Critics of #BlackLivesMatter are quick to invoke Martin Luther King, Jr’s memory, but these 4 challenging quotes somehow missed out on becoming feel-good Instagram memes.
In life Martin Luther King was placed on an NSA watch list for “domestic terrorism”. In death he’s being used as the patron saint of people wanting the same thing to happen to #BlackLivesMatter:
#BlackLivesMatter is a Farce and Hyphenating America Destroys Us
Our prayers are with the fallen on that Thin… https://t.co/rX9oyZ0Hof
— Sarah Palin (@SarahPalinUSA) July 8, 2016
— Raijin LOZ (@RaijinLOZ) July 8, 2016
These responses came in the wake of the attacks on police in Dallas, and the same argument has been used against protesters blocking interstate highways. It’s no secret that King thought non-violent resistance was the way forward. Unfortunately, King’s actual thoughts on civil disobedience have been lost amidst all the endlessly repeated quotes from “I Have A Dream”:
1 – Letter from a Birmingham Jail (1963)
Jailed by police for organising protests against racial segregation in Birmingham, Alabama, King wrote a letter in response to a newspaper article titled “A Call for Unity” – a statement by local clergymen condemning the campaign.
“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;”
2 – 60 Minutes Interview (CBS, 1966)
3 years after Martin Luther King’s most famous speech, America had experienced summer after summer of race riots. The year saw increased militancy in the civil rights movement and the founding of the Black Panther Party. ’66 also saw King’s overall approval rating at its lowest. Against this backdrop, he appeared on CBS’ 60 Minutes to respond to the violence:
“I contend that the cry of “black power” is, at bottom, a reaction to the reluctance of white power to make the kind of changes necessary to make justice a reality for the Negro. I think that we’ve got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard. And, what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the economic plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years.”
3 -The Role of the Behavioural Scientist…(1967)
In 1967 MLK spoke at the American Psychological Association’s annual conference in Washington DC. The speech was called “The Role of the Behavioural Scientist in the Civil Rights Movement” and urged the assembled academics to tell it like it is to a society “poisoned to its soul by racism”. An academic in his own right, the speech was published in a 1968 issue of the Journal of Social Sciences which came out shortly after his assassination.
“I believe we will have to find the militant middle between riots on the one hand and weak and timid supplication for justice on the other hand. That middle ground, I believe, is civil disobedience. It can be aggressive but nonviolent; it can dislocate but not destroy. The specific planning will take some study and analysis to avoid mistakes of the past when it was employed on too small a scale and sustained too briefly.”
4 – The Other America (1968)
This later speech delivered at Stanford University highlighted issues of racism, poverty and economic inequality. King again opposes the use of violence, but criticises the establishment for ignoring the conditions that led to that violence. He repeats some of his points from that CBS interview the previous year, accusing white society of caring more about maintaining an unfair status quo than about justice:
“And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.”