As we approach January 18—only the 35th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day commemorating the iconic civil rights leader who extolled a nonviolent philosophy while pushing the country to reconsider its history of racism, poverty and oppression—we have recently been shocked by the kind of protest which King could never countenance.
The events of Jan. 6 are what violent insurgency looks like: Assailants carrying weapons attacked the Capitol building, breaking windows, aggressing security, threatening sedition, brandishing weapons and making bomb threats. The insurgents wanted to stop Congress from formally counting votes from the Electoral College. Their actions, unredeemed by a higher morality, demeaned the tradition of civil disobedience practiced by King. What values did they uphold? Anarchy, misdirection and white supremacy.
At the same time, this is a teachable moment, and chance to return to King's legacy. The insurgents at the Capitol stand at the opposite end of the spectrum. One side exhibits the protest tradition informed by love, the other what happens when protest is driven by self-entitlement, conspiracy theories and hate.
MLK Day also remains an occasion to show how King's legacy has been conveniently simplified by conservatives who'd remake him into a polite, palatable figurehead. Such simplification focuses on King's career up until 1963, but ignores much of what he said and did afterward. Conservatives seemingly love taking certain quotes out of context; for example, spinning King's hope that someday his children would "not be judged by the color of their skin, but the content of the character," to suggest he would have opposed affirmative action. Or preposterously translating calls for integration as opposition to diagnoses of racial dynamics.
Rather than honoring King's spirit of activism, MLK Day celebrations and memorials, at their worst, become subtle invitations to complacency lacking an adequate sense of how beleaguered King was during his lifetime—by the FBI, which monitored his every move, but also his peers, who disapproved of his stance against the Vietnam War, and far-left radicals who felt King's ministerial style was outdated.
Yes, most MLK Day celebrations convey the man's commitment to nonviolent tactics. They rightly describe King's efforts to end segregation with boycotts and sit-ins and have in recent years focused more on his anti-poverty message. The overall effect, unfortunately, is to honor King's -accomplishments without underscoring how he did it, or highlighting how much more he wanted to accomplish before he was assassinated in 1968.
King's nonviolence was engaged and rooted in activism. If we forget this, we can easily fall into the trap of believing nonviolence is synonymous with inaction. Sometimes the term "nonviolent" is used like a schoolmarmish admonition with the backhanded racist insinuation that Blacks are inherently violent.
"Remember King was nonviolent!" becomes shorthand for "Don't challenge the authorities! Don't protest at the Capitol!" Whites, meanwhile—and obviously—are free to violently break windows at a federal building and then get politely escorted away.
Nonviolence disavows retaliation and aggression. It means leaving weapons behind. Nonviolence as practiced by King nonetheless involved direct action and disruption. He'd go to segregated business at the heart of the Christmas season and inform them that they would not burn the business down, but they would picket, they would hand out leaflets encouraging boycotts. As he said in his Letter From a Birmingham Jail, for nonviolence to be successful, it must "create tension that is necessary for growth…a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation."
Don't be duped by the sanitized version. I myself have been in activist groups wherein nonviolence was construed as the prohibition of any discussion about white privilege, as though we should protest the effects of racism—inadequate schools or police shootings—without analyzing what it actually is. King encouraged self-examination, including for white allies, writing:
"I have been gravely disappointed with 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."
We simultaneously limit King's principles if we believe they only applied to protest activists. His intent was for the principles of nonviolence to be upheld in every aspect of society. Hunger, deprivation, lack of access to healthcare, unjust law enforcement and nuclear proliferation are violence. He often asked why the nation spent so much on the military and prisons, but so little on social programs. His agenda was consistent with the contemporary rallying cries:
"Black Lives Matter!" and "Defund the Police!"
But then, King wasn't so naive to believe he could transform the world using a small band of activists. His primary dream, one seminal to the others, was for the spirit of nonviolent protest and civil disobedience to spread nationwide, even internationally.
Come Monday, Jan. 18, let us remember how King challenged consciences. Let us ask ourselves meaningful questions. Do King's criticisms of white moderation apply to some of us? Have we followed his example of commitment to ending bigotry, poverty and unjust war? Have we committed ourselves to the most that we can do?
If the honest answer remains "no," or even "maybe," let's change.