In 1963, Martin Luther King wrote a letter from a Birmingham, Alabama jail cell after being imprisoned there for participating in a peaceful protest against segregationist laws. King’s letter of 7,000 words over 21 pages quickly became some of his most famous written work.
During his time in jail, King reflected on Black people’s continued fight for liberation, why the demonstrations of the fifties and sixties were vital for Black people’s survival, and the need for accountability and allyship from “liberal” white America. King decided to write this letter to address criticism from white religious leaders who felt the civil rights demonstrations King was leading were “unwise and untimely.” A very familiar sentiment white Americans, on both sides of the political spectrum, use to critique Black civil rights movements to this day.
King was released from jail shortly after writing the letter and immediately returned to his activism in Birmingham. Notably, two weeks after his release, on May 5, 1963, over 1,000 children participated in the Children’s Crusade, skipping school to demand integration and equal rights. In response to the protest, Birmingham’s Commissioner of Public Safety ordered dogs and fire hoses to be used against those who participated; as a result, 600 children were jailed and brutalized on that day. The excessive use of police force exerted against child protesters had been broadcasted on television, thus horrifying the rest of America in the process.
Martin Luther King famously stated in his letter, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” and at the moment, injustice in America lives all around us.
However, although America was seemingly disgusted by the horrific images they saw, their horror was short lasted, as there was very little tangible change surrounding racial power structures in America after the shock died down. People instead remained complicit in the ways in which white supremacy continued to viciously brutalize Black Americans.
Given the now-infamous storming of the capitol in the name of fascism enacted by white supremacists and Trump supporters from earlier this month as well as the global uprisings in support of Black Lives Matter from last summer, I found it necessary to reflect on King’s letter today. Like the white liberals King fired back at almost sixty years ago, many people on social media similarly criticized Black Lives Matter protestors and demonstrations; saying there are better ways or more appropriate times to get our demands for equality across. And, in a familiar fashion, critics of Black Lives Matter protests made these critiques without giving any alternatives to what they perceive would have been a better way for Black people to advocate for justice.
What is more eerily similar is how the capitol riots were broadcasted on television in real-time, and Americans again watched white people commit acts of violence in horror, only for calls to “just move on and let go” for the sake of unity to arrive from US senators hours after the “insurrection” occurred. Another stark contrast to how the BLM protests in the summer were treated.
Adding insult to injury, tens of thousands of Black Lives Matter protestors have been arrested since last summer. More specifically, approximately 14,000 BLM protestors have been arrested across 49 of the 50 United States so far according to a Forbes article. All of which further highlights how so little has fundamentally changed about the race and power dynamics in this country over the past six decades.
Black people fighting for equality are still criminalized harsher than white supremacists.
58 years after MLK’s letter from that Birmingham jail, and Black people fighting for equality are still criminalized harsher than white supremacists. In addition, when Black people lead civil rights protests, we’re still being held to higher standards of behavior, decency, and respectability compared to white people who enact domestic terrorism. 58 years and Black people are still putting our bodies on the line in the name of freedom and simply wanting to be a respected part of America’s democracy. So, what do we do about it?
In a couple of days, President-elect Joe Biden will be sworn into office; however, we cannot ignore the existence of Trump’s supporters and white supremacists simply because Trump is out of office. As Martin Luther King famously stated in his letter, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” and at the moment, injustice in America lives all around us. Many of the people who committed criminal offenses at the capitol were seemingly “average” and “unsuspecting” racist white people who take up spaces in schools, as medical staff, in office-related work environments, in law enforcement, military, and more that negatively impact Black people’s lives.
For example, Black women are up to 3 times as likely to die from pregnancy-related causes compared to white women due to medical racism. Black students are 4 times more likely to be suspended from school and almost 3 times as likely to be expelled compared to white students. Black people make up 13% of the US population but account for 42% of people on death row and 35% of those executed; similarly, in 2018 Black people accounted for 33% of the prison population in America, nearly triple our general population. Black trans women have high mortality rates, and therefore have a life expectancy of 35-years-old. In workplaces, Black women are paid 38% less than white men and 21% less than white women. Needless to say, Black people are constantly subjected to harmful and life-threatening racism, in every facet of our lives, at the disposition of white supremacy.
Martin Luther King said, “justice delayed is justice denied.”
All of us should now see clearer than ever the oppressive double standards for how Black people are treated in the US compared to whites. To achieve true equality, racism must be addressed and rooted out in both liberal and conservative spaces. Additionally, Americans must hold our elected officials accountable for their participation in white supremacy and force them to earnestly denounce racism as well as create laws that provide equity for Black people. We cannot just keep moving on when white nationalists display themselves because we’re consequently allowing the same racial injustices to be forgotten for the sake of white people’s comfort or for fear of making the country “more divisive.”
However, the focus needs to be less on white comfort and more on vehemently ensuring Black people’s survival. Martin Luther King said, “justice delayed is justice denied.” So, how much longer are we going to continue allowing racism to not only exist but prosper so blatantly before we’ve decided enough is enough?
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