There are few better things to do on Martin Luther King Jr. Day than to look over his famous and influential works. Everyone knows his “I Have a Dream Speech,” which is of course powerful, but there is so much more to be plumbed. For those especially interested in his sermons, you can download many of his sermons at the King Center. (I assigned grad students in my American Religious History class to scour those digital archives, to much success.) King was the prophet that America needed but didn’t deserve, and his words still condemn us today.
Like many, I consider his “Letter From Birmingham Jail” to be American scripture. But his words seem even more relevant in the Age of Trump. In the wake of Trump’s election, thousands across the nation protested under the #notmypresident battle cry. This drew the sadly-expected backlash from people who denounced such “rowdy” behavior. Why not work within the political system? But as King declared decades ago, protests, especially on social justice measures, are intricate parts of democracy.
You may well ask, “Why direct action, why sit-ins, marches, and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are exactly right in your call for negotiation. Indeed, this is the purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has consistently refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. I just referred to the creation of tension as a part of the work of the nonviolent resister. This may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly worked and preached against violent tension, but there is a type of constructive nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must see the need of having nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men to rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. So, the purpose of direct action is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. We therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in the tragic attempt to live in monologue rather than dialogue.
Denouncing protests is, in most cases, an appeal to preserve the status quo—in other words, a clarion call to retain certain privileges. Conservative revisionists today falsely juxtapose MLK to today’s protesters: “King was always peaceful,” they insist. But this re-appropriation of King’s message from “non-violent” to “non-confrontational” domesticates his message. He was all about forcing change through direct action.
Further, King’s message is missed because he emphasizes the role of the church in promoting social justice:
There was a time when the church was very powerful. It was during that period that the early Christians rejoiced when they were deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was the thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Wherever the early Christians entered a town the power structure got disturbed and immediately sought to convict them for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.” But they went on with the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven” and had to obey God rather than man. They were small in number but big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” They brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contest.
I could share a dozen more block quotes, but I’ll just urge you to read the whole letter itself.
And finally, King’s message is prophetic because he, perhaps more than many others, understood that race, economy, and community were all connected. You can’t fight for equal rights without attacking the unregulated capitalistic system. This mature, total vision from King’s later orations—that blend racial, religious, and economic messages— are perhaps the texts that still need to be mined today. As one example, here is a recording from his “Where Do We Go From Here?” oration less than a year before his martyrdom. (Make sure to last through the last five minutes.)
King’s ability to recognize all the progress they made, all the reverses they’ve faced, and all the work still yet to be done—this came at the climax of his career when support seemed to be waning—makes his message seem even more prescient for today. We don’t have to wantonly wish that we had King around to denounce Trump, because I doubt he’d say much different than what he did during his lifetime.
It is perhaps from this archive—this scriptural corpus—that progressives in the twenty-first century can find their voice.