Lord, we ain’t what we oughta be. We ain’t what we want to be. We ain’t what we gonna be. But, thank God, we ain’t what we was.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Quoting a slave preacher in a 1962 speech
Dr. King Jr. was an ordinary man with an extraordinary capacity to love. As a young minister in Montgomery, Alabama, he reluctantly accepted the call to lead the historic Montgomery bus boycott. This act of resistance catapulted him into a visible and dangerous leadership role. Montgomery, Alabama on Dec. 5, 1955, was the “moment” that transformed him into the man we so admire today.
From the moment the very young (26-year-old) Dr. King accepted his destiny as a “civil rights” leader, his life — and that of the millions of so-called “Negroes” — was unalterably changed. Inspired by Gandhi’s passive resistance movement in India, King went on to lead a persistent campaign of resistance and protest based on non-violence. At the time, Malcolm X, another young leader, posited “that the only thing non-violence proved was how violent the white power was in its response.”
Despite vicious murders, assassinations, and bombings, King never gave up on his belief that “power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic.” In King’s view, the Negro needed the power to ensure equal opportunity and rights. He genuinely felt that non-violence would more effectively appeal to the “better angels” of our white brethren. To be fair, King’s philosophy was not the consensus of many African Americans of that period. In fact even today, the debate simmers in the black community.
Still, under his stewardship starting in Montgomery, a robust national movement based on non-violence commenced. This movement was not dependent on traditional models of resistance. The leader was less a direction-giver and more a spokesman for the masses of black Americans suffering under America’s peculiar system of apartheid. The key to King’s effectiveness was his ability to “keep his ear to the ground,” to hear what his people were saying, and to articulate their grievances with a powerful and poetic voice. Regardless of its non-violent nature, the King-inspired movement was less a protest and more an uprising against blatant and structural racism. It took enormous courage to challenge America’s cultural norms and political institutions with songs and passive resistance.
Fifty years after his assassination, our struggle for full citizenship rights continues today. Thanks in part to King’s determined efforts, we have the right to sit where we choose on public transportation, to eat where we want in most American restaurants, and to stay in hotels/motels across the land.
However, given the economic discrimination most blacks still experience, the question is, do we have the financial wherewithal (the money) to enjoy these hard-earned rights? The movement for civil rights must continue and now includes guaranteeing the protection of our right to vote, unfettered by duplicitous laws, statutes, and pre-conditions.
As I reflect on the half-century since his death, I am saddened by how we, black and white Americans, have transformed the struggle from mass action to a series of dueling Twitter and Facebook messages. Facebook “activists” write angrily about conditions from the safety of their homes. Our fingers and wrists are more fatigued than our feet. We have outsourced the movement to talking heads debating on radio and TV. We are still looking for a “leader” to take us to the promised land. Our youth think of Selma as a movie, our elders have become jaded and cynical, and our allies are suffering from “compassion fatigue.” We celebrate a movie, The Black Panther, as a civil rights victory instead of a fantasy that bears no resemblance to the lives we daily live in America. Instead of marching to protest real conditions or going to the voting booth, we are going in droves to escape to “Wakanda,” the idyllic land of “black is beautiful.”
Now is the time to morph the movement from “civil” rights to human rights. Civil rights are legislated and depend on the political largesse of the ruling class — you don’t legislate human rights — you assert them.
It is time to re-energize the movement, to reconnect with our allies, and to dare to challenge racism in all its varied forms and manifestations. Fredrick Douglass, the great orator and abolitionist once said, “Power concedes nothing but to demand. It never has and it never will.”
So as we think about Dr. King’s contributions, and before we make him an exception, remember his quote about personal involvement: “Everybody can be great because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. … You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”