Today, Martin Luther King Jr. is revered by nearly every American—he’s a hero. His birthday is a federal holiday; his “I Have A Dream” speech is still a staple of elementary school curriculum. In the U.S., there is no more famous a civil rights leader than MLK. Americans ages 9 to 90 know what those initials stand for.
But his legacy is continually softened to fit into a less adversarial narrative. Many Americans tend to wash over the fact that King was a disruptive figure who was widely villainized in his time. He was arrested 30 times, excoriated in 168 newspapers around the country for a speech he gave against the Vietnam war, he received death threats, his house was bombed, and he was stabbed in the chest a decade before he was assassinated. Nine years later, King’s Mother was killed in her church.
As David Weigel pointed out in Slate, hatred for King was not a fringe position, a large swath of the American public did not like him.
This Gallup poll sums it up quite nicely:
Protesting, fighting for change and working to dismantle the status quo has always made people uncomfortable, that’s the whole point, to disrupt. Disruptions garner attention. Martin Luther King Jr. was a disrupter, a radical, and he was treated as such. Though King condemned riots and violence, he also stated that the conditions that precipitate riots should be condemned “as vigorously.” He famously called riots the “language of the unheard.”
On April 12th, 1963, King and 50 other demonstrators were arrested in Birmingham, Alabama. As History.com notes, a friend smuggled in an open letter to King and his fellow demonstrators which was published in a Birmingham paper. The letter was written by eight local religious leaders, and it roundly condemned King and company for their actions saying that though the group was entirely non-violent, the protests still incited “hatred and violence.” The letter concludes by asking the “Negro community to withdraw support from these demonstrations” and consequently, from King himself.
MLK responded to this letter with what ended up becoming one of his landmark texts, the “Letter From A Birmingham Jail.” Though I would encourage everyone to read the full text of the letter, there is one specific section that is particularly relevant. For two paragraphs King focuses not on the visible, brazen racists, but on the so-called moderates who were so ingrained in their routines, so helplessly stitched to the status quo that they simply couldn’t appreciate anything that disrupted their lives, even if they agreed with the cause behind the disruption.
Here’s the passage:
“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 had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”
King describes the collective moderate who rebukes the methods of the civil rights movement as a paternal figure who “believes he can set a timetable for another man’s freedom.” He writes about convenience and how many people who agree with his words, did not agree with his methods. He compares racial unrest to a boil that will never be cured if it’s left unexposed. King recognized the need to make people feel uncomfortable stating “We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with.”
It’s only with the benefit of foresight that the majority of Americans realized what a heroic figure King was. And now, with demonstrations occurring all over the country, including on NFL sidelines, the same uncomfortable reticence is popping up again:
“This is not the appropriate time/place/venue for a protest”.
We see this sentiment expressed all over the place. People don’t want to think about racial inequality before a football game, or climate change at an award show. You know what Martin Luther King Jr. would say, “too bad.” No one gets to decide the appropriate place for a protest, it’s a protest, pretty much everywhere is the “right place.” Instead of lashing out when a protest makes us uncomfortable, we need to look at the reasoning behind the protest and make an effort to learn more about it. We need to practice aggressive empathy.
NFL players kneeling during the national anthem is not about the national anthem, the same way, as Nick Wright deftly pointed out, marching in the streets is not a protest against traffic. The image of players kneeling while the anthem plays may make you feel uncomfortable.
Good. It should. That’s what it’s supposed to do.
But ignoring decades of inequality and abuse because you don’t agree with the optics of a protest is absurd. King understood the logic behind the behavior of those who outright hated him. It was the ones who agreed with him but denounced his methods who seemed to confuse and anger him the most:
“Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.”
The new, safe, incrementalist dreamer MLK of today is not the MLK that actually existed, his adversarial spirit has been sufficiently white-washed to create a friendlier image. But make no mistake, King was a revolutionary, he wanted justice and he didn’t want to wait for a more convenient time to push for it. Convenience has no jurisdiction when it comes to civil rights. We need to recognize this, embrace all that is uncomfortable and heed Dr.King’s advice if we are going to have any chance of being on the right side of history this time around.
Written by Jesse Mechanic
Jesse Mechanic is the editor in chief of The Overgrown.