960's as the grassroots movement that it was, we must also set the record straight about the contributions and beliefs of its individual leaders such as Dr. King. Vincent Harding has described how national media images of Dr. King reflect a selective "amnesia" about what King actually stood for. They have successfully "sanitized" his image according to Prof. Aldon Morris, effectively minimizing those aspects of his politics perceived as most radical or potentially threatening. Part of a poem by Cari Hines eloquently echoes this point: "Dead men make such convenient heroes. . . And besides, it is easier to build monuments/than to make a better world."
We often hear of Dr. King's philosophy of non-violence, of his "love your enemy" message, and his emphasis on social justice as opposed to economic justice. We do not often hear the following call for more radical change: ". . . the dispossessed of this nation - the poor, both white and Negro - live in a cruelly unjust society. They must organize a revolution against that injustice, not against the lives of ... their fellow citizens, but against the structures through which the society is refusing to lift the load of poverty ... we must formulate a program and we must fashion the new tactics which do not count on govemment good will, but instead serve to compel unwilling authorities to yield to the mandates of justice."
Therefore, on January 18th when we remember the legacy of the movement of which Dr. King was a part, let us remember it in its totality, demystify its participants, and moreover, recognize that the greatest tribute we can pay to King and the dozens of others who gave their lives in the struggle for Black freedom is to strive in our own lives to emulate their dedication and commitment. We cannot afford the luxury of waiting for another messiah to deliver us from the harsh realities of increased facism, rising unemployment, the militarization of our communities and schools, and brutal racist violence. Moreover, this is too much of a responsibility to place on a few individual leaders. It will require the active participation and leadership of all of us, not the charisma of a few Great Men. As the brilliant strategist and organizer Ella Baker once observed: "a movement which teaches people following as the only way of fighting" is one that can never sustain itself.
A Day to Celebrate Collective Struggle
Martin Luther King Jr Day
Black American Community
Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)
Women's Political Council
Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party
Atlantic City Convention
Martin Luther King Jr.
Fannie Lou Hamer
Ruby Doris Smith