So the question the inspired this 2-part post was “What do I want my children 5 and 7 to know about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr?” For those that didn’t read part1 here’s where I left off:
It was in understanding the scripture (Matthew 5:38 turn the other cheek) that the true genius of the strategy of nonviolence employed by Ghandi and then Dr. King is revealed. We think of his accomplishments as ideological or legal battles fought and won but that wasn’t it at all. His true accomplishment was to force an oppressor to change their posture and engage blacks as an equal.
What did Martin Luther King Jr. do?
"Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. ended the terrorization of black Americans, particularly those living in the south."
No. I did not stutter, or mistype. I mean that Dr. King taught systematic anti-terrorism. I can’t take credit for the breakthrough. I found much of this perspective here.
Yes, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the NAACP won several legislative victories that enacted or stuck down official laws. These laws prevented blacks from fully participating in American life, but they only represented a small part a system designed keep blacks in perpetual subjugation. The power that undergirded this unjust system and kept it aloft was terror. Terror reinforced the written and unwritten norms of unequal protection under the law and callous disrespect for the rights and humanity of blacks. HampdenRice writes:
“[Terror] was that white people, mostly white men, occasionally went berserk, and grabbed random black people, usually men, and lynched them”
White people also randomly beat black people, and the black people could not fight back, for fear of even worse punishment.”
White people occasionally tried black people, especially black men, for crimes for which they could not conceivably be guilty. With the willing participation of white women, they often accused black men of “assault,” which could be anything from rape to not taking off one’s hat, to “reckless eyeballing.”
This constant low level dread of atavistic violence is what kept the system running. It made life miserable, stressful and terrifying for black people.
This system of terror was far worse than a law because it existed as a complex set of cultural norms. The norms were accepted by many whites and internalized by many blacks in the forms of dozens of compensating behaviors aimed at doing everything possibly to not invite the often random violence inflicted on blacks by whites. The author writes well about how these behaviors are part of a very complex racial identity that it has taken the collective black consciousness generations to come to terms with and still works to undo.
The real threat to any black that “forgot their place” as being underneath the boot of any white person was not prosecution under the law. The real threat was being spirited away from their homes, ritually mutilated and left as an example to others as to what happens when they disrupt the “order”. Today we would (hopefully) charge someone with home invasion, kidnapping, sexual assault, torture, premeditated murder and yes, domestic terrorism.
Dr. King’s non-violent protests at their core were organized systems of collective bravery. Bravery that forced large portions of the American public to change its posture towards black Americans. That if, in mass, blacks stood together and challenged small elements of the order like riding a bus, or eating at a lunch counter or using a bathroom - in outward defiance of the written and unwritten rules then the informal punishment system would become overwhelmed. There were too many to terrorize. Black people began to see that they could organize, that violence would happen but they didn’t have to respond with fear and that they could shame America into seeing what it was doing or allowing to be done.
Here’s what I taught my children.
Martin Luther King Jr. showed black people how to stand up and demand to be treated just like white people. He showed them how to do it without anyone getting hurt or anyone breaking the law (except the bad laws). He taught them to do it all together so that they didn’t have to be afraid of anyone trying to hurt them or even be afraid if they got thrown in jail. America was created so that everyone could have a place where they could be free. For a long time that wasn’t true and everybody knew it, but no one knew how to change it. Martin Luther King Jr. showed the whole country and the whole world that America said one thing and did something different and that when black people stood up and demanded that America treat them better, America got better for everyone.