I think one of the more frustrating things about celebrating Martin Luther King Jr day is watching as many white people who had terrible things to say about the protestors in Baltimore and Chicago share some of Dr. King’s more famous quotes on social media. It’s always the more comfortable ones, the ones that don’t push or pull at any of their preconceived notions about what it’s like to be black in America. “The time is always right to do what is right.” “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”
I haven’t seen anyone post some more controversial but ultimately more timely of his quotes. Allow me.
It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.
I think it is good and right that we are celebrating the life and legacy of a man who disrupted the national language on race. He was not the first and he won’t be the last but he is certainly the most widely acknowledged and for that, I am forever grateful. Of course my current life and roll as mom to my five humans wouldn’t have been possible without his and so many others who sacrificed. And yet…
We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.
I can’t help but believe there is no way Martin Luther King Jr would have been okay with the current status of our racial relations in this country. I can’t believe that when he penned his Letter from Birmingham Jail (excerpts in italicized bold throughout this post) that he would see a boy like Donald Trump who openly espouses racist ideology leading the polls of an entire party as progress. And what of the confederate flag still waving above state capitals? Would he not see the unjust irony in the same state capitals waving the confederate flag taking the day off of work to commemorate his life?
But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society…There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.
And yet people point to having a black President of the United States and many other black Americans in positions of power. Steps forward, to be sure, but Dr. King never talked about allowing a few African Americans to be let in to the benefits of society that white Americans were naturally allowed because of the color of their skin, he was talking about all Americans being afforded the opportunity. I’m sure King would’ve celebrated Obama’s victory but also challenged Americans who believed it was a symbol of the death of racism. Particularly when faced with the reality that in 2010, 27.4 percent of blacks were still stuck in the airtight cage of poverty, compared to just 9 percent of non-hispanic whites.
A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law… Throughout Alabama all sorts of devious methods are used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters, and there are some counties in which, even though Negroes constitute a majority of the population, not a single Negro is registered. Can any law enacted under such circumstances be considered democratically structured?
53 years after King wrote the above, there are states in America that are passing Voter ID laws that place an undue burden on mostly poor and disproportionally black and latino Americans. Every bit of research proves election fraud is a nonissue and in that rare case that it happens, it’s mostly by mail-in absentee ballots (and thus not weeded out by the Voter ID law). 53 years and and the call to lift the obstacles in the way for black Americans and their right to vote remains.
I doubt that you would so quickly commend the policemen if you were to observe their ugly and inhumane treatment of Negroes here in the city jail; if you were to watch them push and curse old Negro women and young Negro girls; if you were to see them slap and kick old Negro men and young boys…
And what of the incarceration rate of black men in America in 2016? Can we honestly say King’s dream has been realized when African Americans are imprisoned at nearly six times the rate of whites? Even though 5 times as many Whites are using drugs as African Americans, African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of Whites. 53 years later and black Americans are still being slapped, kicked and killed by police with impunity. How do we celebrate the man but okay the status quo?
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice… Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
I admit to being for many years one of those moderates to which King references. I had no idea what white privilege meant or how I could possess it without ever having asked for it. I think because of that I find myself not in a position of pointing fingers and accusing other moderate whites of being terrible people or outright racists because they aren’t out joining protests. What I am saying is that I understand how the moderate whites who say nothing do more harm than the outright racists who spout such terrible rhetoric only other terrible people will agree. We whites who are kind, thoughtful, smart, considerate, community and business leaders who are not doing our part to educate ourselves and the people we love about what America is actually like for people of color hurt the cause more by turning a blind eye and encouraging others to do the same. We can no longer claim we are ignorant of the plight of people of color because we have access to their stories at our fingertips. Our ignorance is no longer bliss it’s poison and I believe King knew that even then-years before the Internet.
I felt we would be supported by the white church felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leader era; an too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.
The church. King writes in his Letter from Birmingham Jail that he has wept for the laxity of the church. “But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church.” Man do those words hit home for me as well. I’ve blogged before about my issues with the church and it seems King’s words are more prophetic than ever in that regard. It turns out I’m not nearly as forgiving as Dr. King because the church’s silence on matters of race is one big reason I still haven’t walked through the hollowed doors of a church in awhile. The deafening silence of my fellow christian when black life after black life is taken is enough to make me wonder if God is listening at all. And yet, I believe He is and I believe in the church-that she will come again to walk alongside the oppressed as Jesus once did. I know enough church leaders who are doing their part to call their congregation to come alongside their African American peers and to fight the injustice that pulses through the veins of our country to have hope. Dr. King taught me that.
Why I celebrate Dr. King today is because he is proof that a completely fallible human can carry out a revolution. Anyone who has done their homework knows that Dr. King wasn’t a perfect man and yet he became the voice of a generation who had been oppressed for too long. He is proof that you can do big things with your one big life no matter your past and no matter your current shortcomings.
Let today be a reminder of how far we’ve come, thanks in part to Dr. King, for sure. But let it also be a reminder of just how far we have to go.
Let it remind you that our current justice system is the exact same justice system that was in place in Dr. King’s time. It is currently working exactly how it was intended. This means we don’t need an updated justice system, we need to tear the current one completely down and start from scratch. We cannot possibly expect equality in our prison system when the system began on the backs of African Americans.
Let it remind you that current housing policies and racial bias in the workforce continue to keep people of color smothering in the airtight cage of poverty at far greater rates than whites just as they did 53 years ago.
Let it remind you that the school to prison pipeline is taking our children of color and setting them on the same paths of imprisonment that Dr. King abhorred. We can claim to have come so far but when we are stacking the cards from such a young age we can longer be surprised when the lives of people of color crumble under such weight.
And let today remind you that you are capable and have the moral obligation to act on behalf of those still oppressed. That you have a moral obligation to listen to their stories and not count them as false just because they differ from your own. Yes, the moral arc of the universe is long and bends towards justice but we have to be the ones to bend it. Let today remind you that no matter who you are, how little you think you matter or how many mistakes you make that you can make a difference. That your voice matters. It’s time we stop whitewashing Dr. King’s legacy and start taking up the cross that burdened him and continues to burden America. Because even though part of Dr. King’s dream has been realized there is far more that has been unrealized and it is that part that needs your voice. Lend it.