MLK Day 2022

The third Monday in January is here, and once again people who oppose everything Dr. King stood for are abusing the one line they know from the I Have a Dream Speech (because they don’t know any others) for their own political ends.  This annual whitewashing of King’s legacy only succeeds to the degree it has because the people doing the whitewashing don’t dare venture beyond the confines of that line in that speech because too much of what he written stands in direct opposition to their political aims.  This applies not just to the secular, but to the religious as well.

One of my cousins read his children Letter from Birmingham Jail yesterday.  This letter is where we can find the phrase “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”    This letter is also where we can find this phrase: “Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider“.  You can be certain that none of the hypocrites quoting King today will quote that.  Decades after this letter was written, we’ve seen how this country continues to treat and talk about certain immigrants.  Decades after this letter was written, the segregation and police brutality of which King wrote in 1963 are still problems in this country today.  Actually reading his letter reveals that direct action was chosen as a last resort, only after the local leaders they negotiated with broke their promises.

This passage from the letter is sadly relevant once again in the wake of GOP measures to make it harder for those in the electorate who oppose their program to cast votes:

An unjust law is a code inflicted upon a minority which that minority had no part in enacting or creating because it did not have the unhampered right to vote. Who can say that the legislature of Alabama which set up the segregation laws was democratically elected? Throughout the state of Alabama all types of conniving methods are used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters, and there are some counties without a single Negro registered to vote, despite the fact that the Negroes constitute a majority of the population. Can any law set up in such a state be considered democratically structured?

When you read the letter written by eight Alabama clergyman that King was responding to, the motivation for this paragraph becomes crystal-clear:

First, I must confess that over the last 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 the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor 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 can’t agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until 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.

One key insight among many in King’s five-and-a-half page letter is the different ways in which the black community responded to the stubborn persistence of Jim Crow & segregation: adjusting to it, being desensitized to the problems of those black less secure economically and academically than themselves, or bitterness.   His warnings about what could happen if the nonviolent efforts for justice he supported were rejected would unfortunately become true–not just in the immediate wake of his assassination five years after this letter, but many times in the wake of police violence resulting in the death of someone in their custody (and/or acquittals as the result of the rare court trials officers faced for such violence).

King’s decades-old criticism of the contemporary Christian church in the America of his day should shame today’s Christian church:

The contemporary church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s often vocal sanction of things as they are.

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If the church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. I meet young people every day whose disappointment with the church has risen to outright disgust.

The hypocrites referencing King on this day are doing things like invoking his name in support of “All Lives Matter”, or to support their bans on Critical Race Theory (which could pretty easily prevent children in our public schools from actually learning anything about King’s letter).  Some More News has a hilarious, profane, and correct take on the annual whitewashing of King’s legacy.