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If you are White and want to honor the legacy of Dr. King and the Black Freedom Struggle, then get into the streets and be part of movements that are challenging structural injustices

January 17, 2021

It has been nearly 53 years since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated and roughly three decades since his birthday was made a federal holiday. The transition from who the actual Dr. King was and how his legacy has been co-opted, is well documented. I mean, when the most far right public figures, like Glen Beck, cherry pick words from Dr. King, something is really wrong.

Dr. King was under constant surveillance by the FBI, as the new documentary MLK/FBI demonstrates. Dr. King received numerous death threats, because of his role in challenging the White Supremacist Power Structure in the United States, especially after 1965, when Dr. King began speaking out against the system of Capitalism.

In April of 1967, Dr. King came out against the Vietnam War, in his famous Beyond Vietnam speech:

While Dr. King was working on the Poor People’s Campaign, a campaign that sought to elevate the plight of poor people all across the country, with a mass occupation of Washington DC and demands for a massive transfer of wealth from those in power to working class people across the country. In the midst of this campaign, Dr. King went to Memphis to support the struggle of striking city refuse workers, where he once again made the link between racism and capitalism, Dr. King was assassinated.

In the wake of Dr. King’s assassination, rebellions broke out all of the US, not unlike the rebellions that swept the country after a cop publicly Lynch George Floyd in Minnesota. Therefore, it seems to this writer, that for white people, if we are to honor the legacy of Dr. King and the Black Freedom Struggle he was part of, we need to be about the same kind of work of dismantling White Supremacy, Militarism and Capitalism, what Dr. King often referred to as the Evil Triplets.

The kind of tactics that Dr. King and the Black Freedom Struggle used was varied, but the emphasis was surely on confronting power by being in the streets, by disrupting business as usual, by engaging in civil disobedience and by our collective ability to make sacrifices. If White people think for a moment that voting for a Democrat and getting a Democrat in the White House, even controlling the House and the Senate, then you are ignoring history and in denial about how change is made.

We may be focused on the White Nationalists who stormed the US Capitol recently, but Dr. King warned us about who he was really concerned about, when he wrote from a jail cell in 1963:

 I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. 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; 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”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” 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.

For those of us who are White Moderates, those who council pragmatism and patience, we need to not only take these words of Dr. King seriously, we need to actively take part in the ongoing Black Freedom Struggle and other struggle for liberation. 

There is no shortage of ways to be involved in freedom struggles right now, right here in Grand Rapids. Groups like Justice for Black Lives, Defund the GRPD, Movimiento Cosecha GR, GR Rapid Response to ICE, the Grand Rapids Area Mutual Aid Network, Together We Are Safe and the Grand Rapids Area Tenant Union are all autonomous groups are fighting against state violence, against Neo-liberal Capitalism, against the non-profit industrial complex and against putting our trust in the political parties. These groups practice mutual aid, radical imagination and put their faith in the lived experiences of those most impacted by systems of power and oppression.

In closing, I will leave you with more words from Dr. King, also from his Beyond Vietnam speech, talking about a revolution of values:

“A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. [applause]

A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, “This is not just.” It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of South America and say, “This is not just.” The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.

A true revolution of values will lay hand on the world order and say of war, “This way of settling differences is not just.” This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”


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