I wonder how many of the people invoking the name of Dr. King have actually read his writings, his speeches, his sermons. How many have really understood his words and what he stood for.
Others counter that if we follow King's dictates, they'll be passively resisting their way to the grave. That his strategy of nonviolence failed. That the time has come when we can and must fight back, violently if necessary. I wonder, too, how many of the people dismissing King's methods have read and understood his words.
Because here's the thing. I happen to believe that Dr. King, flawed though he was, was one of the greatest Americans to ever live. I believe that with all my heart. In times of greatest hopelessness I turn to his words for hope and for guidance on a way forward. And if you think that Dr. King's entire life's work can be summed up as "nonviolence," then I believe you've been sold a bill of good, my friends.
Yes, Dr. King preached nonviolence, preached passive resistance. He believed violence was abhorrent, although he didn't condemn it unequivocally. Asked to speak out against race riots he instead said "a riot is the language of the unheard." America, he said:
"...has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity."Pause for a moment and reflect on just how true those decades-old words remain. King said that wherever there is injustice, violence will follow, and that "social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention."
I think that a lot of the folks who extol King's strategy of passive resistance are focusing way more on the word "passive" than they are on the word "resistance." And we can't be totally to blame for seeing it this way. I think educators, when they blow the dust off of their Black history lessons every February, tend to preach that what made King special was his nonviolence, as if Black folk before Dr. King had been meeting every injustice with armed insurrection. But Dr. King was one of the good ones, they say without saying. He was well-behaved and respectable. It's a self-serving narrative, and it's a shamefully incomplete one.
King was about so much more than nonviolence. He was about the tireless struggle for justice. He was about using boycotts to hit oppressors where it truly hurt - the wallet. He was about marching through the streets not in a show of passive resistance but in a show of empowerment. He was about seizing the right to speak, to protest, to demand justice in the strongest possible terms. No justice, no peace.
Before invoking Dr. King, read his Letter from a Birmingham Jail in its entirety. In it, he says "Over the past few years I have consistently preached that nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek. I have tried to make clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or perhaps even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends."
Next time you think to use Dr. King to urge Black folk to calm down and be peaceful, take a look at his A Time to Break the Silence speech. Know that he is speaking right to you when he says "A time comes when silence is betrayal."
Sociologist Doreen Loury says that she gets "so tired of people turning King into a dreamer." She says that people reducing him to that "made him safe. He was a revolutionary. That's reflected in his last book when he says
"White Americans must recognize that justice for black people cannot be achieved without radical changes in the structure of our society. The comfortable, entrenched, the privileged cannot continue to tremble at the prospect of change of the status quo... This is a multiracial nation where all groups are dependent on each other... There is no separate white path to power and fulfillment, short of social disaster, that does not share power with black aspirations for freedom and human dignity."Whenever I read King's words, I get the eeriest feeling that he's talking directly to us today. But are we really listening? Or are we waving his name like a cudgel? Are we advocating for him or are we merely trying to gag Black voices with his name alone? Before we go on quibbling over whether this or that action flies in the face of King's message, we ought to all know exactly what his message was.