As I have read more of Martin Luther King's writings and speeches, I am reminded of the quote attributed to Mahatma Gandhi: “When the people lead, leaders will follow”. I am particularly reminded of this when King (1967) in the third of his Massey lectures for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation talks about the young negroes ceasing to imitate “whites in dress, conduct, and thought in a rigid, middle-class pattern” and “began initiating” (p 46). The result of this change was that the young negroes changed from being followers to being leaders of social change.
In the fourth lecture, King talks of the laws being in place and commissions having written reports but still no change was happening for those in poverty and segregation was not being broken down. It was not until the people took to nonviolent resistance being willing to go to jail in their masses that the political leaders began to implement what the law and commissions had already said was what should happen. The people caused the change in direction. It was not the elected leaders or the industry decision makers, those in business leadership, those with a stake in keeping the system as it is. These were the people who failed to provide the leadership for change. The leadership for change had to come from the people.
Why do I think this is relevant for now? I see in the British election an attempt of a leader to strengthen her hand for the changes that she wants to make in British Society. She, Theresa May believes that she has a majority backing of the people to take Britain out of the European Union. This is the will of the people she keeps telling the 48% who voted remain. What she is not saying is whether all the other policies that she wants to force through are the will of the people. She would prefer not to talk about those.
However, the key issue here is that she in her so called position of leadership seeks to follow the will of the people as fashioned by an election campaign. If she gets the majority in the forth coming election, it will not just be Brexit that she will claim is the will of the people but the whole package of social reforms tucked into a manifesto that few will actually read. She will swear adamantly that the vote for a Conservative Government means that Conservative policy is the will of the people.
However, there is another element of King's message that is easily overlooked. This is the place of the middle-class. King in the third lecture goes on to say “It is ironic that today so many educators and sociologists are seeking methods to instil middle-class values in Negro youth as ideal in social development. It was precisely when young Negroes threw off their middle-class values that they made an historic social contribution. They abandoned those values when they put careers and wealth in a secondary role. When they cheerfully became jailbirds and troublemakers” (p p 46-47).
Hidden in this message is the power of middle-class thought to control the population and restrict the prospect of change. This message still applies today with the British education system instilling in the youth of today the middle-class values that will hopefully make them followers rather than free thinkers. The problem is that "Education makes a people easy to lead, but difficult to drive; easy to govern, but impossible to enslave." (Lord Henry Brougham). The type of education desired by leaders is the education that encourages conformity to the current middle-class norms but education should encourage critical analysis and when that occurs the people will in time revolt against the indoctrination and attempts to enslave.
However, there is also another way to look at this message and this is how do we encourage the middle-class to seek the changes that are necessary and not simply to go along with the way things are? We have to challenge those middle-class norms and the comfort that the middle-class feel they have obtained. Racial segregation would never have been removed from the US if the middle-class had not felt that their position and status was under threat. It was as their felt sense of security declined that they became willing to change. Lecturing people on the monetary system or inequality will not bring change. Those who want to hear listen to lectures. We need to motivate change by challenging the security of the middle-class so they are motivated by their self interest to support the required changes.
King's fourth lecture to some extent addresses this issue because following the nonviolent resistance that brought down segregation, there were riots in the US that King describes as being against property. King didn't support the riots but understood what motivated the rioters. However, this raises the issue of what is the best approach to expose evil in the system and bring about the changes that are necessary?
Martin Luther nailed his proclamations to the doors of the of the temples of his day. Could we nail our proclamations on the doors of financial services organisations, the temples of modern society? Or should we camp outside these temples as the Occupy movement endeavoured to do without success? Or should we as the civil rights marchers did hold our ground nonviolently in resistance being willing to fill up the jail system for the changes we believe are required? Or do we implement our own solutions that disrupt and expose the corruption of the current system? Or should we like the rioters physically attack the physical buildings (not the people as terrorists tend to do) that these institutions operate from? Or do we use some other invasive attack that destroys the financial infrastructure? I exclude terrorism or attacks against people but I also would argue against destructive attacks against property or systems.
The course to change is motivating the people so that in large numbers they demand the changes required. Ideally, I would contend we achieve this through nonviolent resistance and through working to build the alternative structures required as the current system comes crashing down. The 2008 financial crash was an opportunity for change but no one believed there was an alternative system or way of operating. The wheels need to be in motion for the alternative as the current system begins to crumble under the pressure of the masses rising up in protest against its suicidal path.
King Jr., M. L. (1967). The trumpet of conscience. Boston: Beacon Press.
King Jr., M. L. (1967). Youth and social action The trumpet of conscience (pp. 37-51). Boston: Beacon Press.
King Jr., M. L. (1967). Nonviolence and social change The trumpet of conscience (pp. 55-66). Boston: Beacon Press.