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From Bayard Rustin

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Author: Rustin, Bayard (Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom)

Date: May 10, 1957

Location: New York, N.Y.

Genre: Letter

Topic: Martin Luther King, Jr. - Political and Social Views



Telling King that “the question of where you move next is more important than any other question Negroes face today,” Rustin suggests themes for King’s speech at the Prayer Pilgrimage to Washington, D.C. In his address at the Lincoln Memorial on 17 May, King adhered to Rustin’s suggestion to include strong statements on nonviolence and the importance of voting rights, but did not emphasize the pivotal role of organized labor in the civil rights struggle as Rustin urges below.1

Rev. M.L. King, Jr.
309 S. Jackson Street
Montgomery, Alabama

Dear Martin:

I hope to see you and have a short time to discuss some important matters with you in Washington. I shall be there a day or so in advance. I understand that you will be getting in the night before.2 I shall call you at the Statler to make arrangements for getting together. As Stanley [Levison] told you we discussed the content of the paper he gave you in New York—entitled “A Wind is Rising”.3 I think the content of this is—as far as it goes—sound. However, I feel it is limited in these respects:

(a) There is not sufficient spiritual content.
(b) There is not a clear statement on non-violence.

In this connection, I hope you will consider using this occasion to call upon Negroes north and south to adhere to non-violence in work, thought and deed.

Needless to say, this occasion is indeed an important one and to reach its possibilities. I believe you will need to say something to touch the following areas of life:

(a) Something new by way of analysis of the racial struggle
(b) Something in relation to voting and labor cooperation, the two major areas where action is demanded and where action is possible in the wide struggle of community organization.
(c) Something striking on the question of non-violence

While you will, of course, speak in your own way, I enclose a short outline of points that I believe meet the three areas referred to above.

If possible, we should have a copy of your talk soon after you get to Washington, if not before, since we shall need to have it mimeographed for the press. This is important. If you could get up to Washington on the morning of the 16th (Thursday) you might work on the talk in the hotel. I could, in this event, get a girl to help you and I could plan to be there if needed. 

These ideas are not particularly logical but have a significance which I feel is worthy of consideration.

(1) On the non-violent emphasis, the form in creative action is always Yes—No—Yes. That is to say a positive action such as the idea of brotherhood, followed by a rejection—a No. Rejection of segregation, discrimination, injustice; this must be followed by a positive action. The positive action is brotherhood, followed by the negative rejection of non-brotherhood, followed by a common action.
(2) The need to expand the struggle on all fronts: Up to now we have thought of the color question as something which could be solved in and of itself. We know now that while it necessary to say No to racial injustice, this must be followed by a positive program of action. The struggle for the right to vote, for economic uplift of the people. A part of this is the realization that men are truly brothers, that the Negro cannot be free so long as there are poor and underprivileged white people.
(3) This leads to the realization that economic and social change for the uplift of all poor people is part of the struggle of Negroes for justice.
(4) In the United States one of the most important groups for action on the economic uplift of underprivileged peoples is the American labor movement. Equality for Negroes is related to the greater problem of economic uplift for Negroes and poor white men. They shareaa common problem and have a common interest in working together for economic and social uplift. They can and must work together. Negro leaders and Negro people should defend the right for men to organize and to eradicate economic and social injustice. Organized labor must work for the right of all men, black and white, to vote. They must eliminate segregation, or free labor unions cannot exist. This action is a part of the continuing program which is the “Action Yes,” but this can happen only when we have said No to segregation and discrimination.

Note: In this connection I want to talk seriously with you about the next step in action for the Southern Leaders’ Conference. It is this: A proposal that in September you call together Negro and white labor leaders of the south, and perhaps some from the north as advisors and counselors to meet with the Southern Leaders’ Conference to discuss the role of organized labor in the struggle for freedom, and a proposal that labor implement the struggle for Negroes to vote freely.

Actually, Martin, the question of where you move next is more important than any other question Negroes face today. This seems to me a creative direction. On this I shall have more to say when I see you. My reason now for bringing up this point is to discuss with you whether or not you can see your way clear to announce that you have called such a conference and announce it in your speech. This will give a sense of direction and meaning and the Prayer Pilgrimage impact will not be left in mid-air.

The decision, as I understand it, is that the three co-chairman will each have 10 minutes only to speak. This requires careful attention to each word if you decide to incorporate the three ideas suggested.

I wish the arrangements could have been simpler but apparently the decision has been made.

At any rate—as soon as I feel you have got this letter, I shall call you.

[signed] Bayard

1. Nor did King announce plans for a joint meeting of southern black and white labor leaders to discuss the role of organized labor in the freedom struggle (see “Give Us the Ballot,”).

2.King arrived in Washington on the morning of 16 May.

3. In “A Wind is Rising” (April 1957). Stanley Levison emphasized the connection between the labor movement’s struggle for economic justice and the civil rights movement’s struggle for voting rights.

Source: MLKP-MBU, Martin Luther King, Jr., Papers, 1954-1968, Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, Boston University, Boston, Mass.

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