Opinion—A reflection on MLK Day, white America

Martin+Luther+King+Jr.

Sam Rush/NW

Lucas Beck

As another Martin Luther King Day passes, I am struggling with the images and messages I see from white Americans, like myself, celebrating the resilience, the strength and the victories of Dr. King without acknowledging that much of white America reacted with bitter hatred and violence toward Dr. King and the movement he helped lead. It feels like too often white Americans are appropriating the victories of Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement as our own, without acknowledging that white Americans were responsible for the opposition to the progress the Civil Rights Movement was seeking. 

Yes, there were some white people who marched with Dr. King and an even smaller number who put their bodies between clubs, boots and bullets for the sake of civil rights and the promise of equality, but every mob full of arms swinging clubs, feet aimed to injure and fingers on triggers that assaulted the Civil Rights Movement belonged to white people. It is past time for white America to confront that horrible history and all of its present ramifications.

I encourage everyone to read Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” The letter was written by Dr. King in response to white clergy who had called the demonstrations led by Dr. King “unwise and untimely.” In the letter is a quote from Dr. King that I find myself returning to often.

“First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate,” King wrote. “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.”

If you are someone who sees the righteousness and the necessity of the dream described by Dr. King during the 1963 March on Washington, yet this summer you found yourself calling for order more loudly than you called for justice, I implore you to consider more deeply the history of this nation, the magnitude of the solutions the present moment requires and the dire urgency with which we need those solutions to be implemented. 

A popular quote attributed to Dr. King is, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” 

The quote carries much beauty and, I hope, a large measure of truth. However, I fear that too often this quote is used by white Americans to excuse the sluggish pace of progress toward racial justice, a pace which seems to me to have been set to accommodate white comfort rather than to meet the crisis of racial injustice and violence against Black Americans that has plagued this nation since its inception. I fear that too often too many white Americans use this quote in their efforts to “set the timetable for another man’s freedom,” or at least to make themselves more comfortable with their apathy. Making white moderates more comfortable with their apathy was never Dr. King’s intention.

Now, in this moment, I hope that white Americans can not only embrace celebrating the accomplishments of the Civil Rights Movement, but also the work that white Americans must do to dismantle the systems of oppression that keep this nation so far from Dr. King’s dream. The arc of the moral universe is long, and we each have the obligation to help it bend toward justice for all.

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