Wednesday, March 21, 2007

MLK, Luthuli and Nonviolent Resistance


An undeniable link connected Martin Luther King and Albert Luthuli, two socially and politically active black leaders on separate continents in the twentieth century. The former, American, and the latter, South African, lived under the shadow of white supremacy in their nations. Both were members of economically and politically disadvantaged populations and saw solutions for the trials of their people in social and economic justice. For the two, the liberation of their people lay in Christian ethic and in the employment of non-violent methods of resistance. They were respectively committed to ending the racially divisive systems of segregation (in the American South) and apartheid (in South Africa), and replacing these with communities where racial and ethnic equality and tolerance prevailed. At the same time, the two sprang from the loins of unique cultures with particular socioeconomic and political concerns, separated by an ocean. Their responses to the social and political injustices their people faced were rooted in those culturally specific contexts.

Despite their differences, one cannot ignore the contact between their distinct spheres and cultures, and even the possibility that the two had an important influence on each other. Lewis Baldwin, a historian whose text, Toward the Beloved Community, focuses on King’s influence on South African politics, describes King’s return from an African visit in 1957, determined to be a voice for South Africa’s oppressed population: “his knowledge undoubtedly expanded to new levels as he studied the Defiance Campaign led by Chief Albert J Luthuli and the ANC in1952-53” (Baldwin, 11). Baldwin goes on to describe how “King and Luthuli communicated with each other, even as the latter faced the rising challenges of Pan-Africanism and the scrutiny and harassment of the South African government”(Baldwin, 20). Luthuli would later describe his admiration for King to G McLeod Bryan, King’s friend, who would then recount the conversation to King: “the greatest inspiration to him was your Stride Toward Freedom . . . Luthuli had been reading it in his cane fields the very day that I visited him . . . His eyes were the brightest when I referred to him as the “King” of South Africa” (Baldwin, 21). King’s reply to Luthuli expressed similar sentiments: “may I say that I too have admired you tremendously from a distance . . . I admire your great witness and your dedication to the cause of freedom and human dignity” (Ibid.). Clearly then, the similarities between the two were more than mere coincidence. This was, in time, evidenced when the two leaders received Nobel Peace Prizes, Luthuli belatedly, in 1961, and King in 1964. Both occasions reflected world leaders’ recognition that the two were the best hope for a global concern: peaceful, multiracial co-existence in their countries (Baldwin, 34).

More evidence of the two leaders’ similarities exists in King’s Stride Toward Freedom and Luthuli’s Let my People Go, both autobiographical texts, authored during a time of great social and political transformation globally. Authored in the time period between 1950 and 1965, and documenting events of political import from the same era, the two texts reflect the concurrent transition from explicit colonialism and imperialism to what many believed would be independence. The explicit racial subjugation which had governed relations between colonizers and their colonial subjects was transforming into a more nuanced form of economic exploitation in which, to all appearances, the emerging nations were equal partners with their former masters. Naturally, King and Luthuli were aware of these transformations and recognized that the winds of change could soon be blowing through their own nations. Just as new nations appeared to be phasing out rigid, racialized economies and political hierarchies, the two saw that the same could potentially happen in their own nations. However, also aware of the stakes involved for the ruling white communities, the two were conscious that their people’s struggles to modify the political and economic systems could result in bloodshed. Their efforts to prevent this eventuality by promoting non-violence and building interracial bridges won them their Nobel Peace Prizes.

It is not possible to overemphasize that the two men’s ideas resonated on a global scale because they reflected a global concern. In a sense, the black, Indian and colored populations in South Africa continued to live under the colonial yoke, even as the rest of the continent was emerging from this scene. African Americans in the U.S. South also continued to live under a similar form of oppression, and therefore, their struggles under this oppression could be likened to the anti-colonial struggles on the African and Asian continents. The two nations’ racial crises were part of a global racial crisis. By comparing Luthuli’s and King’s autobiographical writings, I hope to reveal similarities between the two men, their communities and their ideologies, reflecting that the two fit into a larger global anti-colonial scheme. At the same time, the comparison will unearth differences between the two, which I will view as evidence that the leaders’ ideologies and methods developed out of their specific local contexts and conditions. My overall aim is to underline the importance of local contexts and of global trends in influencing specific political movements and events.

I have chosen to view Luthuli’s and King’s autobiographies as personal histories. Autobiographical texts, like any other potential historical references, are subject to their author’s biases and to their particular perspectives of social and political situations. While this is a potential setback in any form of research, it could also be the opposite, as it is in this case. The two texts are primary sources; essentially the first-person accounts of individuals who orchestrated and took part in non-violent protests, and who were directly affected by their choices to do so. Because they are not “objective” observations, they emphasize their authors’ subject positions, revealing how the political and the personal intersect. The texts also provide evidence of their authors’ worldviews, and of their subjectivities and contexts. Furthermore, they document the legislation and political events of the era so that a broader picture, simultaneously national and international, emerges.

The autobiographical accounts are not exhaustive of King’s and Luthuli’s interests or of their efforts for social justice. King’s writing, for example, does not indicate either his interest in South African politics, or white poverty or US prison systems, although they are slightly touched on within. Likewise, in his autobiography, Luthuli does not highlight his views on global poverty, although he hints at them while describing his visit to India. These points indicate the specialized nature of the texts, emphasizing that they devote most of their attention to specific events in the leaders’ political careers. King’s account describes the Montgomery bus protests that began in 1954, and the extent to which these mobilized the regional black population into non-violent political action. Luthuli’s writing covers a much longer period. Thus, in his case, I will primary focus on the Defiance Campaign of 1957 South Africa, also a non-violent form of mass protest, which his account gives prominence.

The men and their communities

Luthuli and King were both elite members of their respective communities. Both were highly-educated individuals, distinguishing them from most members of their racial communities. King descended from a line of ministers and, in addition, married Coretta Scott, the daughter of a minister (King, 21). This is significant, given that a lot of black political leadership evolved from leadership positions in the Church during his era. It reveals that King already occupied a position of potential leadership by virtue of his family ties. He had a relatively privileged background, growing up in Atlanta, mixing with white childhood friends before segregation set in, and eventually attending college and university (King, 18). His educational career proceeded up to the PhD level in Boston University, in the US North. He was still writing his dissertation when he accepted a pastoral position at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama (King, 22). King’s education and his experience in the Northern states exposed him to cosmopolitan life among American whites as their intellectual and social equal. It is probable that this experience helped develop his intuition that racial integration was an achievable goal.

Luthuli, on the other hand, was the son of Zulu converts to Christianity, and grew up largely in Groutville, Natal in South Africa. His community was home to Christians as well as believers in Zulu indigenous religious thought, two groups that lived and interacted in harmony (Luthuli, 20). Luthuli was privileged enough to receive the very education that white South Africans felt created “Black Englishmen”, preparing them for positions in fields other than industrial labor, mining and agriculture. Through his schooling, Luthuli saw his white teachers, not primarily as white men, but as teachers (Luthuli, 29). His formal education ended at Adams College, where he entered a Teachers’ Training Course, and then stayed on to teach for more than a decade(Luthuli, 33). Luthuli married Nokukhanya Bhengu, of royal Zulu blood, tying him to a traditional elite family. In addition, his education as well as his Christian faith (the two were inextricably linked) availed him opportunities that were not immediately available to most people from his community. In1936, he became Chief of the Umvoti Mission Reserve after democratic elections, thus beginning official leadership in a position that his uncle had previously occupied (Luthuli, 55). In both cases, the men came into leadership of their communities by virtue of a combination of factors: their religion, their family ties and their education. Both men also had exposure to situations in which their interactions with whites were not explicitly racialized. This would have an impact on the ideas that they developed.

The contexts in Alabama and South Africa differed. The majority race in South Africa at the time that the autobiography is written is black. This community, together with the minority Colored and Indian populations, live under the oppressive rule of the white minority. Luthuli’s desire for cooperation between different groups gives priority to cooperation among blacks of different ethnic groups, and then to the cooperation of these with Indians and, finally, with Colored people. He views this series of cooperative relationships as being significant for the development of a unified national resistance to white rule. In fact, he traces the ANC’s eventual success as the voice of South African resistance to its ability to collaborate with the Indian Congress, white liberal groups, leftist whites, and various political groups covering a variety of ethnicities and races (Luthuli, 101). The autobiography also notes that South African legislation is the basis for the racialized hierarchies.

Racial cooperation in Montgomery, Alabama, as described by King, involves two primary communities: black and white. Legislation in the Southern states, including Alabama, supports institutionalized segregation. However, this is in opposition to Federal legislation, and to legislation in the Northern States. The result of this is that members of the minority black community, prevalent in the South, potentially have the ability to move to the Northern states to escape segregationist legislation and its limiting effects on their lives. Secondly, black residents of Southern states could appeal to the Federal Judiciary system if dissatisfied with Southern forms of justice (King, 160). In fact, the latter is the method that King and his colleagues used to get bus segregation in Montgomery declared illegal. The success of this endeavor illustrates the effectiveness of this tool, which was unavailable to Luthuli and his South African colleagues. In the South African case, the disenfranchisement of all blacks, Coloreds and Indians strips them of any ability to influence policy. Furthermore, they are unrepresented in the government, in parliament and in the Judiciary.

Another important factor is the amount of Northern capital invested in the Southern US states. King and his colleagues, aware of this, get in touch with the Chicago-based parent company of the Buslines that they are protesting against, reasoning that a Chicago office representative would be better able to negotiate with them (King, 113). While this turns out not to be the case, it sill represents an opportunity that was largely unavailable to the South Africans. In the South African case, any change to legislature would have to come from international pressure in the form of economic and diplomatic sanctions. In this sense, the two struggles, while both against institutionalized racism, are vastly different.

Another difference exists between the two situations. On the one hand, the ANC is a nationwide movement, with the Defence Campaign held on a nation-wide basis. Though urban-based, the association and its campaign still amass significant rural support. The MIA, on the other hand, is very specific to the Montgomery bus protest situation, created for the sole purpose of coordinating the protests and unifying the black protesters. Both organizations receive regional and international support and funding, but the scope of their efforts is primarily regional in Montgomery, and national in South Africa.

Luthuli observes another difference between his country and the US during a visit to the Southern states. He observes that black industrial and agricultural colleges in the US South are similar to those created for black South Africans. However, he notes that African Americans are able to get state financial aid, which is not the case for his own community (Luthuli, 81). On another level, Luthuli and King are similar. Both are visionaries, with the latter believing that segregation would end, and making it a reality, and the former interpreting the increasing brutality of the South African government as an indication that their reign was coming to an end. Both turned out to be right, but it is likely that their specific views of liberation were nowhere close to the present day status quo in their nations: black populations are now enfranchised and segregation is no longer an institutional reality (in theory), but their communities remain at the bottom of the economic ladder.

Their Political and Religious Thought

King and Luthuli developed their ideologies in response to specific circumstances. Both were firmly rooted in Christianity, and supported non-violent forms of protest. At the same time, they both saw religion’s applicability to the personal and the social, and tried to use this to achieve social justice and economic justice for non-white populations. Interestingly, their non-violent philosophies took a leaf from Mohandas Gandhi’s Satyagraha. Gandhi was Hindu, and, thus, some might see the two men’s adoption of his methods as a divergence from the “true” Christian path. However, as King describes it, satyagraha resonated with the Christian edict to turn the cheek. Both ideals are in favor of non-violence, but while the latter was personal, the former showed a way to translate it into the political (King, 96). The two, fully aware of non-Christian faiths were not dismissive of this possibility; they willingly borrowed from Gandhi’s ideology.

King was able to reconcile individuals from different denominations of the Christian church and to get them to unite under the banner of integration. For his part, Luthuli grew up in a community surrounded by traditional Zulu believers as well as Christians. Later on, he would be one of the leaders of the Defiance Campaign, which involved Christians, believers in indigenous African religions, Muslims, Hindus and individuals of other religious persuasions. Faith was a significant aspect of King’s political involvement. He saw God’s hand in the occurrence of the bus protests in Montgomery at that specific time. He had a concept of depersonalized love, agape love, which he believed would allow blacks to maintain their dignity and to overcome feelings of inferiority when faced with white aggression (King, 104).

With time, the two would face accusations of involvement in communism from their political opponents. It is not surprising that they both devoted part of their writings to comments about Communism. King admitted to having read Karl Marx’s writings in the context of his graduate studies. He indicated that he studied the writings of a number of different thinkers and philosophers, and described his reactions to them. King rejected Marx’s secularist non-religious approach and saw his materialism as an insufficient analysis of the then state of affairs in capitalist society. He also felt that Marx’s theory was too depersonalized and elevated the collective at the expense of the personal. At the same time, King was challenged by Marx’s works in that they addressed economic inequalities in a way that capitalism and the Christianity espoused by White supremacists did not. Thus, his reaction to Marxism and to Communist thought was mixed (King, 95).

Luthuli never had the chance to read any of Marx’s writings, but he had the intuition that a lot of the prevailing rhetoric about Communism amounted to nothing more than witch hunts. Like King, he saw Communists as a misguided group of people. He expressed his sympathy for them, but emphasized that there was no need to depersonalize Communists and turn them into social pariahs: “until things take a change for the better in South Africa, the resistance must be a body of people of diverse outlook and religion (Muslims and Hindus co-operate too) working together for one end . . . Resistance movements cannot afford the luxury of McCarthyism, nor can they allow themselves to be divided up into innumerable little homogenous groups. We are not playing at politics, we are bent on liberation” (Luthuli, 154).

Luthuli’s rhetoric was for the integration of the different races and ethnicities of South Africa into a united community. This was primarily in response to the National Party’s proposal for separate development, which would separate the different ethnic and racial groupings into homogenous groups (or so the authorities wanted to believe) to prevent miscegenation and allow the white minority to continue to exploit the other groups economically without having to interact with them socially. Separate development implied that the different races were on different positions on an evolutionary timeline, and that, therefore, they had different cultural, social and political needs. This amounted to inferior education and social services for non-whites, especially for the black-majority. Furthermore, it supported the white supremacists claim for permanent political primacy. The white rulers were fond of using the term baaskap to refer to blacks’ supposed inability to help themselves. This is somewhat reminiscent of white propagandists’ claims in the American South that delinquency was inherent in blacks as evidenced by their communities’ conditions in Northern cities. Both leaders realized that the white authorities’ constant sabotage of their opportunities to improve themselves were having a negative toll on the self-perception of black communities. As a result, both wove their tactics around the view that they were fighting a system as opposed to a race (Luthuli, 116). Hence, their movements welcomed the involvement of other races, and were, in fact, designed to inspire involvement of this nature (Luthuli,117).

The Movements

The African National Congress (ANC) came into being at the beginning of the 20thcentury. However, it was a long time before the organization was able to amass unified nationwide resources and support. Jan Smuts’ 1946 Asiatic Land Tenure helped to unify Indians and Africans in protest, thus giving rise to the first instance of cooperation between the ANC and the Indian Congress. After 1948, when the National Party came into power, conditions deteriorated for the non-white populations. White hostility towards the other races increased, swelling ANC ranks. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Under Dr James Moroka, the new President-General of the ANC, a new Programme of Action evolved. This consisted of new methods of protest. Instead of mere words and apathy, the ANC conceived of nationwide demonstrations, civil disobedience and strike action (Luthuli, 109). In 1952, the Defiance Campaign was born. It was a large scale rejection of the color bar, with blacks, Indians and some coloreds rejecting the inferior facilities accessible to them, and using white facilities instead. They deliberately flouted curfew and pass regulations. The Defiance Campaign occurred on a national scale and, despite Luthuli’s fears that the participants were not prepared well enough, it was successful (Luthuli, 112). The protesting groups were prepared to avoid all forms of violence protest and, for this reason, there was little that the authorities could do beyond initially arresting them en masse. The media response, which likely reflected white popular sentiment at the time, was near hysterical (Luthuli 118).

In Montgomery, the bus protests developed in a similarly unprecedented manner. After years of segregation and abuse of blacks on the bus lines, one Rosa Parks, exhausted after a long day on her feet at work, refused to stand up to allow a white man to seat. She was arrested, and charged with breaking the law (King, 43). This action precipitated the Women’s Political Council to suggest the boycotting of the buses, a process which soon followed. Acting under the direction of the Montgomery Improvement Association, under King’s leadership, black residents of Montgomery boycotted the buses for over five months, developing, instead, an efficient car-pool. The movement united members of different denominations and rejected all forms of aggression on the part of the black community.

In both cases, the movements’ actions seem to have sprung into action by chance, given that both contexts were characterized by decades of brutality and racial oppression. However, it is actually the case that the accumulation of several different factors such as desegregation legislation in the US, and increased oppressive legislation in South Africa, combined with spreading waves of political consciousness, jumpstarted the protests. Opposition to the protests was similar in the two contexts. Bombings and Ku Klux Klan appearances were among the white reactions to the bus boycott. However, as these turned out to be ineffectual, the authorities began to rely on legislation to delegitimize the boycotters’ actions (King, 149).

In South Africa, agents provocateurs were used to provoke violence, which was then used to justify a violent counter-attack on the protesters. At the same time, the focus turned to the leaders of the ANC, who included Albert Luthuli. The government banned them, charged them with treason, and kept them under constant surveillance. In the South African case, the Defiance Campaign became the symbol for a larger conspiracy that the authorities imagined existed and had to be unearthed. Thus, at one given time Luthuli was in jail for his role in organizing other forms of protest and testifying at the Treason trial (Luthuli, 225).


As similar as the two protests were, they had drastically different endings. The MIA’s efforts resulted in the end of segregation on Montgomery’s buses, both in legislation and in reality. They would give rise to similar victories across the region. King’s involvement and his anti-violence stance contributed to racial integration in the region (for the period that the book covered). The South African struggle went a different way. The government clamped down on all forms of protest, arresting many opposition leaders and forcing the ANC and the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) to go underground. Apartheid’s noose tightened around the necks of the South African majority. In a sense, the opposition was forced to adopt violent methods.

The differences in the two endings are rooted in the particulars of each case. The scales of the protests were significant. The South Africa one was nationwide, meaning that there was more at stake for the power-holders. The MIA’s action was largely regional and, because it was not fighting a national legal battle, support from federal branches of government and from the Northern states were possible. South Africa’s whites were also in a more precarious situation than those in the American South because they were a population minority. Thus, their techniques were more extreme and more violent. The two societies were clearly at different stages in the evolution of racial relationships. Thus, the outcomes of non-violent protest were necessarily different between them.

It is important to mention that the end of the two accounts did not signal the end of the political movements described. Neither did the accounts provide a comprehensive look at the political totality of the South African and American pictures. To date race relations in the two countries, though nowhere close to the segregation of the fifties and sixties, point to the persistence of racialized economic hierarchies. Black communities in South Africa and the US are technically integrated into multiracial communities today. However, it is unlikely that they reflect King’s Beloved Community model or Luthuli’s hopes for a united South Africa.

Luthuli’s and King’s accounts have contributed to the development of global understandings of economic exploitation and violence. This is especially relevant at present, with the rise of globalization and the need to understand the interconnectedness of world communities’ destinies. The existence of large-scale currents and trends does not, however, do away with our need to understand and respect the specifics of local communities’ experiences. It is these contextual differences that make it possible to speak of a larger picture and, consequently, to develop a nuanced understanding of inter-racial cooperation and of historical writing.

Works Cited

Baldwin, Lewis V. Toward the Beloved Community: Martin Luther King and South Africa. Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press. 1995.

King, Martin Luther Jr. Stride Toward Freedom: the Montgomery Story. New York: Harper Collins Publishers. 1986.

Luthuli, Albert. Let my People Go. New York: McGraw Hill Book Company, Inc. 1962.

 Creative Commons License This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License. Please feel free to use my writing for non-commercial purposes and do credit my name, Rose Kahendi, as the writer.

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