“The time is always right to do what is right.”
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”
These quotes from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King have two things in common. One, they are inspiring examples of his important work and his skills as an orator. Two, they are so universal that they have been used by right-wing politicians to bolster actions and philosophies completely antithetical to Dr. King’s beliefs and work.
Before this important holiday gets washed away in the attempted gaslighting of portraying Dr. King as somehow the vanilla yogurt of the civil rights movement, let’s stop for a moment to consider reality. Dr. King was viewed as a threat to the White supremacy-based social and economic power structure. And he knew that and kept challenging injustice. He knew his life was in danger and even knowing and being braced for that he STILL was murdered before he even turned 40. Think about that for a moment.
Now try for a moment to process or explain how one can know this and yet present Dr. King as some kind of bastion of neutrality, as the “safe” alternative to Malcolm X. To co-opt his nonviolent yet firm message of equality and reformation of injustice and reinterpret it as a bland and amorphous desire not to hurt anybody’s feelings. To come from a position of overt determination to maintain White supremacist structures and yet quote Dr. King out of context, trying to gaslight us all by suggesting that Dr. King would frown upon those who continue to denounce racism because . . . I don’t know, I guess because it hurts the poor widdle White supremacists’ feelings? Even writing this paragraph is so difficult because the combination of cognitive dissonance and anger renders me barely able to formulate sentences (and you know how much I love sentences).
In this moment, this powder keg of division over the basic moral imperative of our country, let’s be clear: Dr. King was not neutral. He was not nice if your definition of nice is an inert type of pleasantness. He was not passive. He was radical and his stance was as unyielding as it was disruptive. As much as we may perceive him and his legacy to be “accepted” now (since, after all, there’s no “Stokely Carmichael Day” or whatever), we must remember he was not accepted at the time. He was hunted by White supremacists, and even those who identified as liberal in many cases urged him to be patient and hush up and not be so disruptive to the status quo. He fought and fought and fought for basic rights and even after he was assassinated, it took years and years of advocacy to commemorate him with a holiday.
You can either denounce him and everything he stood for (which, by the way, I do not recommend) or you can embrace him as an important figure and commit to bringing his dream to fruition. One of the boilerplate taunts of “liberals” is that they believe in “participation trophies.” Well, guess what, there is no participation trophy for remaining neutral here. Even if there’s no confederate flag on your vehicle and no hood or noose in your trunk, that doesn’t let you off the hook. To paraphrase Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, “non-racist” isn’t a thing. Will you take a stand and choose to be anti-racist?
When I teach about music of the civil rights movement there are a lot of adapted spirituals (potent both for their beauty and for their multi-layered yearning for the promised land) as well as original songs created in direct response to the conditions. The song that’s been in my head for the last last week and a half, though, is “Which Side Are You On?”
It’s a mining union song from several decades prior that in its original form pushed potential picket-crossing “scabs” to maintain their solidarity. I’ve never participated in a labor strike but it seems pretty clear that in such a situation, one’s desire to maintain neutrality and at least appease (if not please) everyone simply can’t be accommodated. Just as there’s no quasi-Switzerland in the world of striking laborers, so it went as civil rights activists fought against passivity and complacency and the Freedom Singers changed “lousy scab” to “Uncle Tom” and demanded we take sides.
So which side AM I on? I am on the side of denouncing White supremacy, of demanding that ordinary folk and leaders alike affirm that Black Lives Matter, of learning to be a better co-conspirator in the fight for racial justice, of not inviting the shame of someday having to explain my apathy to my grandchildren or to St. Peter (or whoever it is who serves as gatekeeper for any promised land morally upstanding and inclusive enough to be worth setting celestial foot in). There are too many reasons to list for choosing this side. Ultimately, though, no further explanation is needed than that it is clearly the only defensible stance to take. Dr. King’s contributions to humanity are vast, and yet one could whittle them down to being brave, clear, and persistent enough to speak truth about the moral depravity of racism and demand change. Others were silenced in their attempts to do the same, and eventually he was too. Beyond the seeming politeness of his smiling likeness or the benign positivity of getting a Monday off from work in January, we have to acknowledge the risks he took in taking a side and it is incumbent on us to carry on in this struggle. Especially those of us who have the privilege of making a choice by virtue of the comparative safety our White skin affords us, the most basic morality compels us to accept that we must make a choice and not to shrink away from that.