“What would MLK think about these current protests,” sneers the white moderate. Over the past few weeks, many white people have crawled out of the woodwork to express their disdain for the current protest by citing Martin Luther King Jr.’s love of nonviolence. But bringing up MLK’s legacy as a way to win moral high ground is a moot point if one does not look into his career as a civil rights activist. In fact, he would say you’re part of the problem.
Martin Luther King Jr., a notable civil rights activist who fought for the rights of the Black community, was jailed over 20 times throughout his short life1. One of the most notable times was his arrest in Birmingham, Alabama, where he wrote Letter From a Birmingham Jail2. It was in this letter where he recorded the iconic line “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” That is now being seen quoted on social media and written on signs protesting police brutality as support for the Black Lives Matter movement grows.
Birmingham was a significant place during the civil rights era as it was considered one of the most racially segregated parts of the country, receiving that label because of the horrifying hate crimes and police brutality assaults against Black protesters. Specific instances were even televised as people were attacked by dogs and water hoses during protests3. The most notorious, racially motivated event in Birmingham, however, was the bombing of a predominantly Black church in September 1963, which happened because the community was slowly desegregating. This fatal incident left four girls dead, and one girl blinded, causing outrage among people from all different communities4.
Despite this hate found in Birmingham, Clergymen criticize MLK’s activism there because they felt it was done at an unsuitable time. He opens his letter by addressing these Clergymen, trying to give them a better understanding of why his work is necessary in a place where hate is so palpable. He draws attention to the fact that he has been actively criticized throughout his career because people always felt he was not protesting “correctly.”
Like many activists today, MLK defended the protests by saying the white power structures in Birmingham left the Black community with no other choice than to speak out. He goes further to say that they did try to negotiate with Birmingham’s leaders. They even worked out a deal with store owners that the protests would stop if stores took away racist signs prohibiting Black customers, and they came to an agreement. However, the store owners lied and kept the signs up regardless of their promises, so the movement took to the streets.
Nevertheless, that was not enough of a reason to protest, according to the clergymen. They claimed these demonstrations were inappropriate because they did not give the new administration time to act, which was rebutted by MLK’s statement that both Eugene “Bull” Connor and the new major, Albert Boutwell, were both segregationists. Although Boutwell might have been gentler about the issue, he was still fighting against the freedom of Black people. MLK concludes his point by saying that there is never a good time to fight for these issues, and that waiting for the right time often means waiting forever.
It is after that point where he transitions his letter to comment on the people that frequently criticize his activism. MLK goes on to describe how the white moderates who refuse action because they do not agree with the methods of the movement are more dangerous than the Ku Klux Klan in terms of fighting for the freedom of Black lives.
These lines are rarely talked about when the conversation of Martin Luther King Jr. comes up. Instead, people feel it’s important to discuss his non-violence and love. This is not to say those parts of MLK’s activism were not important, but there was more to him than what is taught in high schools.
As more and more people start to stand with the Black Lives Matter movement, we cannot be stumbling blocks preventing change. No more excuses that the time isn’t right or that protesting isn’t the way to be seen. The time is now, and we already see a positive impact because of the protests. Racist statues are being torn down, and cops are being held accountable, even fired, for their wrongful actions.5 If anything, we need to keep fighting now more than ever.
For those women that call themselves feminists but refuse to stand up for issues that do not directly impact them, you need to reevaluate your beliefs. You cannot pick and choose which women have value and deserve rights. It’s either all or nothing because women of color are as a part of the feminism movement as white women, so get educated and join the fight for the rights of Black people everywhere.
Today, we are seeing carbon copies of the past protests and movements catching up to our present, assuming they ever went away, and yet people still opt to remain silent and side with oppressors. MLK Jr. called out “appalling silence of the good people” as he wrote, “Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
We need to be better. We need to work harder. And we need to live in this tension until change comes about.