Honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s call for justice in a sea of good intentions

Jessica DeBruin
January 5, 2016

A person walking in Brooklyn, New York in front of a brick buildingIn 1956, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of “old man segregation on his deathbed.” Sixty years later as I walk down Beverley Road in Flatbush I see that old man still clinging to his last breaths. Just past the Q subway stop the faces around me change from black and brown to mostly white. As skin tones get lighter, the apartments turn into houses, ten-year-old Toyotas become BMWs, the roads widen and the potholes are fewer.

I know this experience is not isolated or coincidental, but the product of years of inequality of opportunity. Yes, the Civil Rights Act abolished segregation in broad strokes 52 years ago. But I also know that the specter of racism continues to whisper fear into the ears of many today; with that fear comes the kind of social and economic segregation I see walking down the streets of Brooklyn in 2016.

I want to call this subtle segregation, because it goes against what I have been told is reality every day since I was a child: That this country is based on principles of equality, liberty, and justice. That good people have changed the fabric of our time to one that embraces humans of all races, creeds, and genders. That we all have a fair shot.

But if I am honest with myself, the segregation that lingers into the 21st century is not subtle.

In my life I have lived in three of the most socially liberal states in the country. Yet in New York, Massachusetts, and California alike I have found the same reality to be true. I have often found myself one of two or three people of color in largely white social circles and work environments. I was raised in a mostly white community, attended a mostly white college, and have seen how communities coast to coast stay isolated.

Many of us speak of good intentions towards inclusivity and diversity. We truly believe and want equality of opportunity. But somewhere along the line we have conflated good intentions with a job well done. And it is killing us. Some of us, anyway.

In the days, months, and now years of public outcry at the injustice of police brutality and white supremacist terrorism across the country, many compassionate and progressive people called anxiously for nonviolence among protesters. People threw around MLK quotes like it was the third Monday of January, and suddenly a lot of people revealed themselves to be pacifists. It is natural that in times of turmoil we might turn to the wisdom of a historical figure who gives us hope, who allows us to believe that change is possible.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. remains an important and complex historical figure to this day. However, we must ask ourselves how we remember him. When we reduce a man to a picture and a convenient sounding quote, what are we losing in his message?

It is critical to consider not only the humanitarian work he accomplished during his life, but for the way his legacy has at times been coopted and twisted to demand obedience from the oppressed.

When we call for peace, it cannot be one-sided. When we call for peace it cannot be to spare us the necessity of understanding someone else’s reality.

We cannot call for peace if we are not also calling for justice. Otherwise, we are not asking for peace, we are asking for obedience. We are asking not to be challenged.

Let us not sully the good work and memory of Dr. King by allowing him to become the patron saint of white fragility. Communities of color need the solace of his words to lift us up, not to keep those in positions of privilege comfortable.

There is a shallow notion that people of color should not be violent, because the very person who delivered this generation from Jim Crow Laws and inequality said so.

There is an urgent difference between nonviolence, and nonresistance, a distinction Dr. King himself made in an interview with Kenneth B. Clark. According to Dr. King, “non-resistance leaves you in a state of stagnant passivity and deadly complacency where non-violent resistance means that you do resist in a very strong and determined manner.”

If you have found yourself calling for peace in this time of heightened violence, especially towards people of color, you must ask yourself: whose violence am I comfortable with? Is it really nonviolence I am calling for, or nonresistance? To do this would be to honor the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. more than any meme possibly could. To do this would be to take a step towards affecting the state of racial justice in this country.

In his speech A Realist Look at Race Relations Dr. King cautions that while segregation is on his deathbed, “history has proven that social systems have a great last minute breathing power. And the guardians of the status-quo are always on hand with their oxygen tents to preserve the dying order. But if democracy is to live, segregation must die.”

Since overt racism has lost its social cache in many circles, it can be difficult to tell who those guardians of the status quo might be. But we must open our eyes and look honestly at the people and circumstances around us. We must take a walk down each other’s streets and see the conditions of each other’s lives without ego, with our hearts open.

A group of people walking with signs to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.Sometimes it feels so big we just don’t know where to start. But if we let this keep us from changing ourselves, from changing our own outlook, if we turn a blind eye, we become the guardians of the status quo.

Paramount to the philosophy of Dr. King is the idea that we all must challenge ourselves to stand up to injustice. Discomfort is a poor excuse for passivity without resistance. If we truly wish to celebrate a lifetime of work towards democracy, equality, and freedom, we have to start by thinking critically about our situation today.

Let us remember that the faces and modes of communicating racist oppression are changing every day. It is okay to look to the past to inspire ourselves that we are capable of overcoming great odds. In fact, this is an important step on the path towards change. But we cannot dwell on past accomplishments at the expense of present day opportunities to move forward.

In a speech given at Stanford University in 1967, just a little over 10 years after he declared old man segregation to be on his deathbed, Dr. King posited the idea that “we must see that the struggle today is much more difficult. It's more difficult today because we are struggling now for genuine equality. And it's much easier to integrate a lunch counter than it is to guarantee a livable income and a good solid job. It's much easier to guarantee the right to vote than it is to guarantee the right to live in sanitary, decent housing conditions. It is much easier to integrate a public park than it is to make genuine, quality, integrated education a reality. And so today we are struggling for something which says we demand genuine equality.”

Just a short time after the victories of the Voting Rights Act, Brown vs. Board of Education, and the Civil Rights Act, Martin Luther King was already acknowledging that the nature of the struggle had changed. If we keep this in mind as we face this new year, perhaps we can begin to apply his wisdom to our own situation.

The struggle is not over, it has simply changed.

The next step towards equality isn’t going to look the same as those we have taken in the past. We exist at a new time in history, with new nuance to these historic challenges.

Let us honor Dr. King, and all the other freedom fighters past and present, by asking ourselves what needs to be changed in our own hearts and minds first. Let us challenge ourselves to take that step personally, so that we may see the path to social change unfold before us clearly.


Author Jessica DeBruinJessica DeBruin is a writer and actress living in New York City, dedicated to creating feminist, queer-inclusive art and media.





Photos used with Creative Commons licenses from Flickr users Ryan Vaarsl and Ron Cogswell.

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