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The Real Dr. King


When I was growing up, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was related to me, a young white boy, as something more like a legend than a human being. The story went, in the broad strokes, that black Americans were not being treated fairly, and while some white people were behind it, most simply didn’t know it was happening. So, he brought it to national attention, and via peaceful protests and beautiful speeches, convinced decent white people to fix racism. Everyone lived happily ever after.

As an adult, however, the legend looks more like a cruel joke. In retrospect, King was presented more as a pet for white people, a nice fantasy that we can use to remind ourselves of that one time we listened to a black man, and acted on what he said enough to feel good about ourselves.

Now, it’s 2016 and we live in the midst of the BlackLivesMatter movement. We live in a country where boys like Tamir Rice and men like Eric Garner die needlessly at the hands of an unjust system while white people, who largely consider ourselves totally not racist at all, either pretend the problems don’t exist, make excuses to downplay the problems, or flail our arms helplessly that these tragedies keep happening and there’s nothing we can do.

I have a future post in the works on the concept of “whiteness” more generally, but for today I want to talk about King himself, and illustrate some of his frustrations regarding what he described as “white moderates.” It’s remarkable how similar his concerns were to the situation today. Remarkable, and somewhat depressing since this letter from a Birmingham jail was penned over 50 years ago:

First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. 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; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." 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 had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured. ... I have just received a letter from a white brother in Texas. He writes: "All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth." Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. ... I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action. I am thankful, however, that some of our white brothers in the South have grasped the meaning of this social revolution and committed themselves to it.

I am not a religious person myself, so I won’t comment on the religious content (which is extensive), though if it resonates with the reader, so much the better. What I do want to draw attention to are a few details that King himself was aware of but which tends to be lost on white Americans who may believe in racial justice but are uncomfortable with the reality of what achieving it entails.

  1. It is common (and easy) for liberals and progressives to believe that progress marches on inevitably, as if some underlying force in the universe is slowly but inexorably pushing us toward a just society. As King notes, this only occurs because people fight for it. There are often two steps forward and one step back, if progress is made at all. Progress is in no way inevitable, and in fact can easily be lost through complacency. As an example in the US, the drug war, welfare reform, and the financial collapse of 2009 have devastated the black community: families have been destroyed, wealth has been annihilated. As a whole, black Americans aren't much better off than they were in King's time. This is not so much the result of open racism of the KKK variety, but ostensibly race-blind policies which are nevertheless applied in racist ways. Some of these racial outcomes are intentional (Republican strategists have, at times, been quite clear about this) while at other times, the consequences are unintended but just as real and destructive. They all stem from the same systems and institutions which are, at turns, consciously and unconsciously racist.
  2. Nonviolent protest is not peaceful protest. This cannot be stressed enough. Nonviolent protest means a commitment to not engaging in violence yourself, but also accepting that violence may well be visited upon you. This was the ultimate success of King's approach: putting people in harm's way to be beaten by police, while not violently resisting themselves, so shocked and horrified white America that the political will to _do something_ about racial injustice finally (if all too briefly) manifested. Nonviolent protest is also necessarily disruptive, which tends to be forgotten in much of the discussion and writing around the BLM movement. BLM's tactics are often right out of King's playbook: disrupting everyday activities and (nonviolently) resisting police attempts to break up their protests recreate almost exactly how King fought for change at the ground level.
  3. White moderates have a low tolerance for discomfort, and that's just as much a problem today as it was in King's time. It remains an impediment to real progress. White people are hypothetically fine with achieving racial justice, as long as we don't have to really _do_ anything, and especially so long as we're not required to pay much attention or take a look at how we may be contributing to the underlying problems. We view racism as something that happens to black people, slavery as something that happened to black people, and not systems and injustices that were visited upon black people _by_ white people. Black people are, of course, acutely aware of the history, as they are forced to own it and we have the luxury of pretending that, since we _personally_ didn't participate, we're off the hook. King's frustration with white moderates who just want to wait for racial justice to "happen" is understandable. Again, justice doesn't happen: it is fought for, and sometimes died for.

As we celebrate another Martin Luther King Day, I implore you, as one average white guy speaking to another, if any of the above is news to you, give it some real thought and think about what you can do to combat racism in your daily life. Dr. King had a dream, and it has yet to become reality. It never will so long as we, as white people who claim to believe in justice and equality, continue thinking that achieving it is someone else’s responsibility.

The responsibility is ours.

Addendum: There are some great responses to this tweet, as well, which are on the same themes as this post.

Photo by InSapphoWeTrust