We know that history hasn’t been written by the oppressed. Those who hold the pen also hold the power to retell the story and shift public perceptions to serve a variety of purposes, from maintaining the status quo to marginalizing those who have had roles in shifting it. Martin Luther King, Jr. is not exempt from this treatment. His story is often neutralized and whitewashed in a way that does not accurately reflect the condition and nuances of the society in which he organized.
We decided to commemorate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day by rereading his famous, iconic, and actually often overlooked Letter from Birmingham Jail. MLK’s Letter has, over the years, transformed into a timeless resource for progressive action. Not only were we reminded of some powerful and not-very-shared excerpts that touch upon important issues within the social justice movement, but we also found ourselves feeling like we were reading about our very real present-day problems.
Even more eery, some of MLK’s excerpts directly parallel and apply to important issues facing the Muslim American community, from the recent MLI controversy to our favorite non-Muslim “moderates.” We’ve compiled them for your reference below. May we read, use, and always remember them.
1. Yes, you can be part of the community and still be complacent in its subjugation.
One is a force of complacency, made up in part of Negroes who, as a result of long years of oppression, are so drained of self respect and a sense of “somebodiness” that they have adjusted to segregation; and in part of a few middle-class Negroes who, because of a degree of academic and economic security and because in some ways they profit by segregation, have become insensitive to the problems of the masses.
2. Sometimes there isn’t much of a difference between Republican or Democrat when it comes to oppression.
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.
3. Injustice against any community is our fight, too — yes, including #BlackLivesMatter.
I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. 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.
4. Don’t blame the protests.
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.
5. Marginalizing the protest movement is actually totally missing the point.
In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn’t this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? … Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber.
6. Being moderate doesn’t mean being an ally. In fact, retaining a privileged position is actually hurting the movement even more.
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.”
7. That applies to members of our community as well.
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.
8. The time to act is always now.
For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”