I was recently observing all the publicity about the motion picture “Selma,” which depicts Martin Luther King Jr. and his allies, who struggled non-violently for voting rights in Alabama. I also recently saw an interview with the director of the film, Ava DuVernay, by Charlie Rose and Gwen Ifill on PBS. I was inspired to write the following article regarding the violent and non-violent protest era of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.
I was in Selma, Montgomery, and Tuskegee, Ala., one year ago for the 18th anniversary of the Million Man March. Conspicuously absent from the Selma protest march on March 27, 1965, was the actor and activist, Paul Robeson, and the nation of Islam leader, Messenger Elijah the Muhammad. That same year, Tuskegee Institute (later, Tuskegee University) invited Elijah Muhammad to speak at the school.
Malcolm X played an integral role in the Selma protest movement early on. Hundreds of local Black people entered Selma’s Dallas County courthouse building daily, demanding the right to register to vote. White police officers of Dallas County and the city of Selma beat and arrested them. By the first week of February, exactly 3,400 Black people, including King, were arrested and jailed.
Under the cover of darkness, terrorist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan harassed civil right workers, Black families and Black households. On Feb. 4, 1965, Malcolm X addressed an audience of approximately 300 students at the Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma. This event was co-sponsored by the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Malcolm X’s speech praised King’s dedication to non-violence, but he advised that should white America refuse to accept non-violent change, “armed self-defense” was an alternative.
After his speech, Malcolm X met with Coretta Scott King, stating that in the future, he would work in concert with her husband. Five days later, Malcolm X was denied entry into Paris, France, even though he had a U.S. passport. Less than two weeks later, Sunday, Feb. 21, 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated at the Audubon Ballroom in New York City.
The Malcolm X slogan, “by any means necessary,” was interpreted by many people to mean violence. The response to Malcolm’s assassination was burning and looting by some people in the Black community. Soon after that, the Black Panther Party was established, and they advocated the use of guns if necessary.
King, in 1968, was planning a protest demonstration in Washington, D.C., while at the same time participating in the Black garbage men’s strike in Memphis, Tenn. This action proved to be pivotal for the civil rights struggle, because King was assassinated during the strike, April 4, 1968.
Soon after King’s death, boycotts and strikes became an impactful tactic in the civil rights struggle. There was speculation that same year that Black athletes would unite and boycott the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, Mexico. However, much to the joy of the predominantly white International Olympic Committee, most of the Black athletes thought that winning a gold medal was more important than staging a boycott.
However, Olympic athletes John Carlos and Tommy Smith believed that equality was more important than winning a gold medal. They conducted their own protest by raising their black-gloved fists, symbolizing Black solidarity, during the victory ceremony. They were ostracized and dismissed from the Olympic Village. Their ouster resulted in protest demonstrations against the racial and gender discrimination policies of the International Olympic Committee.
At the beginning of the 1968 school year, the New York City Board of Education enacted a policy known as community control. This policy applied to a community that was predominately Black and Latino, a teachers’ union, the UFT, that was 90 percent white and Jewish and a student enrollment that was predominately Black and Latino. The UFT, under the leadership of its president, Albert Shanker, decided to strike against this new policy of community control based on the charge that there was no due process for teachers if they were removed by the community board.
The outcome of this strike was that a large percentage of the public schools in New York City were closed. The strike proved to be successful for the teachers at the expense of the students in the community and ultimately resulted in the eradication of community control of the schools in Black and Latino districts. The situation today is that a professional white Board of Education controls the schools in Black and Latino communities, and the schools in these communities are failing.
Accompanying the headline article, “Who’s in Charge?” in the last week’s edition of the Amsterdam News were pictures of Mayor Bill de Blasio, Police Commissioner Bill Bratton and PBA President Patrick Lynch. The Black community in New York City seems to be in the same situation as the Black community in Selma in 1965, some 50 years ago. The question should not be “Who’s in Charge?” but “Who Has the Power?”
The mayor, the police commissioner and the police are all part of the executive branch, which is responsible for law enforcement. The judges and the district attorneys make up the judicial branch, which is responsible for making sure that the individuals who are enforcing the law do so judiciously and for ensuring that the people are treated justly. The City Council makes up the legislative branch, which is responsible for making the laws. This arrangement is the political reality, but what is the economic reality?
The economic reality is that landowners and business owners have the real power, and the Black and Latino community is not a part of that economic reality, which deems Blacks and Latinos powerless except through unity and the threat and/or implementation of boycotts and strikes. Boycotts and strikes take money from the power structure, but marching gives money to the power structure. Marching gives money to the power structure because marchers have to invest in transportation, lodging, food, etc., whereas boycotts take money from the power structure because the power structure will bear losses if the community does not purchase products and services, and strikes take money from the power structure because the power structure will bear the curtailment and/or loss of production.
Goals are achieved more readily through boycotts and strikes because of the economic impact they have on the power structure, and given our history, we should focus more on boycotts and strikes.