In times of racial unrest, quoting Martin Luther King Jr. becomes a national past time, and every person with a social media account becomes a fine scholar of his most obscure quotes. The same people who defended Selma‘s exclusion from the Academy Awards in February now scatter his pearls of wisdom like debate kill shots.
Often, his quotes are used like a switch to chastise the timbre the march for equality he once championed has taken on. When cars are set aflame in Baltimore or windows broken in Ferguson, these sudden aficionados of Dr. King’s works will tut-tut the protestors with anguished cries of “This is not what Dr. King would have wanted!” and exasperated sighs that he is most surely “rolling in his grave”
I am not here to discourage people from quoting Dr. King. On the contrary, I wish he was brought up far more often. But cherry-picking certain quotes of his to support this cause or that makes you sound like one of those supermarket pamphlets written by someone using the words of Jesus to support their vegan diet. So, before you quote Martin Luther King Jr. on your Facebook or, even worse, accuse someone of “tarnishing his legacy,” here are a few questions to ask yourselves.
1. Do I Have Any Idea What I’m Talking About?
This may seem obvious, but it’s a valid question, because people often don’t. Martin Luther King Jr. was not writing for Twitter, nor for Facebook, nor even go be quoted in a blog like this. He was a writer who developed cautious, nuanced arguments that carefully made a case that landed on a spectrum, understanding riots without condoning them, crying for peace while still advocating revolution. That “A riot is the language of the unheard” quote going around? Do you have any idea what else Dr. King said about riots? Because you should.
…I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.
This is an extremely subtle point, and without the entirety of the language surrounding it, the scalpel turns into a battle axe. Battle axes have their uses, but only rarely in this sort of conversation.
2. Does This Quote Line Up With What Dr. King Actually Wanted?
The Bible says “There is no God.” It says it in black and white, in Psalm 14:1.
Of course, if you read the entirety of the verse, you’ll find “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God,'” but that ship has sailed, because I’m not someone who reads the Bible. I just find the parts of it I want to quote to prove my point, and I have no interest in discovering what the Bible actually says.
That’s the attitude people are taking to quoting Dr. King anyhow. Whenever a law is broken, people will start throwing his quotes around, rending their garments over the how broken-hearted he would be to see that “his movement” had come to this.
These people forget that Dr. King broke the law many times over. He was condemned by many leaders (even faith leaders) of his day for his refusal to comply, to be patient, to protest peacefully—even though there were many avenues of peaceful protest open to him. But, as he said:
I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.
Dr. King was not against breaking the law when the situation called for it (he wrote the above quote from jail, after all). He was definitely non-violent, but don’t mistake “peaceful” for “passive,” and don’t presume to use his words unless you’re sure they fall in line with what he actually believed and lived.
3. Am I Assuming Everyone Has to Automatically Agree With This Just Because Martin Luther King Jr. Said It?
Even using an MLK quote correctly doesn’t mean you’ve waved a magic spell meaning everyone has to obey what he said. His thoughts were controversial then and certain points remain controversial today—there are good, intelligent people who disagree with some of his tactics. Black America is not a monolithic culture that blindly obeys the words of Dr. King, nor should they be.
4. Am I Using His Words to Reinforce the Status Quo?
The way some people use the words of Dr. King, you’d think he was a dew-eyed lamb who wrung his hands at the slightest hint of change. He has fallen prey to the sad fate of Gandhi, Jesus and other revolutionaries whose non-violent actions were paired with fiery rhetoric against the establishments and institutions of their time. These types of men are put to death not because they’re so peaceful, but because they’re so threatening.
Never in his life was Dr. King in search of maintaining the status quo. As he said in his 1965 commencement address to the students of Oberlin College in Ohio:
Let us stand up. Let us be a concerned generation. Let us remain awake through a great revolution. And we will speed up that great day when the American Dream will be a reality. We, in the final analysis, can gain consolation from the fact that at least we’ve made strides in our struggle for peace and in our struggle for justice. We still have a long, long way to go, but at least we’ve made a creative beginning.
5. Am I Crying for Peace Without Justice?
As Dr. King wrote in Christian Century in 1957,
So long as the Negro maintained this subservient attitude and accepted the “place” assigned him, a sort of racial peace existed. But it was an uneasy peace in which the Negro was forced patiently to submit to insult, injustice and exploitation. It was a negative peace. True peace is not merely the absence of some negative force—tension, confusion or war; it is the presence of some positive force-justice, good will and brotherhood.
Praying for peace is good, but Dr. King was not interested in a peace that came at the cost of justice. The current unrest in Baltimore and around the country does not stem from a void. It’s the natural reaction to decades (centuries) of unchecked aggression and deaf ears. It’s easy to mourn for the loss of property and jobs in Baltimore, but hard to remember that conditions in Baltimore have been dire for a long time—it was only when the daily destruction and destitution faced by those in Baltimore’s poorest neighborhoods came out of the darkness and into the light that people started caring.
So what does peace look like? Rioters returning home to reacquaint themselves with the same plight they’ve faced for the past few decades? Windows boarded up and fires put out, while Freddie Grey’s tombstone slowly weathers over time until his life, so suddenly and mysteriously snuffed out, is as forgotten as the riots?
Simply put, does your idea of peace look like a return to normalcy? If so, Dr. King would have words with you, from his famous speech at the conclusion of the Selma march.
The only normalcy that we will settle for is the normalcy that recognizes the dignity and worth of all of God’s children. The only normalcy that we will settle for is the normalcy that allows judgment to run down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream. The only normalcy that we will settle for is the normalcy of brotherhood, the normalcy of true peace: the normalcy of justice.