Each year, the Martin Luther King holiday brings with it a barrage of citations and encomia. Yesterday was no exception. His least controversial words were quoted and contorted to suit every political whim. His legacy was again burnished by all. We were reminded that by now he is not a man but a civic saint.
All this agreement should give us pause. King was a divisive figure. Though his dreams—what we mostly remember today, because we like to pretend we’ve achieved them—bent toward harmony, his actions evoked tension and won the ire even of many who considered themselves civil rights supporters.
If Americans knew what King stood for, there would be no day named in his honor. It would be impossible to capitalize on his legacy by, say, selling cosmetics, as the Mary Kay Foundation attempted. Indeed, the celebration of King’s official legacy as a cuddly figure of unity and tolerance serves to erase his politics from public memory.
Rather than sup on anodyne statements endlessly recalled, consider what King wrote, in context. Don’t celebrate “a nation where [people] will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” We don’t live in that nation. Instead, read the 1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail.
In the letter King elegantly and without compromise rejects the moderation of white liberals who counsel patience and deference even to unjust law: “You may well ask: ‘Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?’ You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. 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 to so dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”
This is what the protestors who recently blocked Interstate 93 in Boston sought to do, to a dismissive response. In the Boston Globe, Kevin Cullen called the demonstrators “zealots” who “alienated” supporters by trying to foreclose what he is willing to admit is at least an important “conversation” (our endless “conversation” about racial justice). Twitter was similarly unmoved.
The reaction suggests we have had too many dreams, believed too many of them fulfilled, and generally failed to understand King’s message. Those complaining of delay, piously condemning protestors for estranging allies, are reprising the role of the fainthearted clergymen to whom King addressed his letter. “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,” he wrote, “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 cannot agree with your methods of direct action.’”
The obstacle to equality, King knew, was not limited to racist ideology. It included the timidity of moderates.
It is not surprising that some wonder at the I-93 protest and similar events throughout the country, which don’t seem obviously related to abusive policing, the racist challenge most present to our minds. How, the moderate asks, is a highway stoppage supposed to combat racism? How can it be a good thing if people miss appointments or are late for work?
These questions make sense if your life is generally free of significant inconvenience, but if you’re black in America, that is probably not your life. Not for nothing are the words “stop” and “arrest” synonymous. In fact the roads are especially important sites of racist policing. Police stops on highways and city streets are essential tools for the surveillance of black men. To experience this sudden inconvenience, and be open to the meaning of it, is to recognize in small measure what it is like to be unaided by the comforts and accelerators money can buy. This is some of what poverty—a status most prevalent among nonwhites—means. It means struggling against impediments that those of privilege cannot identify until we are forced to face them.
But the protest, read beside King, also shows how much has changed since the Civil Rights movement. Here I refer not to real and superficial improvements in the behavior of whites toward nonwhites and in the achievements of the latter but to the workings of racism. Today’s racism is different from that of the Jim Crow era, and the methods of direct action that the Civil Rights Movement pioneered are, in our time, hard to implement successfully.
King urged direct action against unjust laws. But laws barring people from disrupting traffic are not unjust. They are not like the laws of segregation and disenfranchisement. It was wrong to ban blacks from restaurants, public transit, hotels, voting, and other goods that whites enjoyed, so it was necessary for civil rights agitators to oppose those bans by flouting them.
Today’s civil rights action is necessarily more symbolic than yesterday’s because today’s racism is not a function of unjust laws so much as unjust implementation and institutions. No one need spout racist rhetoric or pass legislation to divide and demean. As legal scholar Richard Thompson Ford argues in a forthcoming essay in Boston Review, we live amid a tacit agreement whereby whites are still largely segregated from nonwhites in work, school, and residence. Poor people live in ghettoes and prisons, under surveillance as provided by the war on drugs, policing of lifestyle infractions, and patrol strategies predicated on fear of nonwhite men. All of these follow political decisions. Officers are doing what citizens ask of them, while the private choices of those citizens help to ensure that vast economic and educational disparities persist in spite of formal equality of opportunity.
So while there is good reason to locate a protest on a highway, it is easy to appreciate why a lot of observers will not grasp the civil rights message in it. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s eliminated most of the legal sources of oppression, revealing informal foundations of racism so deep they are hard to fathom.
Therefore the civil rights action of our time must protest not just obviously unjust laws, but also the subtle means by which white supremacy is maintained. That it is so maintained is undeniable. The median net worth of whites is thirteen times that of blacks, ten times that of Latinos. Though too many white Americans are in prison, there is still a far greater chance you’ll wind up jailed if you’re black. Nationally, felon disenfranchisement laws ensure that one in eight black men can’t vote; in some states, the rate is much higher. Blacks are half as likely as whites to have earned bachelors degrees, and those blacks who do graduate college get less in return. Being black means you have fewer years to live. These are markers of a society riven by unfairness.
As the recent focus on police violence has clarified, that unfairness is accompanied by tension. Today’s civil rights protestors are not the source of tension, but they are, like their predecessors, fostering it so that it can be turned in productive directions. This involves sacrifices by some, but they don’t have to be in vain. It might be easier to see why that is—to see the value of this protest—if we celebrated the actual King and his radicalism rather than the inoffensive persona created to serve the status quo.