As an historian, cultural critic, and intellectual, Cyril Lionel Robert James internationalized Pan-Africanist ideas while making contributions to global Leftist political thought. After speaking to Martin Luther King in 1957, James wrote his colleagues that the Montgomery bus boycott was “one of the most astonishing events of endurance by a whole population that I have ever heard of” (James, 25 March 1957).
James was born on 4 January 1901, in Port of Spain, Trinidad, and educated at the Queens Royal College. He worked in the fields of journalism, academia, and politics, but was particularly concerned with black independence movements and the politics of colonialism. In 1938, he published his influential book, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, a study of the slave revolts that led to the independence of Haiti. That same year, James left England for the United States, during which time he met with Leon Trotsky in Mexico. In 1953, he was expelled from the United States for passport violations and returned to London but remained involved in the Johnson-Forest Tendency, a small group of U.S. radicals and Marxist theorists.
On 24 March 1957, during King’s return trip from Ghana, he spoke with James and other black intellectuals about the freedom struggle in the United States, specifically the Montgomery bus boycott. James saw parallels between King’s Gandhian conception of nonviolence and Ghanaian leader Kwame Nkrumah’s “positive action.” James gave King several books to read and promised to send him a copy of Black Jacobins. He later wrote that Marxist organizations would be “making a fundamental mistake” by not recognizing that the nonviolent movements in Ghana and Montgomery were “a technique of revolutionary struggle characteristic of our age” (Papers 4:150n).
In 1958, James returned to Trinidad and was barred once again from entering the United States until 1970. He was influential to many Black Power proponents, and spent the last years of his life teaching and lecturing across the globe. Following his death, the C. L. R. James Society was formed.