Can We Really Reclaim Martin Luther King?
What is “Unwise and Untimely”?
When I was six years old I marched in my first Martin Luther King Day parade and of course I was out there with fellow Unitarian Universalists from the Universalist Unitarian Church of Peoria, where my family first made our spiritual home.
I don’t remember that march nor what I believed I was marching for, but I’m sure it was informed by my church and my family and our general commitment to equality. I vaguely recall learning about Martin Luther King in elementary school, that he had a dream and that his dream came true. That racism was bad and equality was good and we could all change the world if we wanted to. I remember storing him in the same part of my brain where I stored Abraham Lincoln. Men who gave good speeches and did the right thing and ended slavery/segregation and then got shot.
I think this is par for the course in terms of what you learn in an Illinois elementary school, probably in many elementary schools, though other states might not be quite as obsessed with Lincoln as we are. Love conquers hate, non-violence conquers violence, and in the end the good guys win, though they might die in the process.
When I was in church on Sunday the reading was excerpts from “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” This was not the easy dreamy King of elementary school days. These excerpts were carefully chosen and rang out powerfully against the backdrop of recent backlash in Boston against the #blacklivesmatters protestors who shut down I-93 on Thursday. ¹
I had these words in my heart as I went out to the Boston 4 Mile March on Monday, a day I had off work to honor King. I thought about these words as we chanted. I pondered what it means to reclaim MLK as we moved from the old Statehouse to the Boston Common.
While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities “unwise and untimely.” Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work. But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.
I thought about those who have criticized many different aspects of the uprising since Michael Brown was shot. I thought about those who say it is unwise to block freeways or public transit systems, untimely to protest after police officers have been shot. I thought about how I have empathized with some of their concerns. I thought about how their public criticisms make me angry.
I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea.
I thought about my faith that affirms and promotes an interdependent web of existence. I thought about how what happens in Ferguson must matter to me if I am to remain faithful to Unitarian Universalism, what happens in Staten Island or Cleveland must break my heart too. I thought about the idea of outside agitators. I thought about the rhetoric I’ve heard about white anarchist men “coming in” to rile up protestors and smash windows.
You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. 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 thought about those who condemn protestors for property destruction and public safety concerns but do not cry out first and more loudly about the murders of black people, about the violence of police against bodies, about the so-called justice system that incarcerates people of color for smoking a joint and lets white police who kill go free without facing trial. I thought that “unfortunate” is not strong enough a word to describe the situation.
I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. 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 thought about the Unitarian Universalists, MY people, the ones who got me going to my first ever MLK Day march, I thought about how many of us were up in arms, at least on Facebook, when our UUA President Peter Morales condemned the non-indictment of Darren Wilson. How many of us said, “wait”, and,”we don’t know the facts”, and, “I agree with their goal, but they shouldn’t riot”, and the like. The white moderates.
My beloved white moderates – Can we truly reclaim MLK?
The day is over for this year. But we have far from missed our chance. The actions and the work and organizing and the changing of hearts and minds will continue. What will we do? Shall we be more devoted to order or to justice?
The march I was a part of on Monday was part of a national movement and they issued the following demands. Whatever your brand of change-making, whether it’s marching or tweeting, whether it’s working with your congregation’s community partners or calling up your local lawmakers – take a look at these demands. Take a look and take some action, however small, to make them a reality.
This is the way we can reclaim MLK. By working steadily toward justice and choosing it repeatedly over our attachment to order. By remembering to critique the conditions that caused a protest first and more loudly than we voice our concerns about the protest itself. By remembering how deeply interconnected we are and never allowing ourselves to think of racism as an “over there” problem, and by looking back on history with open eyes, remembering that the movements we now lift up as courageous and necessary were once deemed “unwise and untimely.”