Recently I sat down to reread the classic “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” It was awe-inspiring and eye-opening to, again, call to remembrance Dr. King’s compelling defense and strategy during the early Civil Rights movement against the backdrop of criticism from his detractors. It is a strategy, I might add, which truly stands in stark contrast to more recent protests like Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling, and, in a larger context, the Black Lives Matter and “Woke” movements.
As an ordained minister and Bible scholar, I was reminded that the protests of the 60s were bathed in prayer and were organized by clergy. King, himself, was a theologian—he had a Ph.D. in theology from Boston University. The organization King presided over was the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; Alabama’s chapter—the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights—called on King and others to “engage in a nonviolent direct-action program” with the singular requirement, that it be “deemed necessary.”
In other words, this clearly-marked Christian organization, contacted by one of its affiliates to engage in nonviolent action in Birmingham, did so because (in his third paragraph) “injustice is here.” King goes on to reference the Prophets of the Old Testament, the Apostle Paul and Jesus Christ to justify his response and call for direct action. Now I understand this letter was written to clergy; however, I believe it indicates what motivated his actions and the underpinning of the very movement itself. He was a man of God, despite his flaws, called into service to fight injustice like many of the Biblical characters he revered. Dr. King, with courage and resolve, goes on to declare, “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.”
King’s goal in protesting was never protest for the sake of protest. In fact, he lamented the need for outside agitation. He wisely remarked, “It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.” To which he added (in the sixth paragraph) criteria for any nonviolent action: “collection of the facts to determine whether injustice exists; negotiation; self-purification; and direct-action.”
This brings me to the question, what steps did Kaepernick or Black Lives Matter consider before deciding to protest? Was there any forethought given to the consequences of their actions? Was there a strategic plan put in place before engaging? Were there any biblical principles guiding their actions? Or, better still, despite instances where there were legitimate concerns (like the death of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown), was there a clear culprit with culpability addressed? No, really: did they at least take time to entertain step one by examining all the facts before concluding that injustice occurred or the next step of considering their best means to negotiate? I’m certain that if the problem of injustice could be resolved in either of these cases, Dr. King would have certainly advised them to take that route.
In the next few paragraphs of his letter, Dr. King mentions the attempts to negotiate “in good faith” with the officials in Birmingham, which unfortunately led to a number of broken promises that forced their hands. In reflection, King remarks, “We had no alternative except to prepare for direct-action.”
I must ask myself and those who are reading this article: what negotiations did they engage in to right the “injustices” of the death of Martin or of Brown? Were these real injustices? Clearly, we can all agree they were tragic. However, Martin’s assailant was acquitted and Brown’s assailant was found to have done his job correctly. In fact, the Department of Justice found that the officer involved in the shooting of Michael Brown was justified after a thorough investigation. But let’s suppose for the sake of argument that these findings are inconclusive. How does “injustice” in these cases, and others, impact the actions of Kaepernick or the leadership of BLM? What were the underlying motivations for their actions? And, better yet, how has their protest around the country and at NFL games rectified the injustice?
King clearly states that the purpose of the protest or direct action “is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.” Resolving the injustice was the ultimate goal. It was never about protest but about resolving the injustice, which then opened the door to negotiation. If negotiation didn’t work, a protest was implemented in order to force negotiation. Protest had a function and purpose. It was never the goal.
I participated in a televised debate concerning the NFL protest and Kaepernick. There were two of us who opposed the NFL protest, including questioning the timing and the place. Ironically one of our opponents quoted Dr. King, saying, “It is always a good time to do the right thing.” However, his quote was taken out of context. King was not saying that it was always a good time to protest, which was how the quote was applied. The “right thing” was not the protest, but taking steps to resolve the issue being protested. The actual quote in King’s letter says, “We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice into the solid rock of human dignity.” For Dr. King, the time was always right to resolve injustice, not simply to protest injustice.
Kaepernick’s problem was that he took the protest or direct action without regard for a well-thought-out plan. Why would you protest at an NFL game when the NFL had nothing to do with the injustice? It would be like King protesting a cab company because the buses are segregated. If resolving the issue is the main objective, then we must negotiate directly with the perpetrator of the injustice. If that doesn’t work, then we resort to direct action. The direct action is always meant to bring the perpetrator back to the negotiating table. What in the world can the NFL do to stop the violence against young Black men? There is no direct connection between the NFL and this “injustice.” In fact, the NFL has been one of the best employers of young Black men, making them millionaires. To this day the NFL (which started in 1920 and is celebrating its 100th anniversary) has an overwhelming representation of players who are Black. From the hiring of Kenny Washington by the L.A. Rams in 1946 as the NFL’s first black player to today, the number of Black players has increased to become over 70% of the league.
So, who is really responsible for personal and societal perceptions of “injustice”? King would assert they are the ones with whom we need to negotiate. And, more importantly, how do we hold them accountable? Both the shootings of Martin and Brown were adjudicated and both shooters were acquitted. Both happened during the administration of the first Black president, Barack Obama, and the first Black to head the DOJ, Eric Holder.
In my estimation, BLM and Kaepernick are repeating the mistakes of many who have come before them. Booker T. Washington spoke of them in his day when he said, “There is another class of coloured people who make a business of keeping the troubles, the wrongs, and the hardships of the Negro race before the public. Having learned that they are able to make a living out of their troubles, they have grown into the settled habit of advertising their wrongs—partly because they want sympathy and partly because it pays. Some of these people do not want the Negro to lose his grievances, because they do not want to lose their jobs.” Today we refer to these attitudes and perceptions as the “politics of racial grievance”—actions, etc., which will never bring us closer to righting “injustice” anywhere.
When Kaepernick knelt, he did it in protest. When Dr. King knelt, he did so to call on the God of heaven to intervene. I prefer Dr. King’s approach.