Invoking MLK in Today's Struggle for Racial Justice
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is revered by most Christians in today’ s society. However, during the Civil Rights movement many from the Christian tradition did not agree with his push for Civil Rights–action oriented love, nor his non violent direct action approach. In comparison to his contemporaries, Dr. King’s message and tactics have become revered in the 21st Century. So much so, that MLK’s words have often been used to chastise the leadership and tactics of the present #BlackLivesMatter movement. But have we been mislead? If MLK were alive today, might the tactics and push for social justice embodied by BLM coincide with Dr. King’s longing for the “Beloved Community”? We discuss how the legacy of MLK can be appropriately applied today without sacrificing either his revolutionary spirit or his emphasis on nonviolence. We’ll touch on Black Lives Matter, as well as other issues with the current state of racial relations and today’s struggle for racial justice.
Sociologist Deshonna Collier-Goubil has dedicated her scholarship to a holistic understanding of the American criminal justice system. She seeks to encourage students to engage with the ethical issues involved with incarceration and the death penalty, especially for minority cases. Today, she helps us understand how to think through the legacy of MLK responsibly.
So today I wanted to talk a little bit about Dr. Martin Luther King. So Invoking MLK in Today’s Struggle for Racial Justice. So specifically looking at the criminal justice system because that’s what I research and teach about and what concerns me most. It’s always interesting to me, I was not alive during the Civil Rights Movement, but when I speak to people today, everyone marched with King [laughs].
So it’s a little mind-boggling and I think way back to my seminary days is when this started to really plague me because when I read Dr. King, when I read his books, when I read his speeches, when I look at his videos online of his speeches, he’s always talking about how no one was with him, and he’s trying to convince Christians to be with him, both black Christians, white Christians, so across the board. He’s trying to convince people that this is a good thing.
It’s almost like he just had this dying desire for people to understand this is a good thing that I’m trying to do, but then today when I speak to people, everyone’s like, “Yes, I’m with King. I marched with him in the ’60s” and I’m like that’s awesome. [laughs] I feel like I’m gonna start asking for proof. Do you have a picture? [laughs] Do you have something that you can show me? So just to think about that time.
Because I think that we, in today’s society, we have romanticized that period of time, and so we sparse, we take pieces of what Dr. King said and we like to use it for whatever context we think will work for us. And so we take it completely out of his context, and then we put it into what we think will work. And what has chapped my hide the most I think recently is when Dr. King’s words have been used to try to criticize members of the Black Lives Matter movement specifically. It’s been super interesting to me because they stand for so many things that Dr. King also stood for, just putting it into a more contemporary context.
So when we think about, or looking back, thinking back, Dr. King was arrested 30 times. 30 times. Most of what he was fighting for were against the law, so he was breaking the law. So when we think about protests these days and how annoying they are, and how this is breaking the law and people should abide within the law, Dr. King was breaking the law. All the time. He was a lawbreaker. I really like that about him actually. His home was bombed. He was threatened on a regular basis. He was threatened. His wife was threatened. There were threats made upon his children.
The federal government actually launched an entire case against him, like they took it upon themselves to spend lots of time researching him, recording him, following him, sending images to his wife, attempting to destroy his marriage and his family, and this is what he lived in. So today when everyone says, “I was with King” I find that a little hard to believe. I think that we’re with King in hindsight.
Which is fine, I’m okay with that. Like I don’t think that’s a problem at all. Because I think that that means that now we realize, like sometimes it takes a little time for us to realize that oh that was a good thing. So I’ll be the first to admit there are many things that my parents have told me growing up and I didn’t think it was a good thing and then I learned that it was. And so then in hindsight now, I’m preparing for my own family, for my own children. My husband and I are.
And so now I’m like yeah we’re gonna do this, we’re gonna do that, which is exactly the things that my parents taught me. So I don’t think that hindsight is a problem. I think that we just need to be cognizant that we are viewing it and having this appreciation for Dr. King in hindsight. How his ideas were received. His tactics were called “unwise and untimely.” And these were actually words from his letter from a Birmingham jail. So directly his own words.
People calling him unwise and untimely. And this for me is very reminiscent of what I hear today about the Black Lives Matter Movement. This is unwise. Why do they want to shut down a highway? What’s the purpose of that? What is that going to accomplish? Why does somebody wanna take a knee at the National Anthem? How disrespectful is that?
And these are nonviolent actions which is actually exactly what Dr. King stood for and it’s the thing that we always praise about Dr. King, these nonviolent direct action tactics to protesting. Or changing the system or structure. He wrote books titled, “Why We Can’t Wait” and “Strength to Love”. So again when we think about what’s happening now contemporarily and we think, “well I think that they should just be a little bit slower and that they should take a little bit more time. And I think that they should wait.”
Dr. King was saying why we can’t wait. We can’t wait. You can wait when you’re sitting in a privileged position because you’re not feeling the pain. But when you’re sitting in the position where you’re feeling the pain, you can’t wait. It’s desperate. When you are fearful of losing your life, it’s desperate. You can’t wait. And I guess I should have started this talk off by explaining a little bit more about my background. I grew up in South LA. So I grew up in a community where we did not learn to love the police. They weren’t exactly friendly.
My experience is that when they entered my community, they entered my community with guns drawn. So as a little child growing up, that’s just not a positive experience to associate with law enforcement, but later on in my career I ended up becoming a police dispatcher. And so as a police dispatcher, you learn that your number one priority is keeping officers safe. So I learned an entirely different side of the conversation. So I say that to say because oftentimes people think that like, “oh you’re just saying this because you hate the police and you’re against the police.” I actually love the police. I think they’re cool.
I have many friends that are officers. Talk to them all the time. They help me when things happen in my neighborhood. I call them. When trouble happens, I wanna run the other way and I want them to run to it [laughs]. So I don’t have any issue with law enforcement officers specifically. What I’m pointing out is things that are happening systemically and within a social structure. So I think that sometimes when we hear this conversation, we think that there’s this attack on individual officers and people saying that I hate this individual officer or I want to, and that’s not the case.
What people are saying is that structurally, systemically, and over a long period of time, this social institution has not served my community well. That’s what people are saying. So again if we put the parallel back to the Civil Rights Movement and the time of Dr. King, let’s think about some of those images that we often see. We often see peaceful protesters marching. We see freedom riders. We see people sitting at lunch counters, yes? These are things we’ve seen before, yes?
Okay, then we see police officers and firefighters attacking them. Some way we miss that. Then we see a group of citizens usually yelling at people and not being very kind. That’s the best way I can say it [laughs]. Not being very kind, right? Then it’s layers. Officers attacking, firefighters attacking, citizens attacking. Peaceful protesters. Then we see a layer of people who are kinda just going about their day. So I bring that up because I feel like in today’s society, that’s where a lot of evangelical Christians lie.
And I was so happy when one of my colleagues who spoke earlier explained that when we say evangelical Christians, we are mostly talking about white Christians. I think that the percentage is somewhere around 85-90% of evangelicals are white. So generally when we talk about black Christians, we say the black church or the Latino church or etc. right?
So lying in this place of this third layer of just going about my day while I’m witnessing the inhumanity of another human being, of another Christian brother or sister, how exactly does that demonstrate love? So what Dr. King points out is what I like to call an action-oriented love. So how do you know, he didn’t refer to it that way just to be clear, he referred to it as agape. I like to refer to it as action-oriented because I want to really specify that there needs to be some action that follows that word love.
So when you think about it in your own life, how do you know that your parents love you? How do you know that your Grandma does? How do you know that your pastor does? There’s usually some actions that have occurred that have demonstrated consistently over a period of time that they love you. They don’t just say this word and have no action follow and you say, “yes, they love me”, right? Okay, so it’s the same thing.
We like to say, “we love everyone” and “All Lives Matter”. I think that was earlier, I saw that in a slide. [laughs] Sorry. It’s funny every time I see it. We like to say. The reason why is because where is the action that demonstrates that All Lives Matter? And so that is the point of specifically stating, Black Lives Matter. The Black Lives Matter Movement has never come forward and said that no one else’s lives matter. Never has.
That’s never been an argument that you’ve heard them say. What they’re saying is that I don’t specifically see that action-oriented love demonstrating to me that Black Lives Matter in this country. Over a historical period of time. So not just last year. Not just two years ago. Not just starting with Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. But historically there are some things that have occurred that are not demonstrating love.
So when we think of, or what Dr. King actually had to say about love in his book, “Strength to Love”. He writes about his, his writings reflect that his deep understanding for the need of agape, a love that is concerned with going the extra mile to ensure the well-being of others. So beyond self. Going the extra mile. Not just meeting the mark. He believed in a better world. He believed in the strength to have courage. He believed in the strength to have faith in God. He believed in the strength to have hope for better days.
He believed in the strength to love all of God’s children no matter their skin color. So I wanna pause there for a moment because I just love it.
I’m being super sarcastic [laughs]. I just love it when I hear people quote Dr. King to say this color blind stuff. I don’t see color, just like King, I don’t see color. Well actually he saw color. He never once said that we should not. He was very proud of his heritage. He was very proud of his history. He talked a lot about black economic empowerment, about inequality amongst people of all different races that are poor.
He started a poor people’s movement, like he never shied away actually from talking about race. He actually termed the Civil Rights Movement, the “Negro Revolution.” That’s how he referred to it. And so not acknowledging one’s race or cultural background, that’s not something that you’re getting from Dr. King. I’m not sure where you’re getting it from, but I just wanted to clear the air publicly [laughs]. You’re not getting that from Dr. King.
Okay, moving right along. So, when we think, when we look at the Black Lives Matter Movement and they actually have a website. So if you’re like someone like, I really don’t understand what they’re about, they have a website. It’s pretty cool. It’s very simple and straightforward.
You click on things and it shows you exactly what they’re about. It says, “What We’re About.” And you click on that and it’ll tell you. And it’s BlackLivesMatter.com. Now the reason why I explain that fully is because people seem to get tripped up on, “well, I saw some people yelling these horrible things about police officers and saying these violent things and they also said Black Lives Matter and so that’s what Black Lives Matter is about.”
I teach a class on terrorism where I demonstrate to students, I show them some documentaries about some people that wear some white hoods and they scream some things about Christianity and Jesus and how they are the true Christians and God loves them more than anyone else, and then they terrorize people. They’re called the Ku Klux Klan.
I hope that most of us in this room, okay I hope that all of us in this room would agree that they don’t represent Christianity in the way that we understand Christianity, right? So people can use rhetoric and say that they’re about something, but they’re not actually dedicated to that cause, or about that cause, or a part of that group. Do you follow?
Okay, so if we want to know about the Black Lives Matter Movement, we should go to their website and look at what they actually say. So what they say is all nonviolent. They believe in diversity. They believe in restorative justice. So rather than just locking people away, how can we restore justice to the community, to the victim, etc? How can we have the offender to pay amends to the person that they’ve harmed? That is what restorative justice is. They believe in collective value. The value of the collective.
They believe in being unapologetically black, just like Dr. King. They believe in globalism. They believe in empathy. They believe in families. They believe in having an intergenerational movement, so there are people from many different age groups that are involved. They believe in loving engagement. And they also support LGBTQIA. Diversity issues as well. Nowhere in their platform do they say, “I hate police officers and let’s kill them.” So I don’t know, when you hear that, that’s not the Black Lives Matter Movement.
So again when we parallel that to Dr. King and we place him amongst his contemporaries, a part of the reason why he looks so good to us in hindsight, is because we would rather have him than Malcolm X, who had a bit of a stronger message. We’d rather have him than Negroes With Guns, who had a stronger message. What happens however, is when we have these nonviolent folks who are committed to nonviolence, and then we disregard them. We don’t wanna listen to them. And we kind of denounce them.
People will come up with other tactics. If you don’t hear me this way, I’m gonna knock on the door a little bit louder. And see if you hear me now. I didn’t mean to reference Verizon [laughs]. So I wanna end on this note. I think the next time that we think about how offended we are by the Black Lives Matter Movement or by some protest that has occurred or something like that. Before we use Dr. King to condemn them, let’s point the finger back at us and let’s use Dr. King to help our own behavior.
Let’s have the strength to demonstrate our love in action. Let’s fight for the rights of those being oppressed in society, including economic inequality. Let’s encourage communities to demonstrate their power by protesting. Let’s have the strength to believe that a better world is possible. And lastly, let’s have faith in God that all things are possible including change.