True Alliance

King called for a creative mix of new organizations to be vehicles for democratic power. In addition to revitalized and democratized labor unions, they would include unions of tenants and of social service recipients. Such grassroots unions of the poor and disadvantaged would coalesce with other groups into a bottom-up coalition, a “true alliance.”

A true alliance, he explained, was “based upon some self-interest of each component group and a common interest into which they merge. For an alliance to have permanence and loyal commitment from its various elements, each of them must have a goal from which it benefits and none must have an outlook in basic conflict with the others.” One would not ally with a group that disagreed on fundamental values or principles, like anti-racism, even if sharing the same goals. The idea was to create alliances broader and deeper than the April 1967 peace mobilization, for example, but not so loose as to be “least common denominator” coalitions that agreed only on the narrowest single-issue objective. Rather than top-down coalitions jealously guarded by movement generals, true alliances would have mechanisms of participatory decision making built in.

Only a true alliance, or alliance of true alliances, he believed, could eliminate the triple evils of racism, exploitation, and militarism—and as an electoral coalition, move toward a democratic socialist society that would institutionalize power guided by compassion. The Johnson administration had shown in 1964 and 1965 that an American-style social democracy was not impossible. But LBJ sabotaged his Great Society and his own greatness by immoral power carried to the extreme: his Ahab obsession with the Moby Dick of Vietnam. [331-32]

Direct Action vs. Electoral Politics: a False Dichotomy?

Through true alliances and other means, mass direct action must be combined with the quest to build an effective coalition to win electoral power. A progressive coalition must replace an out-of-control president with a candidate committed to both peace and economic justice, and elect a new congressional majority to stem its rightward spin. Were these strategies at loggerheads? Although he no doubt worried about it, King did not publicly question whether mass urban disruption, while sublimating riots, would sharpen the white backlash and hinder efforts to win a progressive majority. He hoped that disciplined and principled disruption would shake loose the conscience-stricken elements of the growing backlash from the hard-core racists and mindless patriots.

To see coalition politics as the “exclusive method,” which Bayard Rustin had long been urging, “is as futile as it is disastrous. Negroes are not in a mood to wait for change by the slower, tedious, often frustrating road of political action.” This dilemma recalled the early 1960s’ contention between desegregation and voting rights campaigns, but now with higher stakes. King said that while urban blacks were learning to value electoral insurgency for long-term progress, they needed “the social adrenaline of quick changes” offered by direct action. It would be difficult to mix electoral action with nonviolent disruption, and each might fray the other, but he saw no sense in giving up one for the other.

Rather than the false dichotomy of direct action versus electoral politics, he wanted to combine the two—the best of each tradition—into a creative if ambiguous synthesis, working simultaneously outside and inside the political system. For un-emancipated citizens, direct action was an expression of politics by other means. [350-51, 258]

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