Black activists held a demonstration in Birmingham Alabama protesting what they believed are racial injustices in America. The demonstration, blocking street ways and sidewalks was met with armed police officers who subdued them with service dogs and riot gear. A number of protestors were arrested and jailed, including the leader of the rally.
No, this is not the description of a recent Black Lives Matter protest. This incident occurred in 1963, and the jailed leader of the march was the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This also was not the first, nor would it be the last time that King would be jailed for fighting against racism in a turbulent 1960s America.
One of the tactics that today’s Conservative talkers have used to combat the Black Lives Matter movement is to re-brand King as their sort of peaceful, Christian alternative to the “thuggish” protests of BLM. But the portrayal of King as a stoic advocate for colorblindness is as misleading as calling Christopher Columbus a good Christian. This whitewashed narrative ignores what King fought for and who he fought against.
The backdrop of the 1960s Civil Rights movement was a nation plagued by Jim-Crow segregation. During a time where black Americans could be forcibly apprehended for requesting service at “whites-only” establishments, King’s message was not a unifying one. He was well hated by his detractors, many of whom occupied seats of government. Similarly to how Fox News attempts to brand BLM as a “terrorist group,” many efforts were made by the U.S. government and media to slander King, calling into question rumors about his marital infidelity and his involvement with members of the Communist party.
Even though King stood out among his contemporaries as an activist for peace, this did not sway defenders of Jim Crow segregation. Some of King’s peaceful protests in the early to mid 60s ended in violence when they were met with police forces attempting to silence them. Though his efforts were peaceful, that did not mean that he was passive or obedient. He was arrested and jailed upwards of 20 times for challenging Jim Crow laws. He and his supporters would deliberately stage “sit ins,” where they would enter white establishments and request service. When they were told to leave, they would refuse and were subsequently arrested. No matter how peaceful their message was, it was still a message of change, a change that Jim Crow supporters were prepared to fight.
Anybody who challenges the status quo will be met with opposition. The only difference between King and BLM is that for the past 48 years, King’s been too dead to stage any effective protests. This has given plenty of time for colorblind racism deniers to re-brand him as one of their own. But it doesn’t stop them from using the same tactics of their forbearers to try to silence BLM.
Defenders of police brutality attempt to criminalize BLM for standing against injustices present in our law enforcement and court systems. They have labeled them as thugs, or even terrorists for exercising their first amendment right, “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” Whether they do so on the highway, the street or the sidewalk, they’re always criticized for protesting “the wrong way,” as if there is a right way to challenge racial biases buried in the American justice system.
People who hate BLM now would no doubt have hated King if he were alive today. Those who challenge systematic racism are faced with the challenge of uprooting and exposing the ingrained racism that colorblind individuals will fight to ignore. BLM has often been called out for making racism worse. But in truth racism is not getting worse, racism is just getting exposed.
King once said, “one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” Knowing the truth of King’s work would make it hard to believe that he would today stand on the side of a system where officers are acquitted for wrongfully killing black men. The call of both King and the Black Lives Matter movement is a call for justice. And the only people who would have any reason to be offended by justice are unjust themselves.