The plight of racism in the modern day is a tricky one. At this juncture, as a collective society, most of us believe that racism is harmful and shameful. However, that shift in society happened before many of us (by us, I am talking to myself and my white community) had taken much thought to just how deep racism has been ingrained into the fabric of our society. We don’t identify as racist because we don’t believe that those with light skin are better than those with dark skin. Most of us would not self-identify with white supremacist philosophy. How then is it that racism still exists in our very own local communities.
However, because we haven’t actually dealt with many of those subconscious philosophies that impact the way we view the world, and how race, culture, and socio-economics has impacted our deeper-conscious views, we still find ourselves trying to “prove” that we’re not racists, instead of asking the question: “Do I think racist thoughts? Do I make decisions based on racist thoughts?”.
One thing that I feel well-meaning white non-racists do to try and prove that we’re not racist, is talk about how amazing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was and mourn his early departure from this earth. Collectively as a nation, I believe this is evident by how much our country now loves MLK.
We roll out the proverbial carpet for MLK through memorials, naming rights for schools and major streets in urban areas, and of course, the national holiday! And we should memorialize him and remember his leadership in the greater Civil Rights Movement. He is absolutely a valuable member and leader within our nation’s history, and for Christians, he is an equally valuable member and leader within the “great cloud of witnesses” of our faith.
But how would have we responded to him if we were apart of American society in the 1960’s? How did our white communities respond to him when he was alive?
I sometimes wonder if our national memory of the man that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr was, is losing accuracy as history forces us to march on, wandering farther and farther from the 1968 MLK.
As a resident of North Minneapolis, I’ve been privy to observe the Black Lives Matter Minneapolis movement closer than others as they’ve responded to the unfortunate killing of Jamar Clark at the hands of an MPD police officer. The last few months have seen much more action and more demonstrations from BLM Mpls. I have witnessed these marches, participated in being a presence at the occupation outside the fourth precinct, and I’ve tried to learn as much as I can about the different dynamics of my community.
That all looks well and good and responsible, but often times it comes from contemplating moments of sheer anger and hostility presented from strangers on social media. I have heard those opposed to the Black Live Matter activities contend that Martin Luther King wouldn’t support such dangerous and ridiculous pleas for attention. And I have heard BLM use MLK and the Civil Rights Movement as inspiration, believing MLK to be a one of many predecessors to their cause.
So who is correct? Follow me as I try to show evidence that either supports or refutes some of the claims I’ve heard from commenters on social media.
First, is a claim that “[King’s] words were uplifting and inspiring whether you were black or white, not derogatory or hate filled… He brought blacks and whites together…not against each other.”
Here are a few quotes from King that would challenge this view that MLK didn’t cause division:
“Why is equality so assiduously avoided? Why does white America delude itself, and how does it rationalize the evil it retains?
“The majority of white Americans consider themselves sincerely committed to justice for the Negro. They believe that American society is essentially hospitable to fair play and to steady growth toward a middle-class Utopia embodying racial harmony. But unfortunately this is a fantasy of self-deception and comfortable vanity.”
(MLK, Where Do We Go From Here, 1967)
In this quote, King seems to observe that which I tried to articulate in my opening paragraphs: that white people want to be rid of racism by committing themselves “to justice for the Negro”, but few want to do the hard work of seeing all the ways they benefit from our past and current society that favors the white majority experience and how other races are harmed by our past and current society because they aren’t white. Instead, we’d rather believe that we are a caring, responsible community where all are valued and racial harmony flourishes.
“Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn. The reality of substantial investment to assist Negroes into the twentieth century, adjusting to Negro neighbors and genuine school integration, is still a nightmare for all too many white Americans…These are the deepest causes for contemporary abrasions between the races. Loose and easy language about equality, resonant resolutions about brotherhood fall pleasantly on the ear, but for the Negro there is a credibility gap he cannot overlook. He remembers that with each modest advance the white population promptly raises the argument that the Negro has come far enough. Each step forward accents an ever-present tendency to backlash.”
(MLK, Where Do We Go From Here, 1967)
What I personally react to in this quote is the notion that white people feel they have so little to learn. I have felt this way many times before, and always will probably find it challenging. I have turned off my ears and heart to more cries of inequality around me because it is just so disgusting and depressing to let in. I have been the white person defending how I am not a racist out of self-preservation, instead of listening to the hurt from those with other experiences. Pretending that we have little to learn is perhaps a way of dealing with the fear that our learning will cause us pain and that we will have to admit that the ways that we have found success might not be only based on our own merit.
“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.”
(MLK, Letter From a Birmingham Jail, 1963)
Here King calls out the hypocrisy again of whites who believe that they are on the side of justice, but still stand in opposition to the Civil Rights Movement.
It is hard for me to believe that when King said these sentiments, white people immediately saw the systematic error of their society’s ways, repented, and rallied around King. Unfortunately, it is probably more accurate instead to say that his words created a pretty powerful divide. I certainly wouldn’t call any of the above quotes “derogatory or hate-filled”, however, I wonder if whites hearing these for the first time in the 1960’s would have felt as if they were derogated and hated by King or leaders of the Civil Rights Movement?
To me, these words are painfully prophetic. They are difficult truths that must be spoken and received if King’s idea of the “beloved community” is to exist. And there were a number of white people who responded to King by humbly reevaluating their hearts and eventually united with King and the other leaders of the whole Civil Rights Movement. But, if one simply looks at the overwhelming amount of resistance and violence the Civil Rights Movement received, clearly history shows that the majority of whites did not rally around him.
Let me be clear. I don’t think that King was against unity, but he realized that the white moderate community needed to experience a big change in order for unity, or the “beloved community” to be achieved. What these words from King show me is that he did not cater to the white moderates by trying to convince them or by coddling their discomfort.
Also, I wonder, after reading through those quotes, how do you feel they would apply to the white community today, even though they weren’t actually written to anybody in 2016? If they ring true today, than is history repeating itself again?
To witness the BLM movement in Minneapolis this past year, I would say similar things can be characterized of them. Like MLK, BLM is bringing people together, but they are also calling out a divide in our society that is uncomfortable to acknowledge, and so while they fight for unity and equality, there are plenty of people who have chosen not to be united with them in their fight for unity and equality.
“He advocated for change through non-violence.”
Yes. This is one reason why he is honored so greatly today. Also might I add that it is so honorable because it takes much more courage to protest without violence on your side, when you are protesting against those who are armed and using their weapons either for violence or for intimidation.
For comparison’s sake, I don’t know of any protest that Black Lives Matter has organized in the Twin Cities that has not also had an equally non-violent foundation. There may have been a few within the ranks at BLM that might have gone rogue and done something destructive or violent, but they have never been sanctioned by the leadership on BLM, and have always been publicly denounced.
Another characteristic of non-violent movements is the unfortunate reality that violence may fall on those protesting non-violently. This was certainly true in King’s day and he warned against it. The violence against protestors in many of the Civil Rights rallies was thought to be significantly instrumental in creating the voting rights reform in the early 60’s. Violence against peaceful protesters is something that forces citizens and residents of this country to see how ugly, terrifying, and how truly real systemic injustices are. Unfortunately, non-violence isn’t as effective without violence thrust upon it.
At King’s protests, people were wounded and killed. And some observing opinions at the time, blamed King for these instances of bodily harm and damage instead of blaming those responsible for the violence. This is another large flaw in the idea that King “brought everyone together”. Just like BLM doesn’t have the support of everyone, not even all black community members, King didn’t either.
This is a letter King received from another African American, criticizing his tactics and blaming him for the death and destruction that the civil disturbances caused.
In Minneapolis, it does not appear that we have witnessed the intensity of violence that the marches and sit-ins of the Civil Rights Movement received, however it has happened. Protesters have been threatened with the vilest and most dehumanizing of language. In one case the threats turned out to come true, as they did when three white supremacists opening fire on the BLM’s peaceful two week occupation of the Fourth Precinct and seriously wounding protesters.
“I believe there are social injustices, however I think what is hurting the BLM movement is the manner in which they are drawing attention to that injustice. I don’t think that blocking a freeway helps their cause.”
So here we see the commenter questioning and criticizing BLM’s tactics. Honestly, it sounds very similar to the words of the critical whites in King’s day, in fact, King mentioned it in one of his quotes that I included above when he stands to challenge the white moderate response that he heard so often:
“I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action.”
I have witnessed many today become outraged over BLM protests, particularly those that cause inconvenience to bystanders. MLK was under the same scrutiny, and he did similar type demonstrations and civil disruptions. He staged and supported many sit-ins, disrupting business owners’ ability to make money. In comparison, BLM has tried, with varied levels of success, to occupy and demonstrate at the Mall of America. King orchestrated and lead many marches all across the country which certainly disrupted traffic flow and angered drivers. In comparison, BLM has also done this, marching to City Hall, shutting down interstates, and causing inconvenient traffic backups.
And now, one from Black Lives Matter Minneapolis
Neither the recent photograph, nor the ones taken in 1963 and 1965 look like cars can easily drive on these roads as intended… that was one of the points of these marches, both today and during the Civil Rights Movement.
Here is a video of MLK on Meet the Press… he is asked about whether his tactics are helpful, whether he’s winning the hearts of whites in the South, he’s told that leaders in our country called his biggest demonstration, the march in Selma, in fighting for voting rights, “silly”, and “just for attention”.
The largest push back I hear BLM and BLM supporters getting today is whether or not their tactics are helpful in either creating change or convincing whites. If you watch the above video, or any of the other videos of MLK on Meet the Press, or read any of the hate mail or criticisms King received, it is clear that King received very similar critical feedback as BLM is receiving today.
King responds to a similar line of questioning on Meet the Press in 1960 by stating:
“The nonviolent way does not bring about miracles, in a few hours, or in a few days, or in a few years, for that matter. I think at first, the first reaction of the oppressor, when op pressed people rise up against the system of injustice, is an attitude of bitterness. But I do believe that if the nonviolent resisters continue to follow the way of nonviolence they eventually get over to the hearts and souls of the former oppressors, and I think it eventually brings about that redemption that we dream of. Of course, I can’t estimate how many people we’ve touched so far; this is impossible because it’s an inner process.”
(Quote taken from this transcript of the April 17, 1960 episode of Meet the Press)
It is wise to pause as a society and consider the comparisons of the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Lives Matter Movement. Certainly we will disagree on ways they differ from or reflect each other, but the humble conversation is valuable. Since I can not and will not speak for Martin Luther King Jr, I do not know how he would have specifically supported today’s Black Lives Matter movement. However, I do hope to have helped in remembering that although both MLK and BLM have been powerful movements in bringing people together, they have also drawn lines in the sand that many were and are uncomfortable crossing in order to support their causes. Both movements have and had opponents and supporters of all colors and creeds. Both movements made people angry.
And perhaps that is a difficult thing to confront for many folks still reluctant to cross over that “line”. If BLM makes you angry today, would have you been one of those who also was enraged by the Civil Rights Movement if you would have been around in the 60’s? To my millennial readers: ask your grandparents or parents if they supported King in the 60’s, and then think about what it might feel like to have your grandkids ask you in 50 years if you supported Black Lives Matter?
To close let us look at eight similarities between The Civil Rights Movement and Black Lives Matter:
- They both are desperate cries for equality where equality is not being extended.
- They both publicly demonstrated that caused disruption to the status quo.
- They both practiced non-violence.
- They both have paid the price of being verbally and violently attacked, and arrested.
- They unified people… (many people from different races and backgrounds joined their cause.)
- …while causing disunity : not everyone supported their cause.
- Those who opposed them had very similar critiques of the movements:“’I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’”.
- Their efforts got the attention necessary to instigate change.
- *Although BLM has arguably already had some victories in receiving changes they wish to see, in many cases however, the verdict is still out on BLM as we wait to see the extent of their impact long-term.
- **And although The Civil Rights Movement is remembered for being very successful in ending the laws enforcing segregation and achieving voting rights for all, among other victories, clearly they weren’t able to solve all of the problems of racism and inequality since our society is still dealing with the impacts of these injustices yet today.