MLK’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ is a must-read for activists in 2018
Valuable insights into his disappointment with white moderates, being seen as an ‘outside agitator’, theories and applications of nonviolence, and steps taken prior to ensure a direct action is credible.
[I can speak forever about Martin Luther King, Jr, but I’m keeping my remarks relatively short. I prefer folks to have the stamina to read MLK’s words rather than mine. I invite anyone who is already inclined to first follow this link to MLKs Letter.]
In 2017, many showed up in Washington DC to resist using many tactics — but marching became a favorite. Unfortunately, many outside national march organizers coming to DC look for the easy and quick way to raise their profile as movement leader while doing the least amount of work, devoting the least amount of time to preparation and organizing, and taking the most credit as possible. Many only do the most visible work — the kind that builds their brand — drawing from the limited understanding they have of social movements, especially the Civil Rights Movement they learn from mainstream historical accounts and narratives, pushed predominantly by the white establishment on Martin Luther King Day and during Black History Month.
I know firsthand how misleading the selective mainstream history of the Civil Rights Movement can be. Growing up myself learning nothing but superficial and whitewashed history lessons did me no favors for understanding how I could participate effectively in bringing about change through civil resistance. Many like me never learned of the glaring omissions of MLK’s legacy. Many who come to DC to march have no awareness of his more radical ideas and his challenges to the a white supremacist/capitalist/imperialist state.
Before curiosity prompted my own independent research, I was led to make assumptions without all the information about who MLK was, and who he was not — what his nonviolent tactics were, and what they were not — how he chose why and when to march, and when and why he did not. I had no idea how he actually felt about white America and white moderates who largely stood on the sidelines during the ‘60s. Funny how white America selectively forgets such pertinent less-than-complimentary details!
Many who wish to lead marches in DC have not taken the time and independent study to understand how they may best live up to the entirety of MLK’s legacy — not just the pieces of his legacy that were comfortable enough for white America to get onboard with.
Many don’t stop to think about all the labor and preparation that goes into making movements and direct actions effective and credible. MLK’s Letter speaks to how to ensure escalations to direct actions (including marches) are not only successful but respect local movement efforts enough to take the time to build relationships. We must understand how an outside organizer planning a march could either negatively impact or positively support local movements before they bring thousands to inundate another’s home city.
We didn’t in the ‘60s — and we still don’t today––honor the time and sacrifice of all activists who show up to support and resist. There’s also little mainstream historical consideration for all the unsung heroes from past movements (especially women of color) who did the necessary, unseen, and thankless labor, groundwork and preparation that underpinned effective Civil Rights Movement escalations in cities like Montgomery and Birmingham.
Many white liberals model their activism after what they perceive to be MLK’s legacy. In their “shallow understanding” all of what the the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) did behind the scenes to ensure they were positively received by and not seen in local organizers’ eyes as outside agitators. They haven’t taken the time to learn that MLK was invited into cities like Birmingham TO SUPPORT ON THE GROUND EFFORTS ALREADY IN MOTION.
Many white liberals are unaware of the arduous labor MLK and SCLC did to ensure they didn’t enter into direct action before engaging in serious mental, emotional, and spiritual preparation for the dogs, fire hoses, and racist cops that waited for them. MLK called this necessary and rigorous preparation for direct action “Self-Purification”. Very few historians appreciate and give due credit to the front-end ground work done before the local SCLC Chapter organizers invited him into their city. By exhausting all other options for redress or recourse they were able to bring legitimacy to their escalation — leaving no room for naysayers and haters to rationally question their strategy, approach, and tactics.
We forget that use of direct action by MLK was a last step and resort used to demand change once all negotiations had been exhausted. Today many do direct action as performative pageantry and as a photo op while claiming they are a living testament to MLK’s legacy.
Most of what we see in the history books and in the news is the march itself or the arrests of activists, which give us the skewed and narrow perspective of what it actually takes to organize impactful campaigns with a credible escalation to direct action. Change does not come from a single march, sit-in, blockade, or even a single day of boycotts. These efforts must be sustained to be effective. No singular action alone will make change happen, yet so many come to DC for a “flash in the pan” action with no strategic objectives or appreciation for the value of doing the hard organizing and groundwork. It’s the farthest thing from MLK’s legacy when one only does what will help build their personal brand and feed their ego. Doing this work without the right intentions and without our being a student of MLK or similar revolutionary approach is a waste of everyone’s time and may even detract and distract from the strategic work already in motion on the ground.
It is an affront to Dr King’s legacy that one would waste the time of activists and organizers planning an action without first doing their homework, groundwork, and heartwork.
Movements would be better served if organizers and activists — especially white organizers and activists — took the time to read (and fully digest and appreciate) MLK’s Letter from Birmingham Jail.
It would be revolutionary for movements and activists to fully embrace MLK’s meticulous process and steps towards direct action — to understand how change happens and how years of strategy and preparation went into the outcomes and progress of the Civil Rights Movement. It is a timely reminder when we listen to Rev Dr William Barber talk of the appreciation he has for those who did the hard work and preparation:
Do you really think that Rosa just got fed up one day and refused to give up her seat? Nope, it was carefully planned and meticulously coordinated well before she got on that bus.
Now is NOT a moment in history that’s calling for saviors or egotists. This moment calls for the selfless dedication and commitment, like that done behind the scenes to ensure Rosa Parks wasn’t arrested on that bus in vein.
It’s astounding that so much of America, especially so-called liberals and progressives buy into the whitewashing of MLK’s legacy so deeply and confidently without ever reading anything beyond his inspiring quotes:
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”.
Don’t get me wrong, that’s a great quote, but we need to understand more than the cliff notes version. We need to understand what the white moderates did not want to understand in the ‘60s. Today, sadly, white liberals and progressives understand very little about the Civil Rights Movement besides what it takes to bastardize the term “peaceful protest”.
These “shallow understandings” translate into hollow excuses for inaction and justifications for neutrality in the face of oppression.
As a local organizer living in a city as heavily trafficked by so many out of town activists as Washington DC, I’m frustrated. I don’t understand how MLK laid all this out so clearly — 54 years ago — yet folks who evoke his name and have access to his writings don’t get this concept of building a relationship and laying groundwork with local organizers.
Why, after 54 years, don’t we collectively comprehend this concept of credible escalation to direct action which requires laying sometimes months or years of groundwork? Why don’t we comprehend what is so dangerous about the complacent and complicit actions (or inactions) of white liberals and progressives of today?
White moderates, liberals, and progressives literally just have to google “MLK’s Letter” and they’ll come across the Stanford King Institute’s webpage as one of the top results. One can read the original scanned copy of the letter he wrote from jail in 1963, or ONE CAN LISTEN TO AN AUDIO RECORDING OF MLK HIMSELF READING HIS LETTER (it’s actually a really inspiring and educational listen!)
It’s been deeply illuminating for someone like me who previously bought fully into the whitewashed concept of Civil Rights and American’s selective memory about what MLK stood for and HOW he organized effectively.
This MLK Day, please read or listen to MLK’s Letter. MLK’s whitewashed legacy has allowed us to be lazy and claim we are following his teachings and preachings without actually doing the work to understand the full extent and nuance of what he believed. Imagine the power that people could wield collectively if we all understood how he went about bringing tension to the surface by credibly escalating to direct action. I hope in 2018 MLK’s Letter can serve as a unifying and educational guide for our movements.
I hope it further illuminates that even with all the information at our fingertips we still discount and discredit the work of Black women movement leaders today. We do little to express our gratitude for their labor selflessly given. I hope by reading MLK’s Letter it brings the progress that white moderates have squandered in the past 50 years. White moderates, when it comes to celebrating MLK’s legacy have been academically lazy and selectively appropriative of the pieces of MLK’s nonviolent principles and direct action tactics that suit them and their comfort level — while ignoring the disappointment he had with white moderates.
In advance of MLK Day next month, please read and enjoy MLK’s Letter. Don’t be “the white moderate” that waits for a “more convenient season” It’s worth your time, I promise.
The document available for viewing above is from an early draft of the Letter, while the audio is from King's reading of…kinginstitute.stanford.edu
If you are in DC next month consider supporting Black Lives Matter DC’s #ReclaimMLK Week of Action: