Bob Moses and Howard Zinn at the Martin Luther King Jr.: The Leader and the Legacy Forum (1986)
On October 15, 1986, Robert “Bob” Moses and Howard Zinn joined a panel of scholars discussing Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and legacy in Washington, D.C.
The essays and the commentary presented were published in We Shall Overcome: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Black Freedom Struggle (Pantheon Books, 1990). The event was hosted by the United States Capitol Historical Society in the Caucus Room of the Russell Senate Office Building and sponsored by Congress in cooperation with the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change.
Speakers in the video include: Julian Bond, Clayborne Carson, Arthur S. Flemming, David J. Garrow, Louis Harlan, Ronald Hoffman, Nathan Huggins, Aldon Morris, Robert P. Moses, Diane Nash, Frederick D. Schwengel, and Howard Zinn.
EDITOR'S NOTE: The following text is based on a transcript of the event audio and published in We Shall Overcome: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Black Freedom Struggle (Pantheon Books, 1990). Transcription by Mary C. Jeske.
Robert Parris Moses, pages 69-76
I want to begin by saying to the people who are sitting on the symposium panel and the people who are in the audience, I’m not a scholar and I don’t have a paper. Our job was to comment on the papers that were presented, and that’s what I’m going to try to confine myself to doing.
The one thing that strikes me as I listen and read the papers presented here is that we’re in the very initial stages of trying to figure out and write about the movement.
Aldon Morris didn’t have a chance to finish his paper, and I’m sorry about that; I wish that he had. There is a part in his paper that I was going to start my comments off with, but he didn’t get to read it, so I want to read it to you. He was talking about King and the Black protest tradition and he said that the most outstanding feature of King was “his absolute identification with the poor, oppressed, Black masses.” He talked about his personalism, that the clue to the meaning of ultimate reality is found in personality, that is, in metaphysical and philosophical grounding for the idea of a personal God, a metaphysical basis for the dignity and worth of all human personality. And then this paragraph he didn’t get to read: “Every human being has etched in his personality [and these are King’s words] the indelible stamp of the Creator. … The worth of an individual does not lie in the measure of his intellect, his racial origin, or his social position. Human worth lies in relatedness to God.”
I wanted to pick up from that last sentence — that human worth lies in relatedness to God — and ask a question of us: How are we to understand our relatedness to God? And one way in which we understand that is through a metaphor. That is, there is a long-standing metaphor about our relatedness to God, namely that God is an ocean of consciousness and we are individual waves in that ocean of consciousness. We are to think of ourselves as related to God as the wave is related to the ocean. Think about that. It gives you a picture, because we know the ocean and we see the waves, and they rise and fall on the bosom of the ocean, and so in that metaphor we rise and fall on the bosom of God.
Now metaphors are what we use to help us understand reality. Historians use them and scientists use them. I remember that a very important one in my study of the philosophy of science was the Neurath metaphor. Otto Neurath was a social scientist who lived in Vienna. He had a metaphor about the ship of science on the ocean of knowledge. He likened science to a vessel that is floating on the ocean of knowledge, with the scientist as a little man in that ship who is trying to rebuild it all the time, but who can never come to dock, who can’t put in at any port. He has to learn how to keep this ship afloat while he’s rebuilding it, and he has to do it on the ocean. What he was getting at in that metaphor was that the effort of the scientist to create a precise language of science is forever bounded by the ocean of just ordinary language out of which that precise language has to evolve. The scientist is apt to forget that and is apt to get carried away with his precise language.
I mention that metaphor because when we were having our conferences at Waveland, Mississippi, that metaphor stuck in my mind. At Waveland, none of us were allowed to sign our names to any papers because SNCC was fearful of the greater influence that some people might have, and it was trying an experiment in democracy, so each of us was asked to write position papers without signing our name to them. In one of the papers that I wrote, I mentioned the metaphor — that SNCC is a boat in the middle of an ocean, and we’re inside trying to rebuild it, and we have nowhere to dock. Our problem is, how can we stay afloat while we’re rebuilding it and not sink? Well, somebody asked Jim Forman, “What is that? What is this business about a boat?” and Jim got up in the meeting and said that somebody had asked him about the boat and the ocean, and he said, “That’s a metaphor.” He went on to explain what a metaphor was, and then said, “but I don’t like the metaphor. I think we don’t want to say that it’s an ocean. We need to get some direction in it and say that our boat is on a river, that it’s moving someplace.” Well, Cleveland Sellers took up that metaphor and came out with a book that he called The River of No Return. As you know, some historians have also taken up the metaphor of a river, Vincent Harding, for instance, in trying to explain the whole tradition of Black protest.
Aldon Morris presented us with a metaphor this morning, and I want to get back to it. What he said was that “the argument of this essay is that the quality and success of King’s leadership stemmed from the interaction of large social and historical factors with the unique combination of qualities that were deeply rooted in his own personality.” So here we have the metaphor of convergence — it’s a metaphor, it’s a picture. He’s groping for something to try to give us some sense of what was happening. It was the convergence of these large social factors, which he listed, and personal factors in King’s life, which he also listed. My question is — to him and to us — how are we to understand this metaphor? How are we to make sense of it? One way of understanding it is to look back at the question for which this metaphor is the answer, and that question is in the preceding paragraph of Aldon’s paper: “How is the emergence and success of such a leader to be explained?”
I want you to consider the metaphor about God again — that God is an ocean of consciousness and we are the waves on that ocean — and think of that metaphor as a metaphor about the movement. Consider that the movement is an ocean of consciousness, protest, rebellion, organizing — fill in other things that the movement is an ocean of — and that the people in the movement are the waves on that ocean. That’s how I’ve always thought about the movement and about my relationship to it, and about SNCC and other people’s relationship to it. The movement was this ocean and we were out there; we were the waves on the ocean. Now when you think about the movement in that way you can ask a question different from the one that Aldon asked. Aldon’s question is, “How is the emergence and success of such a leader to be explained?” And we can ask, rather, the question, “How is the emergence and the repression, the success and the failure, of such a movement to be explained?”
Let us shift our attention from the wave to the ocean, because the wave is not the ocean. Even if it’s a tidal wave, it has no meaning apart from that ocean. The idea is that the history, any history, of the movement, means we have to talk about its failures, its false starts, as well as its successes. We have to offer our young people an understanding of why King was assassinated, as well as why he became a Nobel Peace Prize winner. But not only King. We have to offer them an understanding of why Medgar Evers, Herbie Lee, Louis Allen, Goodman, Chaney, Schwerner, Malcolm X, those two Kennedy brothers, why all those people were assassinated from 1961 to 1971, and the point is that King’s assassination has no meaning apart from the assassinations of all those other people. You cannot understand it as an isolated event. They belong to the ocean that was the movement. That’s what has to be studied to get a deeper understanding about who and what Dr. King was.
That really is my major point. That we can ask and should ask of historians that they offer us a history of the movement, and that through that history of the movement we can then understand the relationship of Dr. King to the movement. But without that history of the movement, trying to understand King is as meaningless as trying to understand the wave without the ocean. There is just no understanding to be had. What we’re left with is frustration. It’s a frustration that Dr. King’s sister expressed in the press room, a frustration with young people who don’t know how to relate to Dr. King because they see him as a god, so they have no concept that they, too, can be like him. That’s what happens when the focus is wrong, is misplaced.
Now, I wanted to take into consideration what some of the conceptual signposts of the movement are, what I’ve thought over the years were important things in the movement, and I want to put them out there for the historians to think about. There was always within the movement a tension between organizing and leading, or organizing and mobilizing. You can trace the history of the movement in terms of certain great mobilizations. There was Albany, Georgia, there was Birmingham, there was Selma, Alabama. But you can also trace the history of the movement in terms of major organizing efforts. There was the organization of SCLC [Southern Christian Leadership Conference]. There was the organization of SNCC. There was the organization of the Nashville sit-in movement. There was the organization of the March on Washington.
You can trace in the movement the tension in people between their roles as organizers and as leaders, and try to get some sense of what that meant. I think of Ella Baker. She was a great organizer, and she was a leader, too. But one of the characteristics of organizers is that their work emerges, and they themselves subside. If you think of the waves in the ocean, at a certain point they subside back into the ocean, and what you see is what they organized or their work. SNCC is the work of Ella Baker. But it was SNCC that emerged, not Ella. The March on Washington was the work of Bayard Rustin, but it was Martin Luther King Jr. who emerged, not Bayard. The point is that Bayard did not organize that march so that he could himself emerge as a leader; the march was organized so that someone like King could emerge. And Bayard knew that. He set out to do just that. That’s the mark of an organizer. Ella didn’t set up SNCC so that she could emerge as the leader of it. Quite the contrary. Ella helped organize SNCC in such a way that she could never possibly be the leader of it. And in doing that she taught us about organizing.
Jim Lawson in Nashville organized the Nashville sit-in movement, and it was that movement that rescued the freedom rides and penetrated into Mississippi. It was the only movement in the whole country at the time that was prepared and absolutely determined to get back on that burning bus. Nobody else, nobody else, not anybody in the whole country, was prepared to get back on that bus. Jim Lawson taught and organized those students, but he didn’t emerge as their leader. Their leaders went on to become leaders of SNCC. So in the movement there are great examples of organizers and their efforts, and this is not emphasized. It doesn’t make good copy, but it made the movement. It was the tissue and the bones, the inner structure of the movement.
So these ideas about organizing versus leading, and the complex roles that people played both as organizers and leaders, need to be examined. Think of a person like Amzie Moore. Amzie Moore was the civil rights leader in Cleveland, Mississippi, but he was an organizer in Mississippi at the state level and never a leader. In the state as a whole he moved like an organizer, never out front, working with people to help them set up certain plans — the voting plan, for example — but in his own town, in his community, he was a leader. Now civil rights leaders got into trouble when they didn’t understand that and tried to organize in Amzie’s territory. I think that we need to know more about this kind of interplay.
There is the question of nationalism, and I don’t have much to say about that. But what needs to be explored is the understanding of the rise of nationalism worldwide in the period following the Second World War, and how it manifested itself in this country in Malcolm, in Robert Williams, and then in the Black power movement. Again, using the metaphor of the ocean, the crux of the thing is the phenomenon of nationalism and its manifestation in this country at a time when one wouldn’t have expected it to have been manifested.
The other concept I want to bring up is nonviolence. Mrs. King mentioned it when we had the press conference, and I’m sure that that’s going to be taken up in other papers. I was watching and aware of nonviolence and how it was being played out within the movement. I’ve always felt somehow that nonviolence was a way of life and not just a tactic to be used in mobilization — it is a fundamental tool with which a person can try to organize his own life. That somehow never caught hold in the movement, and I think that’s something that needs real investigation. The person who comes to mind again is Jim Lawson because Jim is the only person I know in the movement who actually trained people and then went out and tried to practice nonviolence as a way of life. I’m thinking of those Nashville people, a segment of those Nashville people, who became so prominent in SNCC. We all agreed on nonviolence as a tactic in certain demonstrations at a certain point in history, but nonviolence as a way of life escaped us at that point. It certainly escaped me. I could never talk about it to people we were working with; they carried guns. To the farmers in Mississippi, carrying a gun, protecting your home, was a way of life. We need a real understanding of where nonviolence really fits in and with whom and how.
I say that because there was in this country during the time of the movement an approach to God and to nonviolence about which we were ignorant. That was the approach through yoga, which was being introduced here before and during and after the movement, but we never connected with it. This approach to nonviolence emphasized certain spiritual practices, certain spiritual disciplines. It’s an approach that I have tried to study over the past years, and I now understand what we did not have when we were in the movement in the 60s. We did not have access to that kind of knowledge, about how you actually work on yourself with very simple exercises, do very simple things, to transform yourself, to make more manifest that God of whom we are a wave of consciousness. I say that because I think that in the movement which is coming, or evolving again, that if there is going to be nonviolence involved in it, then we have to prepare ourselves for that kind of effort.
Mrs. King mentioned Dr. King’s spiritual discipline, and that’s something that historians need to tell us about — what it was, what it consisted of — as well as looking into what happened to nonviolence in the movement as it was practiced and where it played itself out.
So I guess what I wanted to say in commenting on the papers is that I have a question about Aldon’s question. And understand that I’m not sure that he actually thinks of the movement that way. Maybe that was just because of being presented with this conference. They asked me to write a paper about the conference and I had two problems. One, I’m not a scholar and I don’t write papers. And the other, I don’t think about the movement in terms of King, and this was a conference about King and the movement. I have no qualms about that, but I never thought about the movement in terms of King. It never occurred to me to think about the movement in terms of King. I lived and breathed the movement. So I couldn’t have written a paper that focused on the movement in terms of King. It may be that Aldon was limited in terms of the scope of the conference. But I just wanted to point out that the other question seems to me more important. Not the emergence and success of an individual, but the emergence and the success of, the failure and repression of the movement as a whole, the study of its false starts as well as its successes, its failures as well as its victories.
Howard Zinn, pages 77-83
This has been a remarkable day. At first I was wondering what was going to happen, in what direction this conference was going to go, worrying about it, as I always worry when people “do” history. Because you know what happens when people “do” history. They “do” history, and it’s done, and there’s nothing left to say, and it goes into the library, and then people ignore it. Maybe rightfully. But what we’ve had here is an interesting development, I think, because as I see this conference it is not an empty exercise in nostalgia — indeed, it is meaningful for the future. This is the way I have always thought of history, and this is the way I have tried to write and present history — in a way that is aimed at the present and the future and that asks, “What are we going to do now?” It is important for us to take the edge off the notion of charisma and to look more realistically at King — the person beneath that charisma. Aldon Morris, in his very careful analysis of the movement and the interrelationship between King and the movement, was trying, it seems to me, to tell us how we might think of movements and individuals in the future. And Bob Moses made that both explicit and poetic, as he usually does. By the way, when I heard him mention Waveland — I remember Waveland, and I remember how the people in SNCC wrote these papers anonymously, and no one can tell me that when Jim Forman came across that metaphor he didn’t know who wrote it. We all deal with metaphors, but some deal with them more than others.
I’d like to continue in that vein, that is, trying to extract from the history of that time, from the movement and King, some things for us to think about. Bob’s point about the relationship between King and the movement — his emphasis on the metaphor of the movement as the ocean, his talk about King as a wave and Ella Baker as a wave and Amzie Moore as a wave, and we could add Bob Moses as a wave, and many others — this is very important for us today. Why are we looking at this and why are we studying this if it’s not for the fact that today we face problems as serious or more serious than the ones we faced in the 1960s? And today there is no exciting, rousing movement that we can all join. The situation we know demands enormous effort, and we are wondering where that effort is going to come from, and so we need all the guidance we can get. It’s very important for us to realize that we cannot wait for charismatic leaders, we cannot look for charismatic leaders. What I am saying goes directly against our modern American culture with all its emphasis on celebrities and People magazine, and who’s going to be elected president, as if that’s the most important thing. That’s our American culture, which has become too much of a worldwide culture, and it puts its emphasis on who will save us.
In my work in American history I’ve been only too aware of how kids in school are taught — as I was taught when I went to school — taught about American history as a succession of saviors. The Founding Fathers saved us from England, and then Lincoln freed the slaves, and Roosevelt ended the depression, and — well, after that it got vague. But it was only after I got through my formal training in history and began to read for myself that I realized there was a lot going on in this country long before those Founding Fathers got together in Philadelphia. In fact, the things that these ordinary people did, like rebel from time to time, caused the Founding Fathers to get together and wonder, how can we contain such rebellions? Lincoln did not free the slaves; instead, there was this enormous movement that went on in the thirty years before the Civil War, and it rose to a crescendo with Black abolitionists and white abolitionists and, yes, a movement of people that went beyond those waves of Lincoln and Garrison and Phillips and even Frederick Douglass, who was a great wave. Enormous numbers of people were involved in that movement, which led to sort of the end of slavery. Sort of. And this has been the history of this country that has not been told in the history books. The story of movements that made whatever bits of progress we have had in this country and, on top or in front of which, leaders rose or emerged and became visible.
The leaders, the waves, we most cherish are those who knew what they were, who knew they were waves on the ocean, who understood they were there because of the movement and they could help it along, but who knew that after they were gone the movement would — must — continue. One of the remarkable things about Dr. King, I thought, was that, exalted as he was in the press and a winner of the Nobel Prize, tempted by this, as everybody is in such situations (such temptations are put before people who become prominent and well known — you know, invitations to the White House and caucuses and little meetings and gatherings of the elite to discuss strategy, and hardly anybody can resist that) King went in and out of that, but at critical moments, when decisions had to be made, he very often, but not always, because he wasn’t perfect (he knew that), turned to the people who were in the movement and asked them what he should do.
I remember specifically — and I just heard this again the other night when I was in Atlanta speaking to Lonnie King, who was one of the leaders of the student movement. He was telling me how at a certain point in the fall of 1960 during the boycott of Rich’s department store in Atlanta, Lonnie King and Herschelle Sullivan, the two student leaders — Herschelle was a student of mine at Spelman College — I always have to say who was my student because that’s how teachers exist, you see, and we would just die if we couldn’t say who our students were — and they, Herschelle and Lonnie, decided, “We have to have a sit-in at Rich’s department store; Rich’s is the big domino that will topple all the others.” And so they called Dr. King — because they wanted media attention and King would bring media attention — and they said, “You’ve got to come and sit in with us on The Bridge at Rich’s” (The Bridge was one of four eating places at Rich’s), and King hesitated. He was a human being and he had his hesitations. He said, “Look, I’m on probation. I’ve got four months’ hard labor facing me, sentenced in De Kalb County, which is even worse than Fulton County.” And Lonnie said, “But you’re a leader,” and King said, “When are we meeting on The Bridge?” And so he went, and he was arrested, and sure enough he went to jail. There were moments like that.
I speak, we all speak, with such arrogance of people who are not here to defend themselves against the things we say, or to correct what we think we know or remember. Dr. King was, I think, the kind of person who, when he met with the powers that be, even though he came out of the South, found it difficult not to be nice to them. Even though he sort of suspected “maybe they don’t have our best interests at heart” — Kennedy, John Doar, Burke Marshall, the others — he had to be nice to the people whom he was meeting face-to-face with, and listen to them and so on. So he came to Fred Shuttlesworth in Birmingham and said, “They suggested we call off the demonstrations in Birmingham for a while,” and Shuttlesworth said, “No way.” Now King could have listened to Marshall and Doar and Kennedy, or he could listen to a much more insignificant man, Fred Shuttlesworth. But he knew Fred Shuttlesworth was one of those people — one of those other waves in the movement — and that when Eisenhower was getting credit for sending troops to Little Rock in 1957, Shuttlesworth and his wife had sent their kids, the first Black kids, into a high school in Birmingham. They had escorted their kids, and Fred Shuttlesworth was attacked by the Klan and beaten with chains, and his wife was stabbed. Federal agents were not around to help them; no troops were around to help them; nobody was around to help. King knew this and much more about Shuttlesworth, and he went back and he said no to Kennedy and Doar and Marshall.
It is very important for people who have been made big waves on the ocean to understand who they are, what they are, and where they come from. I think that King understood this — not always, but often — and he respected the kids in SNCC. It’s true that SNCC resented all that hoopla and publicity and the focus on King while those people down there on the earth who were the movement were neglected. But I always found that the SNCC people, as critical as they were of King, saw him basically as one of their own and knew that, from time to time, he would turn to them and listen to them, pay attention to them. And I think that was very important.
What I’m doing is trying to think of what we can learn from that experience, both King’s and that of the movement, of both the ocean and the waves. What can we learn that is useful for us today with the problems that we face? And what about our need to create a movement ourselves and not to look for leaders to do that job for us, knowing that the responsibility belongs to all of us because all of us are capable, not of heroic acts, but of small acts, and movements grow as a succession of small acts. I’m not saying a lot about Aldon Morris’s paper, but to make up for that I want to tell you that you should read his book The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement, which is, I think, one of the most important books on the civil rights movement that has come out in this country. One of the things he does in it is to trace the little things that people do that don’t get into the newspapers and don’t get into the history books, but that make up the links and connections and roots of a movement, out of which emerge the leaders who become famous. And it suggests to us for the future that any one of us and all of us are capable of becoming links, small links, who are doing little things, connecting with one another and organizing, and in that way we have the possibility of becoming part of some great movement.
There are just a few more things I want to say that I think are important, even though they’re specific and controversial and so on. But that’s what we need — we don’t need placidity and kindness and sweetness and light and all of that. We need things to do. We have to remember certain things from that movement. And one of those things is a skepticism of authority, and this gets back to the skepticism that King very often showed, and that all of us need to show all of the time, that skepticism of authority. Another thing was his sheer honesty. Whatever King’s faults were, and he certainly had them, as human beings do, I felt there was one saving thing about him and that was his honesty; he told the truth. And in this era of — why do I say this era of lies and disinformation — governments lie and deceive us, really, governments all over the world, in every era. The first thing to know about governments is that governments lie and deceive. It’s not just something that happened yesterday. And to tell the truth is the absolutely essential ingredient for people to work in any movement.
As I reflect on David Garrow’s book on the FBI and King, I’m thinking about the FBl’s — I almost said preoccupation but that’s a mild word — hysteria, paranoia, madness — about communism. It is a madness. Of course there’s a reality to communism and there’s the Soviet Union and dictatorship — everybody knows that, we don’t have to be told that. But there’s a madness that is associated with that word, which is attached to everything that anybody does that is an attempt to make progress. The idea is to use the word like a club, to beat people to the ground so they won’t speak anymore. It’s an intimidating thing, you see. I think of the Democratic party not taking the equal time that was given to them to respond to Reagan after the meeting at Reykjavik. The Democratic party said, “No, we won’t take the time.” Why? “Because we musn’t criticize the president. We’ll be accused of being pro-Communist.” That really got to me. What timidity. Timidity is not the word. Cowardice. But King, when they said, “King, this guy’s a Communist,” he didn’t rush like some people do to say, “Get rid of this man.” Or when they said, “Don’t go to the Highlander Folk School because the FBI calls it a Communist place,” he went there anyway. That’s important today because we know how that word and how that hysteria is used to paralyze people as they try to decide what is right and wrong.
Two last things. One, nonviolence. The establishment would like us to think of nonviolence as just nonviolence — they would like us to think of it as passivity. Dr. King emphasized that nonviolence is not passivity. In fact, the phrase that was used — and SNCC made a point of this phrase — was “nonviolent direct action.” That was the phrase. Yes, avoid violence, but don’t be passive. Do what you have to do. Liberties are not given; they are taken. That message of the movement is a very powerful one, an important message for today at a time when we need to take direct action to do something about the distribution of wealth, about the economic system that Dr. King, to his credit, became more and more interested in, more and more concerned with. We need a movement around the issue of the shameful waste of wealth in this country when people are in need.
One final thing. I am concentrating on Dr. King, keeping in mind what Bob said about King being a wave on the ocean, about the movement being the ocean, because I think we can learn from every wave as long as we know what it is, who it is, what its limitations are. And there was something in Dr. King that is tremendously important for every movement and that Bob also represented in his own way, and that is the spiritual quality of a movement. Whether it’s religion or yoga or emotionalism or music or art or whatever it is, a movement needs that spiritual quality, and Dr. King expressed that. In doing that, and showing us the strength in ourselves, he gave us hope and faith, and we need a lot of that for the future.