5 Movement Building Insights from Dr. King, As Told by Grace Lee Boggs
Grace Lee Boggs was born in 1915 and passed away in 2015. In her century of life, she became one of the first Chinese American women to receive a PhD in philosophy and was a leader in all the great movement of the 21st century -- from workers rights, to civil rights, to women's liberation, to the environmental movement. She walked alongside King and Malcolm, and engaged many more thinkers and leaders in dialogue. In her last book, The Next American Revolution, she unpacks a historically grounded, visionary theory of social transformation, rooted in local community building and participatory democracy.
Her reflections on Dr. King are remarkable for their ability to root his thought in the dual arcs of one man's personal development unfolding within the broader narrative of socio-political and intellectual evolution. Toward the end of the chapter titled "Let's Talk About Malcolm and Martin," she synthesizes her learnings into five actionable principles for movement builders. They're worth a read and some reflection.
Without further ado, Mrs. Grace Lee Boggs:
The study of King's life and works can teach us invaluable lessons for building a movement in this moment of danger and opportunity:
- King was very clear that suffering and oppression are not enough to create a movement. African Americans began the Montgomery Bus Boycott because they had "replaced self-pity with self-respect and self-depreciation with dignity." In other words, a movement begins when the oppressed begin seeing themselves not just as victims but as new men and women -- pioneers in creating new, more human relations and thus advancing the evolution of the human race.
- Movement builders are also very conscious of the need to go beyond slogans and to create programs of struggle that transform and empower participants. The Montgomery Bus Boycott, for example, created an alternative self-reliant transportation system. When Jimmy and I helped launch Detroit Summer in 1992 to promote youth leadership and new visions for the city, we were inspired by King's last speeches addressing the alienation of urban youth -- to give young people in "our dying cities" opportunities to engage in "self-transforming and structure-transforming" direct action.
- Confident of their own humanity, movement builders are able to recognize the humanity in others, including their opponents, and therefore the potential within them for redemption. So they hate unjust deeds but are careful not to hate the doers of these deeds. And they choose to struggle nonviolently because they know that nonviolent struggles can become swords that heal, enabling both sides to grow to humanity's full stature and restoring community, while violent struggles increase the hate, fear, and bitterness in the world.
- At the heart of movement building is the concept of two-sided transformation, both of ourselves and of our institutions. Even though justice is on our side, we recognize that we are also products of this society. That is why we make sure that the methods we use in our struggles are transforming ourselves as well as our opponents into more human human beings.
- Thinking dialectically is also pivotal to movement building because it prepares us for the contradictions that inevitably develop in the course of a struggle. A struggle that starts with the needs of a particular ethic or social group only becomes a movement if it creates Hope and the vision of a new society for everyone. Thus, the black rebellions and the call for Black Power that exploded in northern cities after 1965 expressed the frustration and desperation of urban black youth whose needs were not being met by the civil rights movement.