It’s late – very late. It is the second night of protests in Ferguson, Missouri. It is the second night of reaction to the Grand Jury verdict not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of Michael Brown. The protests last night devolved to riots, looting and arson. Tonight the protests have spread to other major metropolitan areas. And the nation watches anxiously. This post is not going to discuss the guilt or innocence of Officer Darren Wilson. The legal system has spoken through the judgment of the Grand Jury. In response, hundreds of pundits and experts have weighed in and feuded about the righteous or unjust nature of this judgment. And they will continue to. But this post is not about what the Grand Jury said. It is about how everyone reacted to it. In the aftermath of Michael Brown’s death and, now, in the wake of the Grand Jury’s decision, frenzied violence and property damage have resulted in millions of dollars in damage as well as irretrievable losses to the Ferguson economy. As every news channel breathlessly covered shirtless men smashing windows and throwing Molotov cocktails at baton-wielding and helmeted officers, I began to think of another protestor in a southern state many years ago.
In April, 1963, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. helped lead a campaign of non-violent protests in Birmingham, Alabama. Black frustration with fruitless efforts to see desegregation laws enacted led to a series of peaceful marches and sit-ins during an economically sensitive time – namely, Easter. Shortly after the campaign of protests began, an court-ordered injunction was issued against all such forms of assembly which, promptly, King and his associates openly refused to obey. Subsequently, King was arrested and jailed. Shortly thereafter, King was handed a letter. It was an open letter from eight white local clergymen critical of King and his protests claiming their issues should be approached through the courts (not protests) and taken up by local figures (not “outsiders”). As Martin Luther King, Jr. sat in his jail cell, he had time. And he was determined to respond. Written on the edges of newspaper which were spirited out by his lawyer for later publication, King penned his famous “Letter From Birmingham Jail”. While the work is an extraordinary reflection on honesty and hypocrisy, conscience and duty, means and ends, my purpose in citing this famous letter is to consider what it says about protest. Is Martin Luther King, Jr. credible on the topic of protest? We must first examine his circumstance and answer some questions. First, was he the victim of injustice? Second, did he have an honest approach to protesting? Third, was he effective in achieving his aspired ends? First, let us consider the injustice King confronted. In the letter, King wrote,
“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.”
King knew injustice.
Next, did he have an honest approach to protesting? King believed that the most effective way to effect change was through organized non-violence. But he was no misty-eyed dreamer. The costs were very clear.
“In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action.”
“We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community. Mindful of the difficulties involved, we decided to undertake a process of self purification. We began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked ourselves: ‘Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?’ ‘Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?'”
But the temptation to remain docile or respond with violence would be great. Thus, King’s credibility grew in his courageous effort to lead by another means.
“I started thinking about the fact that I stand in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community. One is a force of complacency made up of Negroes who, as a result of long years of oppression, have been so completely drained of self-respect and a sense of “somebodyness” that they have adjusted to segregation, and a few Negroes in the middle class who, because of a degree of academic and economic security, and at points they profit from segregation, have unconsciously become insensitive to the problems of the masses. The other force is one of bitterness and hatred and comes perilously close to advocating violence. It is expressed in the various black nationalist groups that are springing up over the nation, the largest and best known being Elijah Muhammad’s Muslim movement. This movement is nourished by the contemporary frustration over the continued existence of racial discrimination. It is made up of people who have lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded that the white man in an incurable “devil.” I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need not follow the do-nothingism of the complacent or the hatred and despair of the black nationalist. For there is a more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest. I am grateful to God that, through the Negro church, the dimension of nonviolence entered our struggle. If this philosophy had not emerged, by now many streets of the South would, I am convinced, be flowing with floods of blood.”
“So the question is not whether we will be extremist, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate, or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice, or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?”
“I have consistently preached that nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek.”
King was honest in his approach to protest.
Finally, was Martin Luther King, Jr. effective in achieving his aims? In 1964, the Civil Rights Act was passed. In leading boycotts and marches, giving soaring speeches and consistently calling for dignity, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would leave a legacy of true change that affected the lives of millions. His legacy would would far outlast his brief thirty-nine years of life.
King was effective.
Now 20th century American history is littered with individuals and groups who tried to effect change in race relations through violent means. But the name that is still remembered and lauded for making the greatest impact was a non-violent, marching preacher.
Once again, in writing this, I am not passing judgment on the Grand Jury’s decision. I am simply weighing in on the protests.
But I would just wonder…as protesters assemble across the country in response to the Grand Jury’s judgment perhaps they should consider Martin Luther King, Jr. and ask themselves three honest and sobering questions. Is there an injustice? Is the approach to protesting an honest and honorable one? Will it be effective, truly effective, in the end?
It is late…very late.
Let us pray for peace and healing.