It wasn’t just what MLK did; it’s how
“Anything worth doing is worth doing well.” It is worth thinking of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in light of that old saying.
He is best remembered for leading the movement for racial justice in the United States, a cause very much “worth doing.” But it is critically important to recall not just what he and other civil rights did, and its worth, but how they did it well.
King didn’t invent the method of nonviolent protest. He borrowed it from Mohandas Gandhi of India and first applied it in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955, as the city’s Black community discussed how to respond when a Black woman named Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white man. King’s proposal for Black people to boycott buses, and instead organize carpool networks, proved effective in multiple ways. First, it eventually forced the city to reconsider its policy: It couldn’t afford to operate without fares from Black people, who made up a majority of riders. Second, the cooperation and shared sense of mission energized and solidified the Black community like never before. And third, the boycott gradually gained national attention and praise as a noble way to fight for justice.
National, positive publicity was a critical part of the Civil Rights Movement strategy, and leaders such as King were extremely organized and effective in harnessing it. They didn’t do so by faking anything, though. They carefully did the right things in the right places at the right times for it to be noticed.
This required widespread discipline, which is very much worth studying today as people of color continue to struggle for equal and fair treatment in America: by police and the justice system, by banks and businesses, by news media — we admit it — and by everyday citizens. The movement King led made gigantic strides toward the “Promised Land” of justice, but it has become more obvious in recent years that we have a long way to go, and that our steps have been dragging.
The pace quickened last year after we saw several Black people killed by police officers who betrayed their duty to serve and protect. Crowds gathered in seemingly every town in America, including each of the Tri-Lakes villages, to declare that “Black Lives Matter.” The turnout was stunning — numbers King could have only dreamed of — but the discipline King was known for was often lacking. And that hurt their national publicity. In many cities, people looted and smashed buildings. Police used force to stop the crowds, and many protesters fought back instead of holding the nonviolent path of King and Gandhi.
There are other reasons, too. Many protesters were unemployed amid a pandemic and thus doubly angry. The militarized response of police in many cities was shamefully aggressive. And mass gatherings are much harder to control than the targeted tactics of the Civil Rights Movement. But still, many protesters were to blame as well.
The violence became a big part of the news story, especially in conservative media. Today many people use it as a “what about” example to suggest that a mob storming our nation’s Capitol building last week was not such a big deal — just another protest that got out of hand. To be clear, though, it is horrible to suggest that a mob following orders from the president, breaking into our seat of government with guns and bombs and zip ties for hostages, intent on overturning a lawful election of the people, is somehow no worse than protesters going too far in a racial justice fight that is still stalling after 400 years.
What would King say to all this? Certainly he would condemn the Capitol mob and the movement President Donald Trump led that got us to this point. Certainly he would bemoan the state we Americans have gotten ourselves into, although it would not surprise him. Certainly he would cheer on the modern anti-racist movement, but also urge it to be more disciplined and nonviolent.
He would probably say something profound we can’t think of right now, something that would move and inspire us as only he could.
He might also point out, with pride, one city where the protests this past June did not turn violent — Montgomery. People there were no less angry than those in other Alabama cities such as Birmingham and Huntsville, where police clashed with protesters, but Montgomery people behaved better — on all sides. It helped that they had just elected their first Black mayor. When hundreds of protesters marched on the state Capitol building June 1, they were met by a line of police officers not in riot gear but in their regular uniforms. The city’s police chief, who is Black, was there, too, and mingled with the crowd, answering questions. The intent was to show they weren’t trying to bully the crowd and were trusting them to behave themselves. It could have gone sideways, but the crowd rose to the challenge. The protest leaders made a point of urging people to be peaceful. It may have helped that as they marched up Dexter Avenue toward the Capitol, they passed King’s former church — a good reminder. The only arrest was one woman who lingered after the protest dispersed, in violation of the city’s 10 p.m. coronavirus curfew.
That level of community trust held up in the weeks ahead, too. In many cities, that didn’t happen.
“I know change is possible,” protest leader Karen Jones told the Montgomery Advertiser. “It’s not hard. Everybody has to do their job.
“We’re holding (the mayor) accountable, and he’ll hold us accountable as a community.”
This Martin Luther King Jr. Day, let’s all pledge to do our jobs to work toward reconciliation, listening to other people and being accountable along the way. Justice is worth doing, and worth doing well.