“They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious.
‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.”
Few historical figures are more regularly excised from their context, shaped into a comforting image with all the sharp edges removed, than Martin Luther King, Jr. But at no other time is it more necessary that we listen again to his actual message and hear it with fresh ears, and a willingness to be challenged.
As we commemorate his life this month, shocking and unnerving as it may sound, I hope we can recover Martin Luther King, Jr.’s commitment to conflict.
Dr. King was solid and absolute in his commitment to non-violent action on behalf of justice, but he was not against conflict. He despised any peace construed as the absence of tension or at the expense of difficult truths swept under the rug. He disrupted the comfortable, he stirred the pot. He demanded that as Americans, we gird up our loins like adults and look straight at the naked wickedness right inside our own beating hearts.King was solid in his commitment to non-violent action but he was not against conflict. Click To Tweet
He did not seek to quell unrest by being even-handed, or acting as a mediator. He was explicit about right and wrong. He took sides. He was starkly and racially specific in passing out blame on one side and spurring the other to self-liberating action.
He condemned white America unequivocally and with a broad brush. He demanded that black Americans stand up for themselves and not settle for anything less than full equality in every sphere of society. He told his followers to break unjust and oppressive laws. He knew that no true reconciliation could emerge without bringing unspoken, secret, hidden, tensions to the surface and putting them to adjudication.
And people hated him for it.
Everything’s Fine, Right?
In Dr. King’s time, most white Americans desperately wanted to believe that everything was just fine the way it was. We needed to believe that we were a basically good, inclusive, and innocent country. Very few of us harbored the explicit white supremacist ideology of the Klan. We were more than happy to make verbal commitments to be kind and generous to the black people we encountered in our lives. This, surely, was good enough?
The views that average white Americans held of race relations are not very different now from MLK’s day. Anyone who stood up and said ‘America is racist’ or ‘white people are racist,’ or claim that some event or social institution is ‘racist,’ were slammed with all sorts of accusations.
Why disrupt the peace? Why such hate? I’m a good and loving person, what did I do? Why do you hate white people so much?
In 1968, a study “asked whether ‘Negroes are being treated in this community the same as whites are, not very well or badly?,’ 73% of whites insisted they were being treated the same and only 3% felt they were treated badly. And 58% of whites believed ‘Negroes themselves’ were more to blame than white people ‘for the present conditions in which Negroes were treated badly.'”
White America was (violently) allergic to any sense of personal responsibility for the condition of black America. They were in complete denial that racism was a significant problem.
MLK, however, was not above making wholesale criticisms of white Americans despite their self-proclaimed innocence: “It is an unhappy truth that racism is a way of life for the vast majority of white Americans, spoken and unspoken, acknowledged and denied, subtle and sometimes not so subtle.”
For this, King was regularly accused of what today would be called ‘reverse racism;’ of hating white people. One piece of hate-mail is particularly revealing: “How can you be a minster and have such hatred in your heart for the ‘white’-race and the Nation in general? Do return that ‘Nobel-peace-prize’ that we bestowed upon you.”
King believed that conflict was necessary because hard and obfuscated truths must be brought into the light, no matter how much anger, frustration, resent, denial, backlash, and yes, conflict, emerges as a result. In his most famous piece, Letter From a Birmingham Jail, he writes:
“Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. . . . I must confess that I am not afraid of the word ‘tension.’”
Truth-tellers, real prophets, do not smooth over problems in the name of peace:
“Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with.”
Such action was necessary because “freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Click To Tweet
There had to be a showdown, a conflict, between truth and lies, good and evil, oppressed and oppressor.
There’s a reason why civil rights activists were known in white newspapers as “agitators.”
It begs the question for us today: If so many white people were in denial about how serious the oppression against black people was, and their role in it, could that not also be the case now? Are we, like our parents’ generation, too afraid of tension? Too committed to a peace built on falsity and denial?
Riots and Civil Rights
Oftentimes today, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words are trotted out to condemn riots such as recent ones in Charlotte or Ferguson. But these citations usually ignore what King actually thought about rioting.
There were many ‘race riots,’ during the 1960s. Most of them emerged, in fact, in response to allegations of police brutality. Indeed, tragically, as with Rodney King in the ‘90s and Ferguson or Charlotte more recently, there was a lot of destruction and violence. When they took place, many white Americans maintained that there was not much of any serious racism in America. Black nationalism, black criminality, King’s anti-law-and-order doctrine of civil disobedience, were the real problem. Indeed, the police blamed such violent instances on ‘crime,’ not ‘racism.’
King and other Civil Rights leaders were implicated for stirring up such violence with their harsh words and their encouragement of action. They were the ones always ‘making it about race,’ after all. King always stood up for non-violent action and criticized riots, militancy, and nationalism. But he also refused to be a blunt object used against discontented black Americans. He was unequivocal in making sure that white Americans knew they were accountable for creating the conditions that sparked riots and militancy:
“But 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 alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.”
The Other America,” 1967
He was adamant: The truth-tellers didn’t cause the riots, the powerful and apathetic people who kept a group locked in agonizing misery were to blame.
Peace Isn’t Enough
MLK’s primary target audience was not the relatively small group of particularly hateful, explicit, bigots. It was the people who thought themselves good, loving, equitable, peacable, but still stood idly by as systems of oppression ravaged black bodies. King railed against unequal housing and education, disparities in criminal justice, that all went on while people of purported good will pretended everything was okay and that their hands were clean of responsibility.
“Loose and easy language about equality, resonant resolutions about brotherhood fall pleasantly on the ear, but for the Negro there is a credibility gap he cannot overlook. He remembers that with each modest advance the white population promptly raises the argument that the Negro has come far enough”
He despaired: “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler 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” (“Birmingham”).
Not a Color-Blind Dream
King was not a harbinger for ‘color-blind’ politics. He advocated for preferential treatment for blacks in housing, education, and economic policy in order to rectify centuries of obscene discrimination and social barriers.
He also encouraged black Americans to develop and put forward a strong black identity: “Be proud of our heritage. . . . I want everybody to cry out here tonight: Yes, I’m black! I’m proud of it! I’m black and beautiful!”
King responded several times to the claim that renewed attacks on black civil rights (so-called “white backlash”) are simply a natural reaction to black nationalism and obsessive race-talk. King, alternatively, believed that such reactions are merely a mask for white racism. He decried the reality that every real or perceived antagonism from blacks, as well as legitimate civil rights progress, was translated into a narrative of white grievance as an excuse for maintaining the status quo, or worse. The paranoia that white culture is under assault is merely a psychologically manipulative mask for white supremacy, attempting to self-aggrandize (woe is me, everybody hates me!) rather than maturely fix the underlying problem of inequality:
“I would like to honestly say to you that the white backlash is merely a new name for an old phenomenon. It’s not something that just came into being because of shouts of Black Power, or because Negroes engaged in riots in Watts, for instance. . . . What it is necessary to see is that there has never been a single solid monistic determined commitment on the part of the vast majority of white Americans on the whole question of Civil Rights and on the whole question of racial equality. This is something that truth impels all men of good will to admit.”
The Other America
King was not too nice to say that white America has never been committed to black civil rights. The real nature of this conflict had to be exposed in order to be excised.
Hot or Cold, Not Lukewarm
The actual message of Martin Luther King, Jr. forces us to come to terms with our tendency to privilege peace over righteousness. How often do we come to our Bible studies, before our pulpits, in our many race dialogues and conferences, calling for peace? Longing for reconciliation? But there can be no peace without the truth. There can be no reconciliation without restoration.
If you find this message of Dr. King’s to be too radical, reject him as our parents’ generation of Evangelicals did. But let us not be guilty of forming him into a false, self-affirming image and thereby remove the challenge he presents to us.