Martin Luther King Jr. is arguably the most celebrated and respected American in the 20th century and rightfully so. He sacrificed his life for the liberation of African Americans who were victims of the original sin of this country, racism. He used non-violent tactics to protest against southern segregation and northern apartheid. He preached a Christian message of love and justice for all and rejected the politics of hatred and bitterness. While it is obvious that King had many opponents and enemies during his time, few today would openly express reservations to his message and legacy. In fact today he is so celebrated by people of all races and creeds, that he is used and invoked to discredit contemporary civil rights movements.
Black Lives Matter is a contemporary movement that advocates for the freedom, dignity, justice, and respect for all as King did 50 years ago. The movement was founded in 2012 after a neighborhood watchman; George Zimmerman shot and killed an unarmed black man, Trayvon Martin. Since then the movement has grown and has chapters across the nation advocating for the vitality of black life because black lives matter too. Since 2012, there have been countless shootings of unarmed black men and women by police officers and almost all resulted in the police being acquitted. This, along with the devastating impact of the war on drugs, limited educational opportunities, and other intentional practices against the black community have developed a need for this important movement for black lives.
As expected, there are many critics and adamant opponents of this movement. Below is the list of the many criticisms and accusations:
- Black Lives Matter is only concerned about black lives
- Black Lives Matter hates police and is responsible for the “war on cops” and has advocated killing cops
- Black Lives Matter does not care about “black-on-black crime” in Chicago and other cities
- Black Lives Matter does not have a real agenda
- Black Lives Matter is disorganized and uses tactics that do not work like shutting down freeways
- Black Lives Matter preaches hate, no different from the KKK while Martin Luther King preached love.
These are just six of countless criticisms of the movement. Many of these critics argue that the Civil Rights Movement was different in the sense that they were inclusive and preached a loving message. They contend that leaders like King would oppose and object to this movement because of its hate and disorganization. These critics are both on the left and right and are spread across ethnic, racial, and religious lines. Everything they see right about Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement, they see wrong with the Black Lives Matter movement. The problem is what they see right/wrong about these two movements is wrong. This is not to say that Black Lives Matter is free from criticism and that the leaders of this movement shouldn’t learn from previous movements, because both are important. We should be able to critique this movement like any movement and contemporary civil rights movements can always learn from the past, both on the strengths and the weaknesses. However, we have to be careful about canonizing the past, and in this case, canonizing Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement. We also have to be historically accurate and paint a complete picture of the movement and the leadership.1. The Civil Rights Movement was not fully inclusive: Women were not in many leadership positions as sexism played a crucial role. Women were still expected to be homemakers and Dr. King was not immune to the sexist practices of that generation that still reflects contemporary society. In James Cone’s Malcolm Martin and America: A Dream or a Nightmare? the author suggests that both MLK and Malcolm X had very patriarchal views that impacted their attitudes on women being leaders in movements. Both leaders believed that racism was more of a black man’s issue (Cone, 1991). What makes Black Lives Matter Movement so unique and powerful is that much of the leadership consists of queer women, something that would be taboo in the 1960s. Black Lives Matter addresses systematic inequalities that affect all black lives including black women and black LGBT communities (http://blacklivesmatter.com).
- Martin Luther King was very critical of American foreign policy and rejected American nationalism: He called America the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” This is one of the things that made Dr. King a great leader; he was relentless in his fight for justice globally even when many of his black and white allies rejected his unapologetic critique of American nationalism. Many conservative commentators today praise Martin Luther King for his leadership and peaceful tactics and argue that he should be an example for current movements. Yet if they were contemporary with King, they would accuse him of being anti-American and/or a threat to “American values.”
- Just like Black Lives Matter, Martin Luther King was accused of inciting violence: Receiving this accusation for fighting for freedom is a complement. No true reformer/s are accepted or understood by society contemporarily. Instead they are shamed, rejected, and falsely accused. This fact is also important considering many of the criticisms that many liberals have of the tactics of Black Lives Matter. Many accuse them of being disorganized while crediting the civil rights movement as being organized. First of all, the Civil Rights Movement consisted of several campaigns, many of which failed and second, simply because a movement results in arrests and has violent opponents, does not discredit or invalidate a movement. Nor does it “prove” that a movement is violent. Let’s not forget that police officers hosed down black children in Birmingham and King was hit with bricks in Chicago fighting for fair housing. He was also arrested and jailed multiple times. Have you read Letter from a Birmingham Jail? It was written by the “criminal” himself, Martin Luther King. If leaders of a movement are really serious about social change, arrests will often be necessary. It is an act of civil disobedience.
Martin Luther King was a great leader and if he were alive today, he would be active and involved with the Black Lives Matter movement. He would speak adamantly against the New Jim Crow that Michelle Alexander talks about and he would condemn the neutrality of whites and blacks who refuse to take a stand on the important civil rights issues of our time. That is what prophets do. The Civil Rights Movement had several flaws, one of which was the sexism and subjugation of many women. The movement had several unorganized marches and protests and yet it was still effective. Black Lives Matter too has many flaws, as all movements do, but it is a defining movement of our time and it is essential that we recognize this and find ways to be involved. We cannot afford to be on the wrong side of history.