What Would Martin Luther King Jr. Say About The Current Civil Unrest?Roundup
tags: civil rights, 1960s, riots, Martin Luther King Jr., Protest
Peniel Joseph is the Barbara Jordan chair in ethics and political values at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He also is the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy. His latest book is The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.
American cities are burning, and once again Martin Luther King Jr.’s name is being invoked as a balm against violence. Protests erupting in 75 cities in the aftermath of George Floyd’s public execution in Minneapolis have varied from peaceful multiracial gatherings to sporadic violence that has included police officers brutalizing innocent bystanders, in one instance driving a cruiser into a crowd of demonstrators, and the looting of small and large downtown businesses.
King’s well-documented commitment to nonviolent social change remains one his most important legacies, yet this portrait of the man is woefully incomplete without a discussion of his revolutionary political thought and practice. King urged civil rights activists, law enforcement personnel and all Americans to practice nonviolence, yet white people then and now act as if this principle should apply only to the racially and economically oppressed.
King called for a racial peace based on acknowledging the depths of America’s racial and economic violence against black folk. His support for a $180 billion “Freedom Budget” designed to eradicate poverty dovetailed with his plans to organize a multiracial demonstration of the poor in the nation’s capital. The Poor People’s Campaign represents the first Occupy Movement, organized to shame elected officials into providing a universal basic income, health care, nourishing food, decent housing and a safe environment for all Americans.
King’s proposed answer to the urban violence that engulfed the cities of Newark and Detroit in 1967 was to eliminate black ghettos as a matter of policy and eradicate white racism to save the nation’s soul. When Johnson characterized looting in Detroit as having nothing to do with civil rights, King fired off a telegram challenging this perspective. Only “drastic changes in the life of the poor” would lead to peace, he suggested. “I propose specifically the creation of a national agency that shall provide a job to every person who needs work.”
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