History Reads is a weekly series featuring work from Team History, a group of experts and influencers, exploring history’s most fascinating questions.
On January 15, the United States celebrates Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, 50 years on from his assassination in 1968. The intention behind the holiday is to commemorate this great man’s life, and recommit to his call to fight for justice everywhere. Many will spend Monday as a day of service to others, staying true to his words that “everybody can be great…because anybody can serve.”
The words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. are well-known and often quoted. Most remember the speech he gave at the March on Washington in 1963, when he uttered those iconic words of American aspiration: “I have a dream…”. He is also remembered for his urge to use nonviolence as the most effective form of protest (even when violence was threatened against him and his family), and his strong desire to bring about equality and civil rights for African Americans during the civil-rights movement.
However, less attention is paid to the words he spoke in the latter part of his life. In the year he died, he had just launched the Poor People’s Campaign, which appealed to impoverished people of all races, and sought to address the issues of unemployment, housing shortages and the impact of poverty on the lives of millions of Americans, white and black. By then, King’s language had become stronger and more assertive, urging direct action to bring about change. For King had never meant nonviolent protest to mean “wait and see.” In fact, he made very clear that rebellions have their place in America. Just a few weeks before he died, in a packed high school gym just outside Detroit, constantly interrupted by a rowdy right-wing crowd picketing his appearance, King had these radical words to say:
“…it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear?…It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.” (“The Other America,” 1968).
“A riot is the language of the unheard.” This language remains as relevant today as it was when King uttered it 50 years ago. Consider how many schools are more segregated now than they were when Brown v. Board of Education was decided. How Muslims are being persecuted because of their faith. How supporters of the Confederacy and Nazi sympathizers are carrying torches and inciting violence, leading to the death of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Virginia. How immigrants who have lived in this country for years are being deported to countries to which they have no ties. How veterans returning home from armed conflicts are provided with little to no resources or support. How women are paid less than their male counterparts for the same work.
Let us remember not just King’s words, but also his actions. King was in his 20s when he helped coordinate the Montgomery bus boycott, which lasted more than a year and brought the city to its knees. Too often today, we hear that protests for justice and equality are being done “wrong.” They’re too intrusive; they’re too loud. But one wonders how the country can laud King, whose efforts shut down public transportation in an entire city, but chastise Colin Kaepernick (also in his 20s) for his peaceful protest of taking a knee at a football game.
It was King’s desire that we each examine our role in the fight for civil liberties, justice and equality. It is not enough to consider ourselves simply “allies” in the fight. Instead, we must put our heads down, listen more, and do the work of improving the lives of a marginalized community to which we don’t belong. Then, and only then, might someone in that community determine that we are worthy of the term.
“Accomplice,” not “ally,” should be the goal. An ally is one who acknowledges there is a problem. An accomplice is one who acknowledges there is a problem and then commits to stand in the gap for those less fortunate than themselves, without hope or expectation of reward. An ally is passive; an accomplice is active.
King spoke of this in his 1967 book, Where Do We Go from Here:
“Why is equality so assiduously avoided? Why does white America delude itself, and how does it rationalize the evil it retains? The majority of white Americans consider themselves sincerely committed to justice for the Negro. They believe that American society is essentially hospitable to fair play and to steady growth toward a middle-class Utopia embodying racial harmony. But unfortunately this is a fantasy of self-deception and comfortable vanity.”
This statement was addressed to the white moderates and liberals of the 1960s, some of whom may have considered themselves allies to causes of equity and justice. As King said, “the ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
Time has a way of sanitizing history. When Muhammad Ali died in 2016, he was revered as if he had always been beloved. Yet Ali was vilified for refusing to fight in the Vietnam War. Similarly, many would have us believe that King was always held in the esteem that he is now. Yet William Sullivan, head of the FBI’s domestic intelligence division during the King surveillance program, said: “We must mark him now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this Nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro and national security.”
Today we celebrate black leaders of the past, yet few outside of the black community extol the virtues of Rep. John Lewis or Harry Belafonte, two living legends who both participated in the civil-rights movement with King.
It is important to note King’s influence when he was assassinated. The Memphis sanitation strike was ongoing, protesting poor pay and dangerous working conditions following the death of Echol Cole and Robert Walker in garbage compactors. This strike was beginning to find supporters in non-black communities and attracting the anxious eye of the FBI. It was a radical act. Like other black leaders of his time, including Malcolm X and Fred Hampton, King was considered increasingly dangerous because his appeal spread beyond the black community and non-blacks began to embrace his message in greater numbers.
Despite his pleas for nonviolence, King was brutally gunned down on August 4, 1968. In the wake of his death, others were forced to take up his call for change.
Change is hard. It is uncomfortable. But it is necessary for progress. As we celebrate the life and legacy of King, we must ask ourselves how much change is being made. On MLK Day, and every day, we must recommit ourselves to the tenets that King espoused. The work is difficult and unforgiving. The issues affecting us will not be solved in a lifetime, and perhaps not even in a generation. As King said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Unfortunately, we may not be as far along that arc as we might hope.
April Reign is the creator of the #OscarsSoWhite campaign and the Senior Director of Marketing for Fractured Atlas.