As we celebrate the birth of civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, let’s reflect on his words, and how they remain evergreen until justice is attained for all.
In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends
Dr. Martin Luther King lamented the silence of his friends in his letters from the Birmingham jail. He lamented those who would support him behind closed doors, but in the public forum where it really counts, he and other peoples of color stood alone.
Dr. King also was not only about racial equality, but economic equality. Many alliances were starting to be formed during that time between various races around the issue of economic empowerment; Unfortunately, the power structure at the time was designed to oppress, and in many ways, continues to do so. The common fallacy is that poverty only affects one certain segment. The reality is, if you are struggling you are struggling no matter what the race. Poor whites in Mississippi are no different than poor African-Americans in Alabama; poor whites in Milwaukee are no different than poor African Americans in New York. We must be wary of the divide and conquer tactic which has worked so well in many corners and we are seeing more of it today.
Many times during Dr. King’s walk, he was told wait. Wait. Give the system a chance to work. We agree with your protests, but you shouldn’t do it in this manner. Sound familiar? Think of today with the actions of Colin Kaepernick and sports players who choose to peacefully protest injustice by kneeling during the National anthem. We agree with your cause, but you shouldn’t do it while we watch football. Others are not that kind in their sentiments.
Here was Dr. King’s answer was to being told to wait, as he sat in the Birmingham jail for peacefully protesting:
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, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; 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 cannot go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son asking in agonizing pathos, “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodyness” — then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.
He then goes on to say “Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
So what does it mean to be a true ally? What can I do?
First, listen. Listen to the concerns of marginalized people. Set aside your own feelings of defensiveness or comfort that may come from tough discussions.
Secondly, show up. If it’s a protest, march. If it’s phone banking to call your local legislator about issues of concern, do it. If it’s sending an email to your legislator, do it. Download an app like 5 calls to help you make calls to action.
Thirdly, align yourself with others who have the same concerns. Join the local chapter of the ACLU or other organization fighting these battles. Donate to the causes that mean the most to you — whether it is reproductive rights, the rights of the LGBTQ community, immigrants’ rights, or civil rights in general.
Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle.
We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.
Listen. Show up. Align. And give a full throated repudiation to those who speak racism. By doing this, you will keep Dr. King’s dream alive.