MLK: When Peace Becomes Obnoxious

If peace means… I don’t want it.

MLK 1956
Per the Smithsonian: 2008-2128, Photographer- Addison N. Scurlock, 1883-1964, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. at Howard University, December 1956, from 4″ x 5″ silver gelatin on cellouse acetate bw film
When Peace Becomes Obnoxious was a sermon delivered on 18 March 1956 at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church by Martin Luther King, Jr. This is roughly the second half.

“In a very profound passage which has been often misunderstood, Jesus utters this: He says, ‘Think not that I am come to bring peace. I come not to bring peace but a sword.’ Certainly, He is not saying that He comes not to bring peace in the higher sense. What He is saying is: ‘I come not to bring this peace of escapism, this peace that fails to confront the real issues of life, the peace that makes for stagnant complacency.’

“Then He says, ‘I come to bring a sword’ not a physical sword. Whenever I come, a conflict is precipitated between the old and the new, between justice and injustice, between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. I come to declare war over injustice. I come to declare war on evil. Peace is not merely the absence of some negative force—war, tension, confusion, but it is the presence of some positive force—justice, goodwill, the power of the kingdom of God.

Peace, peace, when there is no peace

“I had a long talk with a man the other day about this bus situation [the Montgomery boycott]. He discussed the peace being destroyed in the community, the destroying of good race relations. I agree that it is more tension now. But peace is not merely the absence of this tension, but the presence of justice. And even if we didn’t have this tension, we still wouldn’t have positive peace. Yes, it is true that if the Negro accepts his place, accepts exploitation and injustice, there will be peace. But it would be a peace boiled down to stagnant complacency, deadening passivity, and if peace means this, I don’t want peace.

1) If peace means accepting second-class citizenship, I don’t want it.
2) If peace means keeping my mouth shut in the midst of injustice and evil, I don’t want it.
3) If peace means being complacently adjusted to a deadening status quo, I don’t want peace.
4) If peace means a willingness to be exploited economically, dominated politically, humiliated, and segregated, I don’t want peace. So in a passive, non-violent manner, we must revolt against this peace.

“Jesus says in substance, I will not be content until justice, goodwill, brotherhood, love, yes, the Kingdom of God are established upon the earth. This is real peace–a peace embodied with the presence of positive good. The inner peace that comes as a result of doing God’s will.”

Part of the problem

My blogger buddy Thom Wade wrote this some months ago, after George Floyd’s death: “It is frustrating to watch fellow white people constantly appeal to MLK while using the very arguments used to condemn him to condemn protesters today. I remember how some folks responded to non-violent protests just a few years ago. It was not good enough. Some people in my own friend and family sphere posted disdain for athletes peacefully kneeling. No form of protest was appropriate or good enough.

“When MLK was marching peacefully, he was met with gas and beatings. He was ultimately murdered. And you are going to complain NOW? When you would not listen before? When no protest was good enough for you? You are part of the problem. Crying out for peace when peace was not good enough over the past several years? I look at this city and my heart breaks. Mainly because people want to decry the results of their unwillingness to face the problem.”

August 28 is just one of those dates

the next MLK

Emmett Till
Emmett Till
August 28 is a momentous date in US history. I was thinking about a question someone asked me earlier his year. It was whether someone – Bryan Stevenson, specifically, but it doesn’t matter – was the “new Martin Luther King, Jr.”

A couple of minutes later, I realized it was the wrong question. King gave the “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, DC on this date in 1963. While he may have been a singularly gifted orator, HE wasn’t the Civil Rights Movement. There were a quarter of a million people at that demonstration alone. They all struggled to create racial justice back at home.

Millions have fought the fight since before the founding of the United States and still do so today. Most of them have names we don’t know. Some we’re familiar with because of the abuse they suffered. John Lewis, who was the youngest speaker on this date in 1963 in Washington, is recognized because he survived violence on several occasions, notably in Selma on March 7, 1965.

Others we know, probably better because they were killed. The deaths of Medgar Evers (1963) and James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner (1964) are seared in my memory. But so are the murders of Rev. James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo, both in March 1965 in Alabama. Malcolm X’s 1965 death is being reinvestigated in 2020.

NMAAHC

Emmett Till was murdered on August 28, 1955, in Mississippi. I’ve mentioned him more than once here. He might have been just another black kid killed by bigotry. But his mom had the courage to let his beaten corpse be shown to the world. My daughter went to the National Museum for African American History and Culture in February 2020 with a bunch of church folk. One of her friends was stunned by the inhumanity of his death.

Obviously, we haven’t achieved that “post-racial” nirvana some people – not I – predicted after Barack Obama was elected President in 2008. BTW, he accepted the Democratic nomination on August 28 of that year. But it’s not going to be an Obama or a King or the mother of Emmitt Till who will change the world. It’ll just have to be all of us.

The white liberal, per ML King Jr.

not only love but justice

martin-luther-king-jr-speech-1967[Every year, on his birthday, I find a quote or two from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to reflect upon. It’s because most people have no idea what Dr. King stood for that wasn’t enunciated in a five-minute portion of one speech.

For reasons having to do with the events of 2020, I find it necessary to do that again right about NOW.

From the New York Times, MLK holiday, 2019:]
 
In his 1967 book “Where Do We Go From Here,” Dr. King noted the limits of Northern liberalism: “Negroes have proceeded from a premise that equality means what it says. But most whites in America, including many of good will, proceed from a premise that equality is a loose expression for improvement. White America is not even psychologically organized to close the gap.”  

“There is a pressing need for a liberalism in the North which is truly liberal,” he told an interracial audience in New York City in 1960. He called for a liberalism that “rises up with righteous indignation when a Negro is lynched in Mississippi but will be equally incensed when a Negro is denied the right to live in his neighborhood.”

[You should read the whole article, which takes a shot at a 1964 New York Times editorial.]

The challenge

[From a UU blog, quoting Where Do We Go From Here – Chaos or Community?]
 
A leading voice in the chorus of social transition belongs to the white liberal… Over the last few years many Negroes have felt that their most troublesome adversary was not the obvious bigot of the Ku Klux Klan or the John Birch Society, but the white liberal who is more devoted to “order” than to justice, who prefers tranquility to equality…

The White liberal must see that the Negro needs not only love but justice. It is not enough to say, “We love Negroes, we have many Negro friends.” They must demand justice for Negroes. Love that does not satisfy justice is no love at all. It is merely a sentimental affection, little more than what one would love for a pet.

Love at its best is justice concretized. Love is unconditional. It is not conditional upon one’s staying in his place or watering down his demands in order to be considered respectable…

The white liberal must rid himself of the notion that there can be a tensionless transition from the old order of injustice to the new order of justice… The Negro has not gained a single right in America without persistent pressure and agitation…

For too long, order has been more important than justice

Nonviolent coercion always brings tension to the surface. This tension, however, must not be seen as destructive. There is a kind of tension that is both healthy and necessary for growth. Society needs nonviolent gadflies to bring its tensions into the open and force its citizens to confront the ugliness of their prejudices and the tragedy of their racism.

It is important for the liberal to see that the oppressed person who agitates for his rights is not the creator of tension. He merely brings out the hidden tension that is already alive.

Last summer when we had our open housing marches in Chicago, many of our white liberal friends cried out in horror and dismay: “You are creating hatred and hostility in the white communities in which you are marching, You are only developing a white backlash.” I could never understand that logic.

They failed to realize that the hatred and the hostilities were already latently or subconsciously present. Our marches merely brought them to the surface… The white liberal must escalate his support for racial justice rather than de-escalate it… The need for commitment is greater today than ever.

MLK’s “Drum Major Instinct” Sermon

converting people when he’s in jail

Martin Luther King JrI’ve been looking at some documents from The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University. There are many pieces, some handwritten notes, telegrams, as well as some audio clips, and the like.

I glommed onto “The Drum Major Instinct.” It is his sermon delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, GA on February 4, 1968. That was exactly two months before his death in Memphis, TN.

I won’t get into what he meant by the title. You can read that for yourself. But I found this section interesting:

“The other day I was saying, I always try to do a little converting when I’m in jail. And when we were in jail in Birmingham the other day, the white wardens and all enjoyed coming around the cell to talk about the race problem.

“And they were showing us where we were so wrong demonstrating. And they were showing us where segregation was so right. And they were showing us where intermarriage was so wrong. So I would get to preaching, and we would get to talking—calmly, because they wanted to talk about it.

“And then we got down one day to the point—that was the second or third day—to talk about where they lived, and how much they were earning. And when those brothers told me what they were earning, I said, ‘Now, you know what? You ought to be marching with us. [laughter] You’re just as poor as Negroes.’

“And I said, ‘You are put in the position of supporting your oppressor, because through prejudice and blindness, you fail to see that the same forces that oppress Negroes in American society oppress poor white people. (Yes)

Privilege

“‘And all you are living on is the satisfaction of your skin being white, and the drum major instinct of thinking that you are somebody big because you are white. And you’re so poor you can’t send your children to school. You ought to be out here marching with every one of us every time we have a march…'”

“And not only does this thing go into the racial struggle, it goes into the struggle between nations. And I would submit to you this morning that what is wrong in the world today is that the nations of the world are engaged in a bitter, colossal contest for supremacy.

“And if something doesn’t happen to stop this trend, I’m sorely afraid that we won’t be here to talk about Jesus Christ and about God and about brotherhood too many more years. (Yeah) If somebody doesn’t bring an end to this suicidal thrust that we see in the world today, none of us are going to be around…”

Anyway, you should read the whole thing. Let’s end with this idea from five years earlier in Transformed Nonconformist: “The hope of a secure and livable world lies with disciplined nonconformists who are dedicated to justice peace and brotherhood.”

Martin Luther King Jr: Economic Justice

“What is the job of government? Just to benefit the rich?”

Martin Luther KingThe book, To the Promised Land: Martin Luther King and the Fight for Economic Justice, (W.W. Norton, 2018) came out April 3—the day before the 50-year anniversary of King’s assassination. The author, historian Michael Honey, makes the case in an interview conducted for MLK Day 2019 that ECONOMIC JUSTICE WAS ALWAYS PART OF MLK JR.’S MESSAGE.

I find it strange that some commenters seem to eschew the idea that MLK was an economic warrior. They tend to believe such an idea is the result of revisionist thinking.

As Honey notes, King “said in Memphis: ‘It’s a crime in a rich nation for people to receive starvation wages.’ That remains a basic issue right now across the country, where it seems like the economy is doing really well but there are millions of people—about 40 million people—in poverty.

“Economically, things for poor people and working-class people are probably worse in some ways now than in his time. The unionized, industrial jobs that created the black middle class in places like Memphis are mostly gone…

“King said the best anti-poverty program is a union. Where you can fight for your own agenda—somebody doesn’t have to hand it to you. But you have to be organized to do that. King always supported unions. He gave his life in that cause, in a sense.

“Many workers in this country recognize King as a labor hero. ‘We can get more together than we can apart,’ King said in Memphis. He always said we have a common destiny, and he put it in an economic framework. And we do need that.”

Eliminate Poverty

Also, from Food for the Hungry, 9 Powerful Martin Luther King Jr. Quotes on Eradicating Poverty. The earliest one cited was from 1961. “As long as there is poverty in this world, no man can be totally rich even if he has a billion dollars.” That was in his American Dream speech.

If you want to truly celebrate Martin Luther King Day, support The Poor People’s Campaign, “a national call for moral revival. As Honey said, the PPC “said everybody should have health care, everybody should have a median level of income—not poverty income, a median level of income, such that you can live a normal life. And education, and housing, and jobs at union wages. King thought the role of government is to bring about social justice.

“To those who say it’s not the government’s job, King would ask, Well, what is the job of government? Just to benefit the rich?”