Martin Luther King Jr, The Extremist
Black Lives Matter, the Civil Rights Movement, and “the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom”
Rev. Martin Luther King Jr was arrested on April 12, 1963 while demonstrating against racism and racial segregation in Birmingham, Alabama. While he was incarcerated, the Baptist minister turned civil rights activist wrote “Letter from Birmingham Jail” — a passionate defense of civil disobedience and nonviolent direct action against “unjust” laws. The letter also decried “the white moderate” for their uncritical devotion to “law and order.” It became a seminal text for the Civil Rights Movement that is still relevant today.
It’s not only Dr. King’s message that is worth remembering but why he wrote it. The letter was in response to “A Call for Unity” from eight white Alabama clergymen who criticized the Birmingham civil rights protests as “extreme measures” and called on the local black community to withdraw their support from King.
This was not the view of old, out-of-touch religious leaders. The clergymen claimed to be sympathetic to the Civil Right Movement’s goals but condemned their “unwise and untimely” tactics. They spoke for many Americans. They were the “white moderates” Dr. King lamented in his letter.
Today, nearly 50 years after his assassination, it is easy to forget that Martin Luther King Jr was not always universally loved. On the contrary, in his lifetime, Dr. King was a highly controversial and divisive figure. The Civil Rights Movement and King enjoyed overwhelming support in the black community but, like the Alabama clergymen, most whites viewed the movement and its most well-known leader negatively.
Public opinion polling from the 1960s reveals the extent of the racial divide. In a August 1963 poll, 60% of Americans had “unfavorable” views of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Only 23% had “favorable” views. After MLK gave his now-famous “I Have a Dream” speech, public opinion remained mostly opposed to the Civil Rights Movement. In May 1964, 74% believed that mass demonstrations hurt the “Negro’s cause for racial equality.” In October 1964, 73% agreed that “the Negros should stop demonstrations.” 56% of white people (August 1966) claimed that demonstrations were “not justified.” 85% of whites (October 1966) believed that demonstrations hurt “ the advancement of Negro rights.” 70% of blacks (May 1969) believed that demonstrations helped “Negros…in their effort to win their rights.”
Views on MLK himself were similarly divisive and split along racial lines. In December 1966, 50% of whites thought MLK was hurting the “Negro cause of civil rights.” Only 36% thought he was helping. This is in vast contrast to positive view most blacks had of MLK. 94% of blacks, in February 1965, approved of “the job that…Martin Luther King…has done in the fight for Negro rights.”
In the immediate aftermath of MLK’s assassination, many whites remained disdainful of the civil rights protesters. In June 1969–14 months after MLK’s murder — 32% of American men believed “most negro/black/colored protesters” were “trying to be helpful.” 45% claimed that most of the protesters were “looking for trouble.”
The 1960s racial divide over the Civil Right Movement is similar to current public opinion on the Black Lives Matter movement. Last year, a Pew Research survey found that 65% of black adults support Black Lives Matter compared to 40% of white adults. At first glance, this may seem like a depressing example of the 1960s repeating itself. However, perhaps as a testament to the hard-fought racial progress that has been achieved over the past six decades, white opposition to Black Lives Matter is much lower than it was to the Civil Right Movement. Only 28% of whites explicitly oppose the movement. And a GenForward poll published in September suggests that support for BLM is growing among white millennials.
Although whites today support BLM at a higher rate than their 1960s counterparts supported the Civil Rights Movement, what exactly this “support” means is unclear. White people overwhelmingly oppose key demands of the BLM movement. A 2016 Marist Poll showed that a large majority of whites oppose the payment of reparations for slavery. 81% of white Americans oppose the US government paying reparation to the decedents of slaves. 85% of whites oppose the proposal to pay “reparations to all African-American citizens.”
Like with the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, there is a stark racial divide on these issues. Most black people support reparations. Only 35% of blacks oppose giving reparations to slaves’ decedents (interestingly, Latinos are divided on the issue with 47% opposed and 46% supportive). 32% of blacks oppose paying reparations to all African-American citizens (54% of Latinos).
Support for reparations is highest among millennials — but they too are divided along racial lines. A 2016 Fusion Issues Poll found that 74% of white Americans,18–35 years old, oppose the US government paying reparations to black Americans. Only 32% of blacks from the same age range oppose reparations.
Even racial justice proposals that don’t cost money get limited support from white Americans. Only 41% of whites, in the 18–35 age range, support the US government issuing an apology for slavery.
The false dichotomy between Martin Luther King Jr and Black Lives Matter
With such widespread public opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement’s goals, it’s no surprise that the movement has many vocal critics. The most zealot critics (hardcore opponents is perhaps a more accurate term) range from alt-right conspiracy theorists to fear-mongering Fox News propagandists and right-wing newspaper pundits.
A favorite refrain of BLM’s critics — from the most hyperbolic fear-monger to the most pragmatic potential ally of the movement — is that Martin Luther King Jr. would have disapproved of Black Lives Matter. To many right-wing commentators, BLM is hateful and divisive. To many moderates and liberals, BLM is disruptive and counter-productive. MLK, in contrast, is held-up as a shining example of social activism done right. There is a broad political consensus that, unlike the BLM trouble makers, Dr. King was a unifying force for peace.
I think dad would be very proud of young people standing up to promote truth, justice and equality. I was perplexed by the comments, but people attempt to use dad for everything.
— Martin Luther King III (2015)
Not only is it not true that Martin Luther King Jr. was a unifying figure — as the polls show, he was extremely polarizing — there is no reason to believe that MLK would oppose BLM. It seems likely that if King was still alive, he would criticize some of BLM’s tactics and rhetoric. No person of MLK’s intellect and integrity is likely to blindly follow or endorse any group. However, constructive criticism is far different than being diametrically opposed to something.
We can get an idea of how MLK might have engaged with BLM in his relationship with Malcolm X. Like BLM, Malcolm X was often vilified in the white community — and was controversial even within the black community. Malcolm X and BLM share more than just their white-angst inducing reputations. BLM is an ideological heir of the 1970s Black Power movement, which was heavily influenced by Malcolm X.
For most of their political careers, Malcolm X and MLK feuded over both tactics and objectives but, in the their final years, their worldviews became increasingly similar. This is reflected in the letter MLK sent to Malcolm X’s widow Betty Shabazz in 1965:
I was certainly saddened by the shocking and tragic assassination of your husband. While we did not always see eye to eye on methods to solve the race problem, I always had a deep affection for Malcolm and felt that he had the great ability to put his finger on the existence and root of the problem.
Malcolm X was far more inflammatory than BLM. For much of his life, he was an evangelist for the black separatist movement Nation of Islam. He called white people “blue eyed devils” and promised to achieve his goals “by any means necessary.” BLM campaign against institutional racism and white privilege seems positively moderate in comparison.
Before his death, Malcolm X disavowed black nationalism, converted to mainstream Sunni Islam, and founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity — which, unlike the Nation of Islam, advocated for secular social justice polices that would not seem out of place in today’s BLM movement. MLK, who was a vocal opponent of black nationalism — in “Letter from Birmingham Jail” for example, he decried the “hatred and despair of the black nationalist” — responded positively to Malcolm X’s ideological evolution. After years of shunning Malcolm X, the Civil Rights Movement began working with him. In February 1965, the John Lewis-led Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee invited Malcolm to speak at a conference in Dr. King’s hometown of Selma, Alabama.
BLM, Letter from Birmingham Jail, and the “white moderate”
Not only is it likely that Martin Luther King Jr would have been supportive of Black Lives Matter, it is a fact that he faced — and refuted — many of the criticisms BLM faces today. Much of “Letter from Birmingham Jail” reads like a rebuttal of BLM critics.
Aside from white supremacist and alt-right polemicists online, the most outlandish and slanderous attacks on Black Lives Matter come from Fox News. Bill O’Reilly has called Black Lives Matter a “hate group” and Sean Hannity has compared them to the KKK. Fox has also engaged in more subdued critiques of the movement that seem to resonate beyond their viewers and across the political spectrum.
One such criticism of Black Lives Matter activists is that they’re outside provocateurs who travel from city to city to cause trouble. In one especially egregious example of this, Sean Hannity attacked BLM activist DeRay Mckesson as a “professional protester.” Hannity’s guest Kevin Jackson called him a “race pimp” who was “running around the country earning money.”
MLK responded to similar — although more retrained — criticisms from the Alabama clergymen (remember, in 1969, a plurality of whites believed that most civil rights protesters were “looking for trouble”) like this:
I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.
Another common critique of Black Lives Matter is that they are too disruptive and protest the wrong events. Last year on his show Real Time, Bill Maher repeatedly criticized Black Lives Matter activists for disrupting Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders events. On at least three separate occasions, Maher questioned why BLM would go after Democrats and not Republicans. “People need to learn the difference between an imperfect friend and a deadly enemy,” he said.
This is similar to the line of reasoning that prompted the Alabama clergymen to call Dr. King’s actions in Birmingham “untimely.” This is how King responded:
Some have asked: “Why didn’t you give the new city administration time to act?” The only answer that I can give to this query is that the new Birmingham administration must be prodded about as much as the outgoing one, before it will act. We are sadly mistaken if we feel that the election of Albert Boutwell as mayor will bring the millennium to Birmingham. While Mr. Boutwell is a much more gentle person than Mr. Connor, they are both segregationists, dedicated to maintenance of the status quo. I have hope that Mr. Boutwell will be reasonable enough to see the futility of massive resistance to desegregation. But he will not see this without pressure from devotees of civil rights. My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure.
The above quote is, of course. People like Bernie Sanders are more ideologically aligned with BLM than a “gentle” segregationists like Albert Boutwell were to the Civil Rights Movement. However, MLK’s contention that civil rights are not won “without determined legal and nonviolent pressure” is as true today as it was then.
It may not be fun to see BLM interrupt the speech of a gentle person like Bernie Sanders. For progressives, seeing activists confront Ted Cruz or Donald Trump would be much more enjoyable. However, it does make strategic sense to put pressure on potential allies rather than ideological opposites. After the BLM protests at his events, Sanders released a racial justice platform.
This brings us back to the reason why King wrote “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in the first place. It was not aimed at segregationists. It was aimed at the clergymen who wrote “A Call for Unity”, who all publicly opposed segregation. One of the clergymen, C. C. J. Carpenter, was even on “hit list of the White Citizens Council and the Ku Klux Klan” because of his insistence on school integration, according to his son Douglas Carpenter.
MLK made it explicitly clear that it was not just segregationists, blatant racists, and white nationalists who he was opposed to:
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.
I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.
So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love?
— Martin Luther King Jr, “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (1963)