The BLM movement and grassroots organizing is an extension of what King stood for
Though the 1950s and 60s—the era of the Civil Rights Movement—may seem like the distant past, the fight for racial equality is far from over. Images of the violence with which police responded to peaceful protestors 55 years ago in Selma, Alabama are striking, yet not unfamiliar. In this country, there continues to be instance after instance of racial injustice and police violence. When considering the current movements, such as the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests, we can see echoes of the Civil Rights Movement in their struggle against injustice.
On Monday, the nation celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) Day, a holiday created in honor of one of the most influential leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. Some may not see this day as particularly important, viewing it instead as just time off from school or work. Others may not have recently learned about King in school and may have forgotten his immense accomplishments. MLK Day should, however, be used as a time of reflection on the history behind the day and the man that became a political icon, influencing and inspiring the social justice leaders of the 21st century.
The establishment of MLK Day was neither a straightforward nor easy process. Four days after King’s assasination in 1968, John Conyers, the congressman from Michigan at the time, called for the creation of a holiday in honor of King and his achievements. It wasn’t until 1986, however, that the holiday was officially recognized. Only with years of advocacy by the Congressional Black Caucus, the collection of six million signatures in support of the holiday and the drumming up of public support through a gathering of civil rights participants in 1983 on the 20th anniversary of the March on Washington, did it become officially instated.
The amount of time it took for the holiday to be established is astounding—it took 18 years from King’s death for it to be nationally recognized. To this day, some states such as Alabama and Mississippi concurrently celebrate Confederate General Robert E. Lee, a man who led the fight for the continuation of slavery. This celebration does not only dishonor King’s memory but also comes across as a violent stance against equality and inclusion. The third Monday of January should not be spent celebrating a proponent of racial violence and slavery, as it, by extension, celebrates one of the most shameful period of American history that led to the institutionalized racism that King actively fought against.
Furthermore, many leaders within the Republican Party, such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, former Vice President Mike Pence and Texas Senator Ted Cruz have recognized the holiday; Pence stated King’s accomplishments were “incredible” and that they “inspire” him, despite representing a party that is increasingly moving toward white supremacy and that tried to suppress the Black vote in the 2020 election.
Though many may now view King as an example of gradual reform, he was, in fact, more radical than some might remember. An opponent of the Vietnam War and an advocate for Democratic socialism, King was in favor of drastic change.
“I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government,” King said in a 1967 speech regarding the Vietnam War.
The BLM movement is a 21st century expansion of King’s efforts. We must remember that while the battle for justice will always continue, it is only with intentional steps toward justice that we can capture our freedoms.
For King, who was blackmailed and harrassed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation until his death, leading a resistance movement paved the way for modern extensions in the fight against injustice everywhere. Protesting against racism and police brutality, the BLM movement has been met with an ignorant, offensive “All Lives Matter” crowd that refuses to acknowledge ongoing injustice.
Time and time again, with movements of resistance and protest like King’s in the 60s or the BLM movement now, the greatest obstacle of freedom is the complacent white moderate. As King echoed in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, those who are more devoted to law and order than justice need to understand that law and order exist for the purpose of justice—when they fail to provide justice they only impede progress.
Since Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi created the Black Lives Matter hashtag and movement in 2013, Black women have been the backbone of one of the largest ever movements in U.S. history. The leaders of the BLM movement understand that Black liberation movements have mostly left women, queer and transgender people behind and strive to include LGBTQ voices in conversations about race, gender and police violence.
Hopefully telling of a more progressive time, on Jan. 5, King’s successor at Ebenezer Baptist Church Raphael Warnock won Georgia’s special election and will become the first ever Black Democratic senator from the South. Home to the country’s youngest population, Georgia’s election of a pastor from King’s pulpit gives us hope for more diverse representation as we fight injustices ahead. In Georgia, the grassroots work done by Stacey Abrams and many others—especially Black women like Atlanta Mayor Keshia Lance Bottom, LaTosha Brown and Nse Ufot—serves as a reminder that community organizing can win elections, no matter the obstacles.
In yesterday’s groundbreaking inauguration, Vice President Kamala Harris became the first Black woman and Asian American to hold the position. Harris’ election is hopefully telling of a shift toward greater diversity and representation in high offices.
“While I may be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last,” Harris said in a speech on Nov. 7. Harris’ multicultural background represents the future of our country. Holding one of the most powerful positions in the world, she’s an icon that young people can look up to for years to come.
She would also not be where she is today without the work and persistence of Martin Luther King Jr.—hopefully the many pioneers who come after Harris continue that trend. True pioneers expand freedom and spark justice for those who come after them.
Martin Luther King Jr. Day is not only a day to celebrate and commemorate a heroic activist in the history of the U.S., but it also serves as a reminder that doing what is right will always be necessary, no matter how difficult. We all have a duty to live intentionally, to pursue equality and to actively fight against visible and implicit injustice. We cannot sit idly by when there is an attempted coup at our nation’s Capitol in which rioters propagate symbols of hate or when police brutally attack peaceful protestors whose only crime was to push for change.
More than half a century has passed since the Civil Rights Movement, but we still see widely spread violence and hatred, often encouraged by people in positions of power. Moving forward, we must do better as a nation and as individuals to live by King’s words: “The time is always right to do what is right.”
Written by: The Editorial Board