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Martin Luther King: A Second Look


By Ellen Lake

At first glance, Martin Luther King appears to be at the peak of his career. Recently he attracted world acclaim by winning the Nobel Peace Prize. At home his prestige is equally great. He holds conferences with the President and other national leaders. In the North, he speaks--as he did on Sunday in Cambridge--to overflow audiences. In the South, he is able to turn thousands of Negroes into the street with a few words.

Within the movement, King has played an historic role in popularizing the methods of nonviolent direct action on a mass scale. In Montgomery, in Birmingham, and in St. Augustine, he attracted the eyes and the hearts of the nation, as hundreds, often thousands, of Negroes sat-in, prayed-in, swam-in, or simply marched through the streets to protest racial injustice.

But a deeper look shows that in objectives and methods the movement has passed beyond King in the last few years. Basically King's tactics have not changed since the 1956 Montgomery bus boycott and unless he moves swiftly he may become irrelevant, or even a hindrance, to the struggle in the South.

The movement has now shifted its objectives from the integration of public facilities to the more basic problems of voting, education, and job opportunities. In carrying out the extremely successful Mississippi Project last summer, COFO concentrated on voter registration and freedom schools and did not integrate a single lunch-counter or hotel. This shift comes from a growing realization that winning the right to buy a hamburger in a white lunch-counter is a dead-end, and is meaningless for Negroes who do not have the money to pay for one anyway. Only when Negroes can vote, or exercise power in other ways, can they make the basic changes necessary to gain meaningful equality. But King has never passed beyond the stage of hamburger equality.

In methods, too, King has lagged. Two groups, SNCC and CORE, have a policy of remaining in the areas that they enter, developing local leadership, and sharing the victories, the defeats, and the risks that the local people experience. King, however, operates in a hit-and-run fashion. When he moves into an area, he is neither familiar with past efforts, nor in touch with the local people. In Albany, Ga., in Birmingham, and in St. Augustine, he selected a city where other civil rights groups were already working, flew in for several weeks, fired up local Negroes to heated protests, and departed. Behind him, he leaves a few gains--integrated lunch counters and public buildings--and a lot of broken bones. There is no real attempt to train local leadership or to develop long-range programs.

Last May, King proclaimed that St. Augustine would be the focal point of his activities for the summer. For several days he led demonstrators who marched down town or protested on the beaches. Hundreds were arrested and many brutally beaten. King himself was seized and served two days in jail before releasing himself on bail in order to fly to New Haven to receive an honorary degree. By August, the demonstrators had won the right to eat in local restaurants and to sleep in local hotels and motels, rights which few will use. And recently white night-riders have resumed their raids on the Negro section of St. Augustine.

Too often King settles for tokens, rather than real progress. He has repeatedly accepted gains which are showy in appearance--such as the integration of a restaurant--but negligible in terms of the amount of effort and bloodshed expended and real value for local Negroes. King called off the demonstrations in Birmingham although local Negro leaders felt they could win greater concession. The settlement which King accepted consisted of promises for desegregated lunch counters and rest rooms, promises for equal employment practices, promises for better Negro-white communication, and the integration of the Birmingham library and golf course.

He explains these compromises pragmatically. "You tell the people that you won't settle for anything less than total victory in order to get them all worked up, even though you know all along you'll only get part of your demands. Then when it's all over, you tell them you won a great victory," he told several students Sunday. This attitude contrasts sharply with the view which is predominating in the Southern struggle: that the local people must know everything that is happening so that they can make the decisions.

There are signs that King may be adopting some of the new policies that are aimed at basically changing the control of power in the South. Recently he supported the seating of the three Freedom Democratic Party Congresswomen in place of the five regular Mississippi representatives, although several other liberal organizations, including the NAACP, refused to back the seating attempt.

Another indication of a possible change was King's announcement that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, of which he is the president, would begin an intensive voter registration drive in Selma, Alabama, next week, and in the following months this drive would be extended throughout the state. He said that they would also conduct a "freedom election," the results of which would be used to challenge the legality of the Alabama state legislature. The role King plays in Selma will probably reveal whether or not King will move beyond the role he played in Montgomery nine years ago.

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