Every year on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I wonder about what King would be saying or doing if he was still with us. He would be 93 this year. I also worry about how we’re misrepresenting him. Oftentimes, folks pick and choose only the inspirational quotes that focus on peace and love in their remembrances. While these elements and King’s words around them are essential, they’re often taken out of context. And that context often includes an indictment of those in power, and a critique of injustice. When it’s not convenient, we set aside that King was anti-war. We forget that he critiqued white supremacy and white moderates. He also stood up for workers and fought against poverty.
In an attempt to better understand what messages King has left for us, I returned to his letter from the Birmingham Jail, after his arrest for marching in 1963. He wrote the letter in response to a published critique of the movement by several white clergy members.
One of the core messages in King’s letter was an explanation for why the civil rights movement could not wait. As he explained in his letter, “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was ‘well timed’ in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ … This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’” Although we have made strides toward racial justice, we’re not there yet, and waiting will not serve this goal.
Beyond the immediacy of racial justice, King urged us to develop an in-depth and critical understanding of injustice. Today, we find ourselves in a time when many are seemingly taking up the mantle of justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion. But King warned us that “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” King goes on to suggest that the words of some white do-gooders are “pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities.” This warning pushes me to dig deeper, to make sure I and we have engaged in the deep and critical education necessary to keep our diversity, equity, and inclusion work from being mere “sanctimonious trivialities.”
King encouraged all of us to take direct action against racial injustice and to engage in open and honest conversations about race and racism. In his letter, he says, “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. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”
I encourage us all this week of January 17 to not only celebrate Martin Luther King Jr., but to draw on the words, ideas, and the movement that he left us to continue. I think he would want us to do the social justice work now and unapologetically.