Amid stark political differences on both sides of the aisle, progressives, centrists, and conservatives seem to have one thing in common: criticizing #BlackLivesMatter protesters. BLM supporters are called tactless and opportunists, but most frequently they are called disruptive.
Many say that BLM’s disruptive behavior is harmful to their cause. That it will turn off those who are sympathetic to the goals they hope to accomplish. Some say they should request private meetings with candidates in an attempt to argue their case. Ironically, many critics have invoked the name of Martin Luther King. Jr. The assumption is that King would disapprove BLM’s confrontational approach.
It is this using of King’s name and legacy against BLM that I find most interesting. Conservatives and progressives are quick to invoke the name of King. They quote him in an attempt to add moral weight to their positions. This is always a precarious thing to do, especially if done without considering the historical context that inspired the quote.
As Cornel West points out, the civil rights movement has been sanitized. We reflect adoringly upon that time in history, and ignore that there were real and sometimes bitter methodological disagreement between groups with the same goals in mind. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People often disagreed with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee was often in tension with King, the very person who encouraged them to organize.
We must look to the past to fully see the present. Examining King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and the circumstances that inspired him to write it can help us to better understand the tension between those who say that BLM activists are disruptive and those who are supportive of their activities.
A Call For Unity
In April of 1963, eight clergymen penned the open letter “A Call For Unity,” urging the Negros of Birmingham to exercise patience with racial progress. In the letter they stated:
…We are now confronted by a series of demonstrations by some of our Negro citizens, directed and led in part by outsiders. We recognize the natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized. But we are convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely. (Emphasis my own)
It is almost as if they are saying, “The good Negroes are being incited to action by those bad, outsider Negroes.” Their words reek of xenophobia and unconscious racism. I cannot help but notice an echo in our current political discourse around the BLM protests.
In response to the clergymen, King felt compelled to respond. His words are apropos to what is happening today. Sitting in a jail cell for the very demonstrations “A Call For Unity” decries, Martin King writes:
Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.
Masterful. In this one paragraph, King links the struggle for racial justice in Birmingham to the cosmic struggle for justice everywhere. He even implies that Socrates (the father of the Western philosophical tradition) would approve. For King—who once said that if he was stranded with only two books to read, he would want a copy of the Bible and Plato’s Republic— one could have no greater intellectual ally.
The eight clergymen’s plea for patience rings hollow. They sit in comfort, and fail (or refuse) to see that they are benefactors of a racial system that has its foot on the throat of black folk in the South. Of course, they sense no urgency. The same is true today.
King and #BlackLivesMatter Protests
Too many white progressives flippantly shrug off the ‘disruptions’ of BLM protestors. It is easy to tell them to play the political game when you are living in relative comfort—free of the threat of death at the hands of an injustice system biased against the color of your skin. Some black progressives are critical because they began by targeting Sanders. This criticism ignores the fact that, at the time, Sanders was almost exclusively talking about race in terms of socioeconomic inequality. We were supposed to hope, as Van Jones said, “that race-neutral rhetoric and race-neutral proposals might somehow fix our race-specific problems.”
King states, “A threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” King accurately senses a dichotomy in the thinking of his opponents: implicitly they argue that there are Negroes and Whites; insiders and outsiders. They fail to see that injustices suffered by one group affect all groups. Therefore, in ignoring any injustice, one fails to see that “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
From supporters of Bernie Sanders to Republican Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, there is a feeling that people associated with the #BlackLivesMatter movement are unwise in their demonstrations. I do not think King would agree. He would certainly push the protestors to begin advocating for policy, but the protestors embrace his approach of direct non-violent confrontation. John J. Thatamanil, associate professor of theology and world religions at Union Theological Seminary and co-teacher with Cornel West of the class “Gandhi and King: Political Theology and Nonviolent Resistance,” agrees. He says, “I think it’s a fair parallel. Both seek to radically interrupt the status quo. Both seek to shine light on structural injustice written into the law. Both are willing to bear the cost of their actions by heading to jail. Both are aware that black communities live in a state of emergency and, so, cannot wait.”
Further, there are criticisms about the individuals they choose to interrupt. While they have now expanded to disrupt Clinton and Bush events, they were initially criticized for targeting Sanders. The same was true for King. When he began to speak out about the war in Vietnam, many of his supporters thought him unwise. Ralph Bunch and the NAACP thought his speech Beyond Vietnam: Breaking the Silence was a mistake. King was openly criticized in the Washington Post and New York Times editorial pages. They felt King hurt his domestic goals by addressing an international issue about which his supporters were divided. He continued to confront Johnson anyway. The same is true for Sanders.
Sanders has a strong civil rights record, but he would not have been as quick to release his comprehensive plan concerning institutional racism without BLM agitation. He would not have diversified his staff and hired the brilliant Symon Sanders if BLM had not been so vocal. The concerns of black people, an important voting block in the Democratic Party, would not be central to the presidential race without BLM. You can disagree with their tactics, but it is difficult to deny that they are having an impact.
Hand wringing over the tactics of BLM takes focus off the loss of black lives and centers the discussion on white feelings and political strategy. While political strategy is important to discuss because there is a need for policies that concretely better the lives of black people, I have little sympathy with white progressives who are in their feelings because Sanders and other presidential candidates are interrupted. BLM uses direct non-violent action to bring attention to the loss of black life. That is something with which King would agree. For too long, presidential candidates have only paid lip service to the concerns of black people. Now, their lives are interrupted because #BlackLivesMatter.