What if Dr. King had lived?
50 years ago this year, April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated by a white supremacist in Memphis. He was just 39 years old. Had Dr. King lived, he would be 89 today, not so great an age any more when we consider the ages of people still dominating the Senate of the United States. In a sense, prodigious as his accomplishments were in the four short decades of his life, Dr. King’s best and most productive years were still ahead of him. Imagining history’s “what ifs” is an interesting but rather pointless parlor game, except for what we can learn by thinking about what we lost because of the murderous foreshortening of his life. If we realize the loss more clearly, we can know even more urgently what we must do to reclaim the march for racial justice.
Dr. King is often quoted as saying, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” He led the great bending inflection point in the 1950’s and 60’s, following the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education banning school segregation and triggering the end of “de jure” (enshrined in law) segregation everywhere. At the zenith of his work he stood alongside President Lyndon Johnson, once a notorious racist and southern segregationist, as President Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In too many ways we can see clearly today, the arc of the half century since then, while characterized by some ongoing gains for civil and human rights in this nation, has also been the steady erosion and regulatory containment of those rights now seeming to be cascading downward with a president whose rhetoric and policies are profoundly racist and show no hope of a Johnson-like conversion (if even for cynical political reasons, as Johnson’s conversion was.)
While many individuals exerted leadership for civil rights after Dr. King, we have not seen a singular leader with his charisma and eloquence and power to organize the movement. Part of the erosion in his great work for civil rights has occurred because in place of great leadership we saw the rise of bureaucracy, regulatory dithering, challenges to civil rights progress made by people who misused the rhetoric and principles of civil rights to advance very different causes and a great deal of self-interest.
Dr. King insisted that nonviolent protest was the most effective means to achieve the fundamental changes necessary to achieve civil rights and racial justice in America. In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King responded to a group of white ministers in Alabama who criticized him for organizing protests. His letter clearly sets for the principles and purpose of nonviolent action:
“You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. 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 the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.
“… My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.
“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
Dr. King goes on to establish the foundation for nonviolent action and opposition to unjust laws in the ongoing abuse of African Americans and refusal of the white community to admit its complicity in racism:
“We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience. You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”
“Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an “I it” relationship for an “I thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.”
On this day when we remember Dr. King, every American should take the time to read or listen to the Letter from a Birmingham Jail and consider, not how far we’ve come, but how much erosion we have allowed to thwart the march toward racial justice. The arc of history has bent from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to President Donald J. Trump. To be at a moment in American history when the president of the United States stands before microphones declaring, “I am not a racist” after he completely trashed nations whose citizens are black and brown, who praised white supremacists after Charlottesville while trashing black communities throughout his presidential campaign, who is on record as saying he’d prefer immigrants from Norway rather than Haiti or Africa, who has made few African American appointments at any level of government, to be in this moment is to realize that we have all stood by while the arc of the moral universe suffers entropy and decline. (Read this New York Times compilation of evidence on President Trump’s longstanding racist behavior and rhetoric.)
If this day is to be more than a memorial to a man long dead, we must re-ignite the engines of that arc, we must confront the unspeakable evil that has gripped too many parts of our country, the evil of hatred openly expressed against other human beings, the evil that tears families apart with deportation, that thwarts and oppresses undocumented persons, that looks the other way when white supremacists march down Main Street, that tolerates appalling police brutality and official oppression in the name of security. We must restart the movement of the arc of history toward justice.