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Beyond Elections:
Dr. King’s Teachings On Strategy And Tactics

by Paul Rockwell
Oakland, California

According to Arundhati Roy, "There is no discussion taking place in the world today that is more crucial than the debate about strategies of resistance."

There is no greater strategist in American history, no teacher more relevant to our post-election malaise, than Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. King was more than a moral visionary; he was a creative tactician. All of us -- especially leaders of the peace movement -- have much to learn from King’s teachings on strategy and tactics.

In the late 1950s a major change took place within the civil rights community, a shift from representative government to direct action democracy. When the young Black movement broke away from the confines of electoral politics, society began to change.

Before 1960, the NAACP was the most prestigious civil rights organization in the U.S. It handled legal cases, achieved an historic victory in Brown v Board of Education, and carried out valuable work within the normal channels of government -- Congress and the courts. Its leaders were drawn primarily from the professional class, and its approach to segregation was institutional. While the NAACP was widely respected throughout the U.S., it did not have a mass base in the South.

The rise of mass-action strategy changed the course of history. It was a boycott -- the Montgomery bus boycott, led by Dr. King -- that launched the modern civil rights movement. African Americans made up 70 percent of the passengers in Montgomery, and the boycott was based on the simple recognition that the local merchants were economically dependent on Black riders. "The oppressed have power." That was the ironic revelation on which the entire civil rights movement was based. All great social movements -- movements that convert dissenting opinion into leverage, movements that become a force in history -- are based on power, not mere communication of discontent.

It was during the Montgomery bus boycott, spontaneous in origin, that Dr. King, as head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, developed a long-term strategy for desegregation. In his autobiography (replete with insights on tactics and strategy) King describes his debt to Gandhi and his strategic revelations about applied ethics and social movements. He raises the questions that all movements address: Do strikes and boycotts work? Are they fair? Are the hardships worth the gains? Where is the oppressor vulnerable? And where does the potential power of the oppressed reside? King gives an initial answer: "We would use this boycott method to give birth to justice and freedom... . I came to see that what we were really doing was withdrawing our cooperation from an evil system, rather than merely withdrawing our support from the bus company. The bus company, being an external expression of the system, would naturally suffer, but the basic aim was to refuse to cooperate with evil. We were simply saying to the white community: We can no longer lend our cooperation to an evil system. From that moment on I conceived of our movement as an act of massive non-cooperation."

King always recognized the significance of spontaneous actions, but he also realized that, without organization and long-range strategy, spontaneous energy easily dissipates. Planned, well-organized boycotts played a major role throughout all phases of the civil rights movement.

On February 1st 1960, four Black college freshmen sat down at a whites-only lunch counter at Woolworths in Greensboro, North Carolina. The sit-in movement was born. Supported by Dr. King, SNCC (the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) called for a boycott of Woolworths, "a nation-wide campaign of selective buying." Pickets went up throughout the country.

White students in the North were eager to support the civil rights movement. The national boycott provided a vehicle for their pent-up energy and creativity. They put up posters, set up pickets, devised new chants, sang songs in front of stores, and turned shoppers into activists for civil rights. Some of the students who participated in the boycott later became founders of Students for a Democratic Society, a massive nation-wide student organization committed to participatory democracy.

Students are more easily aroused and energized by direct action than by electoral campaigns for pre-selected candidates. The vitality of the civil rights movement was due in part to its independence from the confines and self-censorship of electoral politics. Under the leadership of Dr. King, the civil rights movement kept the initiative and put the supporters of the status quo on the defensive. The boycotts enabled millions of supporters to participate in the movement on a weekly and daily basis. For King, the calendar of justice was not determined by the dates of Presidential and Congressional elections. Civil rights leaders chose their own battlefields according to their own needs and strengths, and they set the deadlines for their adversaries. King did not wait to see how others voted. For King, no deformed franchise can make human subjugation legitimate. Over protests from liberals and Democrats, the boycotts, the sit-ins, the freedom rides, the freedom schools spread and grew.

Woolworths not only lost Black business in the South, it suffered economic downturns from demonstrations and pickets in the North. It was only a matter of time before Woolworths adopted its policy of total integration.

Other less-known boycotts took place throughout the South. The boycott of Rich’s restaurant and other restaurants in Atlanta had immediate effects, and Rich’s ended its policy of racial segregation.

King was almost fastidious about timing and tactics. At one period he noted that, "except for Christmas, Easter is the main shopping period of the year ... the best time to bring pressure to bear on the merchants for the needed change." King argued that it is almost impossible to change the political power structure without attacking the economic power structure as well.

A student activist captured the essence of movement strategy when he said: "You got to find out what your opponent cares about. Then go after it. We ask ourselves -- What do we possess that our enemy needs? Man, if you answer that question, you’d be surprised how quickly negotiations take place."

In 1966 and 1967, King launched a major boycott in Chicago -- the first Black employment affirmative action program in the U.S. Blacks refused to spend money where corporations refused to hire Blacks. "By 1967," King writes, "the results were remarkable ... . Operation Breadbasket completed negotiations with three major industries: milk, soft drinks, and chain grocery stores. " King argued that direct action against merchants is often more effective than verbal appeals to government officials and members of Congress. A strong non-violent movement beyond the halls of Congress is a pre-condition to legislative success.

We often remember King for civil disobedience, but civil disobedience involved relatively small numbers of activists. King never required participants in the movement to break the law. Boycotts and demonstrations enabled millions of people to participate in the broader movement for empowerment. It was the combination of many kinds of non-cooperation that made King’s strategy effective.

A Strategy Beyond Elections

Howard Zinn, the indefatigable activist and historian, veteran of the civil rights movement, summed up civil rights strategy as early as 1966 in a seminal essay: "Non-violent Direct Action":

"I speak of non-violent direct action ... . Whatever the specific form, this technique has certain qualities. It disturbs the status quo. It intrudes on the complacency of the majority... It creates tension and trouble and thus forces the holders of power to move faster... . What the civil rights movement has revealed is that it is necessary for people concerned with liberty, even if they live in an approximately democratic state, to create a political power which resides outside the regular political establishment. While outside, removed from the enticements of office and close to those sources of human distress which created it, this power can use a thousand different devices to persuade and pressure the official structure into recognizing its needs."

Americans were converted to civil rights through creative tension, through planned confrontations that made it impossible for Americans to avoid the consequences of their own wrongs and deeds.

In defense of his open-housing marches through white communities in Chicago, which caused a huge outcry from whites, King wrote: "The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation." Within a year Mayor Daley’s Chicago passed open-housing laws.

King Strategy Applies To Imperialism As Well As Segregation

We have much to learn from the strategic concepts of Dr. King. Today’s peace movement is rightly focused on ending the occupation of Iraq, a failed conquest driven by the psychology of the master race. However, our movement has yet to tap the social power that exists beyond elections, beyond the politics or verbal argument and contained moral suasion. American elections are degenerating into a system of bribery and corporate control. No imperialist system was ever dismantled through electoral politics within the aggressor country. Gandhi’s mass strategy, not the British Parliament, brought down the British empire. The Vietnamese resistance, not legislators in Paris, ended French colonialism in Indochina. And no illegal, immoral war has ever been ended without direct action and grassroots protest.

King’s teachings about non-cooperation with evil are as relevant today as they were forty years ago. Like apartheid, imperialism is a social system, not a mere policy of one president or a single government.

In the teachings of King, respect for human rights is the pre-condition for genuine, constitutional majority rule. No white majority, no matter how large, has any constitutional right to subjugate another people, whether it is a domestic minority or a foreign nation. One hundred thousand Iraqis are dead, hospitals and mosques destroyed, cities in rubble, thousands of children and civilians maimed with cluster bombs, all victims of America’s military tsunami.

If we dare apply the teachings of King, we cannot change the existing system without challenging the people who live inside it, who take it for granted, who refuse to measure human rights by one yardstick, who support imperialism and war even when they too are victims. It is impossible to end the U.S. occupation of Iraq, to halt the march of empire, without first confronting -- in King’s spirit of compassionate indignation -- the people of our own beloved nation. Let the memory and teachings of King inspire us to carry on his struggle against elective despotism in America.

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Published in In Motion Magazine January 11, 2005